Jan 142004

Several bloggers are reading my homeboy, the late American poet and critic Yvor Winters, which pleases me greatly, and misreading him, which comes with the territory.

I first encountered Winters’ name in the back pages of The New Republic, where the reviewer, discussing someone else, referred to him slightingly as “opposed to everything the 20th century stood for.” Ah ha, thought I, there’s the critic for me. I dug up a copy of Forms of Discovery — which is not the best place to start, the novice should try In Defense of Reason instead — and soon hoovered up everything he wrote.

Eliot is still generally regarded as the most influential critic of the century; history will judge that it was Winters. He taught poetry and American literature at Stanford for forty years; among his students were dozens of distinguished poets and scholars, including J.V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, Thom Gunn, and Scott Momaday, who will eventually be numbered, along with Winters himself, among the finest poets of the 20th century. (That’s two appeals to posterity in two sentences if you’re scoring at home.) Winters personally introduced several poems to the canon, including George Herbert’s Church Monuments, Robert Bridges’ The Affliction of Richard, and F.G. Tuckerman’s The Cricket (with help from Witter Bynner and Edmund Wilson). His reevaluation of Elizabethan poetry, upgrading Wyatt, Jonson, Greville and Gascoigne, and downgrading Spenser and Sidney, is now a well-regarded if not yet the standard view; in the early 1960s an English department hack published an anthology of Elizabethan poetry that plagiarized Winters’ choices, extremely eccentric at the time, almost exactly, without so much as mentioning his name. Other causes of his, like Jones Very, Charles Churchill, and Sturge Moore, have met with less success: then again nobody reads Lancelot Andrewes on Eliot’s account either.

Winters campaigns, in a phrase, against emotion for its own sake. He insists that indulgence in emotion without adequate motive leads to sloppy writing, sloppy thinking, and sloppy living. This leaves him hostile in philosophy to the Transcendentalists and to their 18th century continental predecessors like Shaftesbury, who find wisdom in impulse. And it leaves him hostile in poetry to the British romantics especially, who constantly fall upon the thorns of life and bleed, without troubling to tell the reader anything about the thorns or even why they are thorny at all.

One suspects most anti-romantic critics, like Irving Babbitt or Paul Elmer More, of being insensible to the considerable lure of romanticism, of priggishly denouncing vices by which they were never tempted. Winters, on the other hand, was very nearly seduced. His early poems, like those of William Carlos Williams (think of the fire engine and the red wheelbarrow) and like American Indian verse, which influenced him greatly, derive their power from an intense focus on tiny particulars that borders on the maniacal. His first book of poems was called “Diadems and Faggots,” after a line from an Emerson poem that David Fiore, ironically, quotes against him. He finally concluded that he had to think better, and use better methods, to write better poetry, and retain his sanity. He deliberately sacrificed intensity for balance, lest he end up, as he put it, “a minor disciple of W.C. Williams.” This felt experience gives his criticism a uniquely charged earnestness. Winters takes Emerson far more seriously than Emerson ever took himself.

Winters is most notorious for his oft-repeated pronouncement that a poem is “a moral judgment of a human experience.” His contemporaries, Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom for instance, commonly translated this as a demand for a sort of propositional poetry, and the misapprehension persists in Lawrence White:

I read Winters as an undergraduate. He was my teacher’s teacher, & I thought it’d help me figure out what was going on. I learned a lot, but I always stumbled over the “poetry is the highest thought” thing. Man, like, I was reading Kant at the time! I think Fulke Greville is an awesome poet, but a thinker? … Kant is 1,000 times more exacting, more exquisite, more voluptuous a thinker than any poet. For proof, compare his reasoning ability to the reasoning of Winters (the latter being the rational synopsis of the poetry). Not that Winters is by any means a fool, but he’d have a hard time getting a PhD in philosophy from the work he’s submitted so far.

This reminds me of my father’s remark, when I showed him J.V. Cunningham’s poem on the Central Limit Theorem, that he preferred the Central Limit Theorem. Winters does not ask for the Critique of Pure Reason in verse, and the phrase “poetry is the highest thought” appears nowhere in his work to my knowledge. He interests himself in the relationship between the paraphrasable content and the emotion the poem provokes. In the precise adjustment of this relationship, through various technical means of which rhyme and meter are only the crudest, lies the judgment. He praises such poems as Rimbaud’s Larme, which has no paraphrase to speak of, Allen Tate’s The Subway, in which the paraphrase is mad (much like Winters’ own Danse Macabre), and Elizabeth Daryush’s Still-Life, in which the moral judgment differs entirely from the paraphrase.

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with Yeats, with whom this tempest began. Yeats is not just foolish, he is resoundingly foolish. He affects a vatic tone, insisting that the reader treat his risible ideas seriously. The resounding is far more irksome than the foolishness. A poet’s got to know his limitations, and Yeats was never too clear on his. Winters understood his very well:

What was all the talk about?
This was something to decide.
It was not that I had died.
Though my plans were new, no doubt,
There was nothing to deride.

I had grown away from youth,
Shedding error where I could;
I was now essential wood,
Concentrating into truth;
What I did was small but good.

Orchard tree beside the road,
Bare to core, but living still!
Moving little was my skill.
I could hear the farting toad
Shifting to observe the kill,

Spotted sparrow, spawn of dung,
Mumbling on a horse’s turd,
Bullfinch, wren, or mockingbird
Screaming with a pointed tongue
Objurgation without word.

  16 Responses to “Winters’ Discontents”

  1. That’s Central Limit(no s) Theorem, although I suppose this comment underlines your point.

  2. Corrected, and thanks. That’s what I get for not looking it up.

  3. Aaron,
    On your recommend I have read a lot of Yvor and have really enjoyed his hot-cold take on one of my fascinations, Ezra Pound. I think Ez should have been wired to a neon sign that flashed ‘If you don’t love me and hate me I don’t like you.’ which, unless I am misreading him, Yvor would have agreed with. I can read an excerpt from one of ol brer rabbitt’s radio broadcasts during the war and just hate him until he puts someone like Judith Butler in a sack with one sentence: ‘Definition of a Professor: Someone paid to talk an hour.’
    Every morning before work, coffee, a couple of cigarettes, check out what’s going on with God of the Machine….nice routine.

  4. Steve, I feel the same way about Pound, who had real talent for poetry. (You see him at his best in the translations, like The Seafarer and some of the Chinese stuff, where he doesn’t have to do his own thinking.) He’s a mess, but I wind up quoting him all the time. "Poetry should be at least as well-written as prose" is one of my all-time favorite remarks.

  5. What is the name of Winters’ poem?

  6. A Dream Vision.

  7. Thanks for this post, Aaron, which could not have been better timed for my own purposes. I just received my copy of the new Thom Gunn-edited American Poets Project edition of Winters’ poetry yesterday. I had planned on following your sound principle that one should not read about a work without first having had a proper confrontation with the work itself, and then to ask you for more insight into Winters’ particular virtues. You’ve saved me the trouble of asking.

    Of course, having now read your post before digging deeply into the poems, I’ve partially violated the sound principle just mentioned. Mea culpa.

  8. Cunningham’s poem is actually a better refutation of the analytic/synthetic distinction than is Quine’s "Two Dogmas of Empiricism".

  9. Aaron:

    "Emotion" is not the same as "impulse," "intuition," or as Emerson once impishly put it, "whim." Emotion, in fact, meant little to Emerson; indeed his own emotional coldness (and that of his poetry) is generally regarded as one of his major shortcomings. Emerson himself often felt uneasy at the thinness of his own emotional life, but he was never moved actually to do anything about it.

    In addition, the intuition he championed is an intuition educated and disciplined by a constant, hyperattentive inspection of one’s own mind.

    Winters version of Emerson is a caricature–and a caricature of someone other than the actual Emerson to boot. (A superb caricature of the actual Emerson can be found in Melville’s The Confidence-Man.) As it happens, I read a piece yesterday–courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily–that suggests to me where Winters may have gotten his pseudoEmerson: from John Dewey. The piece is also a good short intro to Emerson–or to a central aspect of his thinking–and I would recommend taking a look at it.:


    Emerson is fascinating to read (in part) because he is always struggling with his own ideas. His aphorisms are often misleading taken out of the context of his writing. His famous early essays–the Divinity School Address, Self Reliance, etc.– are themselves pretty one-sided but his journals never are and his best essays–e.g. "Experience"–are dizzying in their dialectical nimbleness.

    In the long run, the master term in Emerson is not even impulse; it is power, the power of fresh life. Such power is the ultimate quest of his famous self-reliance. This is what drew Nietzsche to him. (All of Nietzsche’s major terms derive from an Emersonian vocabulary, though Nietzsche sometimes confuses–as Emerson never does–power of self with power over others.)

    Finally, Emersonian power of self has many possible manifestations–see his Representative Men for a sampling–but in Emerson himself it took an almost exclusively intellectual/literary form–because that’s the sort of guy he was.

  10. I pretty much agree with everything John Hinchey has to say here…

    I’m as opposed to ridiculous, over-the-top Romantic ranting as anyone (that’s why I applaud Winters’ excoriation of Poe and love what he has to say about Hart Crane–minus the talk about his "bad mentor"). I just think Yvor picked on the wrong guy when he went after Emerson… I’m totally with Winters when he goes after the "southern Agrarians" too!

    Just as an aside Aaron–do you know what Winters thought of Keats?

    I haven’t come across much on "Mr. Negative Capability" himself in the criticism I’ve read. Needless to say, he’s my favourite of the romantic poets…


  11. Thanks for the info Aaron,

    I had a feeling there might be a coolness (to say the least) ‘tween Yvor & young Master Keats…

    I’ll try to get a hold of Forms of Discovery–but I doubt it will convince me that Ode to a Nightingale is a bad poem… (after all-I did swipe the title for my novel from it!) Of course, like most people (including, it seems, Winters himself?), my favourite of the odes has always been To Autumn


  12. Winters can be pretty funny. He quotes this stanza from Ode on Melancholy:

    Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
    Or on a rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
    Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
    Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
    Emprison her soft hand and let her rave,
    And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

    His only comment is, “Gray’s youth to fame and fortune unknown appears to have evaded all restraints.”

    From Nightingale he cites the awful bit where men sit and hear each other groan and youth grows pale and spectre-thin and dies, and says Keats "succeeds in making human misery the matter of unintentional comedy." He thinks the best writing in Keats is in Grecian Urn, but that To Autumn is the most successful complete poem.

  13. I read the City Journal piece John, and although its author is inclined to give Emerson the benefit of the doubt, as it is Dewey he is really after, he acknowledges the conspicuous strain of relativism and anti-intellectualism in Emerson’s thought:

    "Still, we cant entirely absolve Emerson of culpability for our educational debacle. In his writing he laid himself open to the misreadings of Dewey and the progressive educators."

    "He flirted with the freedom of absolute relativism. ‘Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this,’ he asserted somewhat casually in ‘Self-Reliance.’ He dreamed of a let-it-all-hang-out liberation. The ‘only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it,’ he held, and went on to vapor about ‘the sacred germ of [a mans] instinct,’ which was ‘not inferior but superior to his will.’

    Winters knew Emerson’s work very well, and admired him, to a degree, as a poet. But he is less concerned with Emerson the man than Emerson the influence, and as an influence, as the article you linked also points out, Emerson was very bad indeed.

    David: Since you asked, from Forms of Discovery:

    "John Keats offers melancholy for the most part unexplained, melancholy for its own sake, combined with detail which is sensuous as regards intention but which is seldom perceived with real clarity. There is almost no intellect in or behind the poems; the poems are adolescent in every respect. Most readers of our time and for some generations have encountered Keats when they were young, have been touched by his unfortunate history, and have formed their taste on his poetry at a time when they knew little other poetry for comparison, and their feeling about him is immovable; they cannot imagine that he might be a bad poet."

    He offers some highly qualified praise to Ode on a Grecian Urn and To Autumn, and has some merciless fun at the expense of Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on Melancholy.

  14. Hey, Aaron, just came across your web site, which I haven’t run across any of the various times I have searched on google about Winters. I have a Yvor Winters site, http://www.msu.edu/`kilpela that you might find interesting, and a new blog on Winters on blogger that I am just getting started with. Drop a comment if you get the urge. I hope you get this message. I couldn’t figure out any other way to say hello through this page.

  15. 118

    Inconstant even in this the dead
    heart of the matter: laughter | no joy.
    Thin veil of libel úp for bids. You are
    wantonly obscure, man sagt. ACCESSIBLE
    traded as DEMOCRATIC, he answers
    as he answers móst things these days | easily.
    Except in thís one craft he shows himself
    open to a fault, shaken by others’ weeping;
    duty’s memorialist | for the known-unknown
    servants of Empire – for such unburied:
    the spirit’s gift upheld, impenetrable,
    the bone-cage speared by lilies of the veldt.

  16. I slightly recommend Kingsley Amis’s short essay on Keats in What Became of Jane Austen?

    Though in my edition there is a postscript: ‘Whatever the detail of Keats’s performance, this achievement is such that no one who has never thought him the greatest poet in the world, no matter for how brief a period, has any real feeling for literature.’

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