Jun 252005

Fifteen years ago I walked into the Phoenix, a poetry bookshop on Jones Street that no longer exists, and asked what they had by Yvor Winters. The proprietor went to the back and returned with several items from the library of Glenway Wescott (1901-1987), a distinguished novelist and a friend and contemporary of Winters. I promptly relieved him of them for more than I could readily afford.

Among the items was a typescript of two poems, “The Hermit” and “To a Coyote,” signed by Winters, with a note by Wescott: “I found this with poems of my own not later than the summer of 1920? (I think)”. To judge by the style he is correct. Winters’ first book of poetry, The Immobile Wind, was published in 1920, and these obviously belong to him, and to that period. They have appeared nowhere in print to my knowledge.

Winters took considerable pains with his literary estate. He issued a Collected Poems in 1952, revised it, adding two later poems, in 1960, and collected his early poetry in 1966. He was very definite about what he wanted to keep, as he was about most matters. In the introduction to The Early Poems of Yvor Winters, 1920-28, he wrote as follows:

I publish this book to provide an authorized edition of my early and “experimental” work. Some one would do this in any event, and probably some one who would sweep all of my uncollected work into a single volume, with no indication of what I had considered my best work at the time I was writing and publishing it. I include three small books [The Immobile Wind, The Magpie’s Shadow, and The Bare Hills], a group of four poems previously uncollected from magazines, and two later groups of some size… Any other uncollected material is rubbish.

Some one else has done this, regardless, although Winters has been fortunate in his editors so far. In 1978 Donald Davie published The Poetry of Yvor Winters, which included everything from Winters’ own two collections and only fifteen additional pages of what he wished to throw away. In 2000 R.L. Barth put out a fine selection of Winters’ verse, along with a well-edited Selected Letters, which are amusing and harrowing by turns.

The Complete Poetry of Yvor Winters, with the usual trappings, critical detritus, and library pricing, is surely in our future. Sooner or later an academic with more diligence than talent will get around to exhuming Winters’ literary remains. He will want to see my typescript.

I will not reproduce “The Hermit” and “To a Coyote” here. They are, in fact, rubbish. The typescript gives me great joy to possess, and I will not let it go until I die. The question is, what then? Should I donate it to a library and put the poems in the public domain? Or should I burn it? You tell me: I honestly don’t know.

  30 Responses to “Literary Executor: You Make the Call”

  1. For cryin’ out loud, post the stinkin’ poems on your blog, already! It could mean some easy traffic. What’s more, making their existence known will help me to get a fat price for them someday, once I wrest them from your lifeless meat-hooks.

  2. Besides, we’d like to hear ’em.

  3. For all you know, a charitable deduction of them to a trust you set up may be worth more than the money later.

  4. Uh-ha, it’s not going to work this time: you still haven’t tell us how your first ethics problem ended…

  5. Untrue. Read my comment in the thread.

  6. I gotta say… donate them to Lisa.

  7. If you’d wanted to honor Yvor’s wishes, you would have paid for the items then destroyed them, without having read (and reread) them.

    Do you reckon he’d be especially annoyed that his "rubbish" should fall into the hands of his most ardent admirer? In a sense, the greatest damage that could be done has been done already.

    This is why I make it a firm rule to write all poems, love letters, and pornographic sonnets in disappearing ink.

  8. Lisa brings up a very good point.

    What makes you so special that you can read it while the rest of us cannot? Isn’t it hypocritical to burn them out of respect for his wishes when you yourself have read it?

    Perhaps you fancy the idea of having read something no one else has.

  9. Not exactly.
    In that post you asked for advice since you didn’t "know the right approach". Than you recorded in your comment what actually happened afterwards (I assume you were not the one removing tags and making calls to bidders), but there is no evidence your ethics problem was resolved.

    May I remind you of archaic conversation about memoirs and their authors: you thought people who knew a celebrity have the right to spell the beans after the celebrity is gone; I said celebrity has a right to control the impression people have of his person, dead or alive.

    I agree with Lisa W: even if Winters wouldn’t publicly express his wishes about publication of particular work, the fact that he can no longer voice his opinion forbids the deed.

    Which consideration, of course, has never stopped any academic from publishing even mere shreds from private pocket notebooks of a famous writer.

  10. Oh, Aaron: This is how we come to envy the problems of others. What a privilege even to have to wrestle with such a conundrum.

    It seems to me you cannot go wrong, whatever you do. If you refuse to post/publish the poems, or even destroy them altogether, you can have the confidence of honoring Winters’ likely wishes. If you succumb to the pleas of your own readers and reproduce the poems, you can do so confident in the knowledge that you have hedged them about with so many disclaimers that they will be taken as no more than they are: crumbs that fell from the table of a fine poet, and better critic, and that fully deserved to take that fall. Winters did not endorse them, and neither do you: they are published as a footnote to literary history and no more.

    There is, of course, the little matter of copyright to take into account: under current law, Winters or his designated successors would hold the copyright from the moment of the poems’ creation, whether the poems were published or not. I haven’t looked back to refresh my recollection whether "automatic" copyright (i.e., copyright by creation, regardless of any formal registration)was the rule when the poems were originally written, but it is a consideration all the same.

  11. Writing is in many respects a form of channeling, an ability of a person to summon into existence the shape and texture of any idea, person, or location and in essence, absorb it, trap it, describe it, and release it. Burn them, ritualistically.

    Do not sell them. You should give them away to someone else who will cherish them in a similar manner to yourself if you are not going to release them. Ideas have a lifespan too.

  12. A man is the owner of neither his reputation nor the record of his acts. The poems in your possession are no less authentic Yvor Winters for having been written under the influence of a style he later renounced. He made free use of his own pre-rationalist poetry in teaching. And even if Winters were alive and voicing stenuous objections to their being made public, you would not be bound to cooperate with the request, as far as I can see. Which leaves only the question of what you want done with them: the pleasure of being perhaps the only living man to have read them can be weighed freely against the value that might be realized in the marketplace. Me, I’d go with Frankenstein’s suggestion in a minute.

  13. Bad colby.

  14. I think Aaron realizes that he’s not bound to cooperate with Yvor’s wishes in any sort of legal sense, but is bound instead through sympathy.

  15. Out of respect for the fluxuation of ideas, the metaphysics of body and being, and out of debt to what the stories have meant to him, he owes it to the work and someone who shares his interest, or he should simply sacrifice it to create the most meaning to him, and die with that memory forever etched into the universe as thermodynamic and poetic consequence :0

  16. I’m with Lisa. The Winters comment in your post voiced a concern that his uncollected poems would be published without any indication of what he thought was his best work. He didn’t say (although perhaps he said it elsewhere) that he was concerned that his ‘rubbish’ would see the light of day, only that it would see the light of day indiscriminately. Post the rubbish. Before your meat-hooks turn lifeless.

  17. Votes for burn, votes for sell, votes for give away.

    Justin’s and Lisa’s charge of hypocrisy is unfounded. I happened to acquire the poems: of course I read them. It does not follow that, having read them, I am obliged to release them to the public. I would gladly show them to anyone here if we were in the same room, but that’s an entirely different affair.

    Selling them strikes me as passing the buck, unless I really needed the money, in which case it would be the hands-down winner. Whoever buys them buys my problem too, and is unlikely to be better qualified than I am to resolve it.

    Winters is dead, and Colby Cosh correctly observes that his wishes do not enter into the matter. But I agree with his wishes. For the last two hundred years most poets have published far too much; so did Winters, but by a factor of two instead of the usual ten or twenty. It is this fact, more than any other, that accounts for the gross misvaluations in the poetic canon. To read through a thousand pages of poetry and pick out the one or two best requires a kind of genius that comes along once or twice a century. (If you doubt me, compare George Herbert’s "Church Monuments," Winters’ choice, with any of the Herbert anthology pieces. And Herbert wrote less than most.) I hate to contribute to the problem, even in a tiny way. On the other hand, burning things goes against my grain. How’s that for squishy?

  18. Vader in Star Wars. Khal Drogo in A Game of Thrones. Burned, and nicely done.

    It should be a thing of ceremony. If burning isn’t your hot cup of tea, you could always sacrifice them to the great infinities of the potential of the oceans. In a bottle, whole. Or as Ash (bottled or not). Or you could scatter them into the winds of the midwest. Or leave a trail of them along a mountain road.

    There are no endings devoid of all other criteria for being. And nothing can exist forever. good luck.

  19. As a practical matter, it appears that your likely literary executor, Lisa, and the most probable alternate, your sister, both agree that they will make the poems available. You should put them in your blog now, while you are still able to actively defend Winters, and your own, reputations.

  20. Just give them to me.
    I can get you an "offer you can’t refuse"

  21. Dad is wise.

  22. You do realize that the statement "There is too much poetry published" is very far from logically equivalent to "We should be actively effacing some of the mediocre poetry that already exists from the historical record."

    There is vanishingly small merit in the view that the only possible value of a piece of poetry is in its value qua poetry. (There is modest merit at best in the poems of Queen Elizabeth I, but we are unanimously, and exceedingly, glad they have survived.)

    Your horror of "burning things" is the genuine voice of your conscience. And perhaps the question you need to be asking is not whether Winters would have set fire to these poems, but whether he would have ever, in the same position, done it to someone else’s. I think it’s an easy call.

  23. (And: are the duties and responsibilities of a wholly accidental "literary executor" the same as a real one?)

  24. Several points:

    1. Does reading a poet’s bad work help us understand and appreciate his better work?

    2. Does the reputation of a poet’s work change over time; i.e., might readers of a different age judge individual Winters poems differently than we (by which I mean, you) do today?

    3. Do you have the right to decide which Winters poems future readers are able to study?

    4. Does anyone have the right to destroy another writer’s work, ever, under any circumstances?

    Sell them or post them or donate them, but commit them to posterity. Easy call.

  25. I say burn them. Having people think about what they will inherit from you is not a good thing. Or give them to Lisa right now and be done with it.

  26. Shouldn’t alpha have an answer for this conundrum?

  27. Hide them in a secure but obscure location. Over time release equally obscure clues as to their whereabouts. The diligent literary detective who at last finds them deserves to inherit the ethical dilemma.

  28. I say publish them on the website with all the necessary "rubbish in my lifetime" disclaimers from the author. Everyone can judge for themselves their true value to the complete body of work.

    I think I remember reading that Franz Kafka put similar restrictions on his work and forbid his works from being published. After his Kafka’s death his best friend violated that wish. Regardless of your opinion of the actual writings, the literary world gained.

  29. I feel that if you’ve got someone else’s writings, you ought to comply with their feelings on how they should be treated. I once saved written evidence of a tryst as a souvenir, and she freaked out when I told her about it some years later. I didn’t think it was a big deal, but upon reflection, it was.

    So I burned the evidence, not even giving it a chance of turning up in a landfill, to be discovered by archaeologists sifting through the wreckage of our civilization a few centuries from now.

    I’ve got all sorts of embarrassing stuff that I won’t mind people seeing when I’m dead, but whether those writings will ever see the light of day is up to my executor. We Poliwkos are long-lived, so I might outgrow some of the embarrassment eventually anyway, rendering it all moot.

    I don’t tend to speak ill of the dead, but I don’t really have a problem with those who do, for some reason. And once I’m dead, whatever I’m leaving behind isn’t mine anymore, and is best handled by those who still register a pulse.

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