Winters and the Aesthetics of Recuperation, or “The Hypersensitivity of Convalescence”
Reading Yvor Winters is a special
pleasure. His books, lectures, and conversations are spiky with a wealth of
eccentric and essential detail. He liked Airedales, goats, boxing, and
home-cured olives. He preferred Churchill to Pope, he thought Donne was a great
poet, but oversexed. He considered James’ Gabriel Nash “a figure more perverse
and astonishing than any other save Christina Light or possibly her poodle.” He
and Hart Crane traded lines, a fact not generally noticed, and they recommended
crucial books to each other,
For someone who has been considered a recluse, his writings show his abiding concerns with communities. He was a lifetime member of the NAACP. He played a decisive part in the defense of a man unjustly convicted of murder. He was in charge of the Civilian Defense in his community during the Second World War, and when the Southern Agrarians published their manifesto for a return to agrarian values, he wrote them, asking if any of those Southern gentlemen had ever milked a cow. Winters had.
He liked Ring Lardner, though not the ubiquitous “Haircut.” And he admired writers who are now out of fashion or who were never in: W.H. Hudson, Charles M. Doughty, and R.B. Cunninghame-Graham. He championed Edith Wharton at a time when Stanley Edgar Hyman could ridicule him for arguing that Wharton was superior to James. Winters didn’t actually argue that point, though today no one would raise an eyebrow if he did. He could recall the wild mustard growing above the horses’ heads in Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, and other western writers held a place in his mind. Bret Harte, Richard Henry Dana, Frank Norris, and John Muir were, like Winters himself, California writers.
His tastes and insights were his own, and he often provoked dissenting responses. W.R. Johnson was offended by Winters’s preference for Ojibway songs over Greek lyrics, implying that the judgment itself was too ridiculous to consider; and Philip Levine, a poet who studied with Winters, ridiculed his remark that he found Kafka’s Metamorphosis comic, which sent me to Guy Davenport’s prediction that “some genius of a critic will one day show us how comic a writer Kafka is.”
Winters lets us see more of these quiddities, these essential quirks, than any other critic. Later I’ll comment on the possible function of this large body of specific references in his work. For now, I want to consider some of the consequences of another important circumstance, Winters’s tuberculosis, contracted when he was eighteen years old.
When he enrolled in the University of Chicago in 1917, Winters became a member of the Poetry Club, a group that included Glenway Wescott, “who, like myself,” he remembered, “had discovered most of the unknown moderns in high school,” Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Maureen Smith, and later, Janet Lewis. About one-quarter of all deaths worldwide was due to tuberculosis at the beginning of the century, and this group of poets was acutely aware of this and other diseases. Elizabeth Madox Roberts, nearly twenty years older than the others, had already had tuberculosis, which, with other diseases, was to afflict her for the rest of her life. The fatigue that was a central feature of the disease seems to have produced in certain people inward states bordering on hallucination. Roberts wrote poems from the point of view of an acutely sensitive, somewhat removed child, and repeated the procedure in some of her novels, most pointedly in My Heart and My Flesh.
Among the poets the members of the Poetry Club read was Adelaide Crapsey, who had died of tuberculosis in 1914 at the age of 36. Looking back on her poems, Winters, who was to contract tuberculosis after he had been at the University for a year, says, “The disease filled the body with a fatigue so heavy that it was an acute pain, pervasive and poisonous,” and he characterized Crapsey’s poetry as hypersensitive. “Amaze,” he comments, “deals with a sudden and almost hallucinatory realization that she is leaving life…”:
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
Maureen Smith, who died of paresis—that is, congenital syphilis—at the age of 23, read Crapsey avidly, and spent the last stages of her illness so disoriented that she sometimes wondered if she had written her poems or taken them from Crapsey. There’s nothing of Crapsey in the chapbook of Smith’s poems that Winters published, though the title poem, “The Keen Edge,” probably came from a sentence in the editor’s preface to Crapsey’s collection: “The keen and shining blade of her spirit too greatly scorned its scabbard the body, and for this she paid the ultimate penalty.” Smith, deformed and dying of a disease that must have seemed shameful, transforms a pedestrian observation into a triumphant, even defiant, invocation to Aphrodite, especially moving given the nature of her illness:
The keen edge of my pride
Has cut the shroud that bound me
And I have come forth,
Sometimes death is recuperation.
Susan Sontag has documented the popular association of sexuality and tuberculosis in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Norman Bridge, in a series of lectures given at the University of Chicago around 1903, makes this clear, warning against the “dissipating of powers by unwholesome pleasures,” which he specifies as “indulgence of the passions.” Rather forbiddingly, he says about the tubercular patient, “If a young man, he ought to live the life of a person of forty-five.” Now, we would translate this as “a person of 80.” Moreover, incredibly, he asserts that “overstimulation plays a part in causation.” It’s worth noting that Winters’s phrase for the power of evil was “immersion in sensation.” These ideas, coupled with the contagious nature of the disease, naturally led to intense feelings of isolation, expressed powerfully in a great line from Winters’s early poem, “Death Goes Before Me”: “I am that strange thing that each strange eye sees.”
While in Sunmount sanatorium near Santa Fe, Winters wrote “Two Dramatic Interludes for Puppets,” and carved the Giacometti-thin figures, black, blue, and white. The black puppet refuses to poeticize death, and he violently strikes out at the puppet who does, killing him. Winters once remarked, “The black puppet is the only honest one.” The puppet concludes, “My hair is smooth with death / And swirls above my brain.”
One small effect of Winters’s illness is that his stay in New Mexico intensified his interest in American Indian songs, important to him from his earliest poems to his last critical book. The same may be said for the work of Janet Lewis, who also contracted tuberculosis and was treated in the Sunmount sanatorium. The first Stanford Ph.D. dissertation Winters directed, though he was not allowed to sign it officially because of his rank, was A. Grove Day’s The Sky Clears, an anthology of American Indian poetry, with commentaries and a bibliography; it’s still in print and still useful. This interest culminated with N. Scott Momaday coming to Stanford to study with him. Reading through accounts of sanatoriums in the Southwest, one is struck by odd connections with the early poems. George B. Price speaks for nearly all commentators when he recommends “altitude, sunshine, and the pure, antiseptic air,” and Bridge describes an ideal orientation: “High hills to the east should be avoided, as they make a late sunrise,” calling to mind one of Winters’s six-syllable poems, this one influenced by Southwest Indian dawn songs—Alone: “I saw day’s shadow strike.”
What interests me most about this subject is the way one may see the effects of Winters’s recuperation in his readings of poems, and in his own poems. Recuperation, or recovery, is a central metaphor for him. The phrase that gives me one of my titles occurs in his discussion of T. Sturge Moore’s “To Silence.” Silence, for Plato, was not the absence of sound, but the presence of all sound; it was the music of the spheres. The sounds you are hearing right now are depriving perfection. For Kafka, the song of the Sirens was silence. For Winters, as for Moore, romantic-symbolist silence was Mallarméan purity—pure quality, pure sensation, pure connotation freed of its defining complement, even pure disintegration—and was akin to death, the intimation of which Winters often treats as hallucinated. While at Sunmount, Winters had written this trance-like song, well before he read French:
I could tell
Of silence where
One ran before
Himself and fell
Yet more fair.
A wonderful rhetorical moment—he could tell, but won’t. In Moore’s poem, Winters observes, the “immersion has actually led to rejuvenation, to an inexhaustibly fascinating freshness of perception.” Further, this “remarkable freshness of sensitivity […] might almost be characterized as the hypersensitivity of convalescence: the poet is minutely sensitive to dangers and meanings past but imminent […].”
Moore’s poem is similar to (and may derive from) Leconte de Lisle’s “Midi,” in which the moment of noon is treated much like silence; it is a pure moment. Again, Winters, as a very young man, wrote “God of Roads” without French; in his poem, Hermes as hawk flies down a road (actually all roads), wandering around in the moment of noon, at the speed of light, all in six syllables: “I, peregrine of noon.” Leconte de Lisle warns the wanderer into this realm that “Rien n’est vivant ici,” nothing is living here. But the traveller who, not consumed, comes back, can be renewed: “Come! The sun speaks to you in sublime words; In its implacable flame be endlessly absorbed; and return with slow steps toward the abject cities, your heart seven times bathed in the divine void”—“le néant divin.” Hart Crane makes a similar request, to postpone ultimate bliss, in favor of one closer at hand, in the second “Voyages”: “Bind us in time, O seasons clear, and awe!”
The experience of recovery or recuperation is at the heart of Winters’s favorite poet, Paul Valéry, who was endlessly absorbed in his master, Mallarmé, whose crystalline systems, he said, struck the terror of perfection in him. Then Valéry wrote no poems for twenty years, and came back with “Le Cimetiére Marin” and “Ébauche d’un Serpent,” both of them poems of recuperation from the symbolist vision, bringing Mallarmé into broader contexts.
I don’t wish to suggest that Winters languished in illness. His letters show him vigorously engaged in his writing, even in the sanatorium. Elizabeth Madox Roberts wrote that after Winters and Wescott had left the University for New Mexico, they continued to exercise more influence on the literary community than any professor. Winters’s epistolary voice, which is close to his critical voice, is clearly established by the time he is eighteen. Like Crane, he was a great letter writer.
The process of recovery—a word he uses—depends on his view of literary history. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, writers began to abandon older structures of investigation for looser, associative structures. This does not mean that he advocated a return to the Renaissance, even if such a thing were possible. Winters’s characteristic style, contrary to nearly universal belief, was not the plain style, nor did he write like Ben Jonson. To make this point, Winters imagines a circle with equally spaced points marked A, C, E, G standing for the experience of the classical poetry already written. “We can then imagine a breakdown, a period of confusion, in which these points are lost, but after which a new set of points, B, D, F, and H, […] not the same points, are established. These new points would give a comparable balance, or intelligence, perhaps, but an altered view of the detail, that is, an altered quality of perception, of feeling.” What is gained for this altered environment is a shift in the feeling of a poem. This modern environment he calls “post-associationist” or “post-symbolist” poetry. Quite simply he says, “I demand only that the poet keep what he started with and add to it.”
The issue of feeling is important here, because for Winters rationality did not ignore the emotions. He did not set himself up as “the Apollonian antidote to Crane’s Dionysian disorder,” as a recent petrified article asserts. Winters knew with Valéry that “the world is perpetually threatened by two disasters: order and disorder.” Perception, feeling, moving—these are words that he uses throughout his career when describing the poems he likes best. I have argued elsewhere that he was not a Stoic. In a crucial passage, he observes that “because the Stoics denied the emotions completely, in favor of the intellect, they failed to make any provision for them and so became easily their victims, as of an insidious consumption.” Note the simile. He then quotes Aristotle approvingly: “speaking generally, it is not the case, as the rest of the world thinks, that reason is the guide to virtue, but rather the feelings.”
Winters’s structures are rarely thesis-bound or logic-ridden. He would have had no use for a computer outline program. (Does anyone?) His most famous title, In Defense of Reason, might encourage some people to align him with that recent enemy, linearity, but they would be wrong. Has anyone noticed how loosely structured his essays are? Except for his book on E.A. Robinson, his only single-author book, his prose collections are as loosely structured as the individual essays. This makes sense if the method involves him moving from poem to poem or passage to passage. And there’s nothing in his poems as rigorously logical as J.V. Cunningham’s “If Wisdom, as it seems it is, / Be the recovery of some bliss,” and so on. As he explained to Allen Tate, his best poems have a general overall structure, but proceed from detail to detail by way of association. This is true of “The Slow Pacific Swell,” and it’s true of poems like “To the Holy Spirit” and “The Marriage” as well. The availability of charged natural detail and freer, associative structures made it possible to write poems, he thought, that might be greater than all but the best written in the Renaissance. In one of his last essays, he asserts “From first to last, most of my favorite poems have been relatively modern, and my matter and my methods have been modern.” The relationships among the parts of a poem, including meanings, cadences, suggestions, he called “a fluid complex,” and these relationships “partake of the fluidity and unpredictability of experience.”
Even “Heracles,” a classical poem if there ever was one, does not move in a straight line. Winters used the Classical Dictionary of the nineteenth-century American, Charles Anthon, which describes the hero as a Sun God. “Allegorically,” Winters says, “he is the artist in hand-to-hand or semi-intuitive combat with experience.” Semi-intuitive ought to take the edge off of someone looking for predictive or exclusive artistic rationality. As a Sun god, Heracles represents the stuggle against the powers of darkness, but also the alternation of strength and weakness, as the sun moves further from the earth. The artist is anything but in total control of his fate. He labors under the curse of Hera and is also subservient to the will of the polis in the person of Eurystheus, the king. As in his poem “Theseus” (who, according to Plutarch, was a second Heracles), the obsession of the hero (Winters once called it a monomania) wreaks havoc in his family. Driven insane by Hera, he accidentally murders his children, and commits at least two other murders. Ah, the rational life! Even after performing his labors, “Compelled down ways obscure with analogue / To force the Symbols of the Zodiac”—and notice that the artistic activity is energetic, physical—he is undone by resentment and by love. And by Justice, too.
Like many other heroes, Heracles was trained by the Centaur, Chiron, a perfect emblem of a divided nature, man and horse. His specialty was music, but the Centaurs were notoriously bad drinkers, and because during one of his labors Heracles slaughtered a band of them, he runs afoul of Nessus, a Centaur, who attempts to rape Heracles’ wife, Deianira. At this point, it’s worth noting that wine, associated here with destruction, is overdetermined, because Deianira’s father was Oeneus, to whom Bacchus first gave the grape for cultivation. Even today, if you have enough money, you can be an oenologist rather than a wino. Nessus carries a grape branch, a thyrsus, which is a phallic staff carried by Dionysian revellers, and a wineskin. He attempts the rape of Deianira in the middle of a stream.
Nessus the Centaur, with his wineskin full,
His branch and thyrsus, and his fleshy grip—
Her whom he could not force he yet could gull,
And she drank poison from his bearded lip.
Heracles shoots Nessus with his arrow, which is tipped with the Hydra’s blood, and this renders all wounds incurable. Nessus, dying, tells Deianira that if she takes his blood it will act as a philtre against Heracles’ infidelity. Later, out of love, she impregnates a tunic with the poisonous blood, and Heracles finds he cannot remove the burning garment, though he tears off pieces of his own skin trying to do so. He puts himself on a pyre, and the gods translate him to heaven, making him immortal. “By love and justice I at last was slain.”
At this point I want to revise something I said a few minutes ago. Because Apollo is one of Heracles’s sponsors, the poem does enact a Dionysian confrontation, but not in the rigid way suggested. If this is a poem of recuperation, it ought to be cold comfort that the hero is now perfect, considering what has happened to the people who have loved him. Recuperation, in this case, is death. As the sun descends, the shadow of Deianira, who killed herself out of guilt, lengthens away from him. The tone of melancholy regret concludes the poem:
Grown Absolute, I slew my flesh and bone;
Timeless, I knew the Zodiac my span.
This was my grief that out of grief I grew—
Translated as I was from earth at last,
From the sad pain that Deianira knew,
Transmuted slowly in a fiery blast,
Perfect, and moving perfectly, I raid
Eternal silence to eternal ends:
And Deianira, an imperfect shade,
Retreats in silence as my arc descends.
Briefly now. I promised to say something about the quirks that color Winters’s criticism. I think they ought to serve to specify the observer who is pronouncing the counsels of perfection. Without setting aside his judgments (which he brought to bear on cats and dogs as well as poems), I believe the comic aspect of his work needs acknowledgment. He’s telling us, “I’m making these pronouncements, not you!” Like Ben Jonson, he mght have said, “You won not verses, madam, you won me.” After all, he worked with no book at his elbow telling him what to think. Among the things that specify him is the knowledge that he had read every poem by every poet of consequence from Chaucer through Hardy and Bridges and Pound and Williams, and he had formidable powers of recall. When he pronounces that a certain poet only wrote four or twelve or seven great poets, or none, he has a certain authority. When others, who have not even read all the poems of that particular poet (and may not even like chili), repeat the same pronouncements, they sound foolish.
The interplay of the essential and the existential may seem perplexing or humorous in his criticism, but it’s at the core of his poetic enterprise, as I hope at least to have hinted at. Whatever Winters means by rationality—and I’m not aware of a comprehensive definition—he strikes me as close to Stephen Toulmin’s account in Human Understanding: “a man demonstrates his rationality, not by a commitment to fixed ideas, stereotyped procedures, or immutable concepts, but by the manner in which, and the occasions on which, he changes those ideas, procedures, and concepts.”
Against the dynamic nature of Winters’s mind, as I read him, one might put equal measures of detractors and supporters alike, who seem to believe that literary judgments are like horse races, over and done with—though people are still lining up to place their bets on their versions of modernism 70 or 80 years after the race is over. That approach is retrograde and conservative and, finally, unintellectual. But what if the race is never over? What if the race is still being run?
 This essay was a talk given at the Winters Centenary
Symposium at Stanford on
Fields, Kenneth. “Winters and the Aesthetics of Recuperation, or ‘The Hypersensitivity of Convalescence.’” The New Compass: A Critical Review 3 (June 2004) <http://www.thenewcompass.ca/jun2004/fields.html>