Winters’s Classical Literary Sensibility
R.L. Barth, ed. The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters.
“A good writer is an intelligent man saying something worth saying about something worth discussing.”
Any serious student of American literature will be grateful to R.L. Barth and the Swallow Press for having brought out The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, if for no other reason than that the volume keeps the sensibility of this important writer before the reading public a little longer. For, with the exception of Winters’s poetry, this is the most intimate look we are likely to get at the growth of the mind of one of the great American writers and one of the great Americans of the last century—Emerson’s representative man. “The poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, apprizes us not of his wealth but the commonwealth.”
In the contemporary literary world, however, Winters is unfortunately no longer a literary name. Among today’s post-moderns and subtexts, he finds himself—if existing in early 21st century consciousness at all—sitting in a dusty corner of the literary basement on a shelf just above Irving Babbitt and just below, perhaps. E.A. Robinson. Nevertheless, between 1918 and 1967, the period covered by this selection of letters, Winters was, among poets and literary critics, one of the half dozen most influential writers on the American scene; and very little of what he said and taught then, very little of the beauty and significance of his poetry, has diminished with time.
His lifetime's work is a literary treasure chest for contemporary writers, critics, and scholars, and it has been largely unexplored, if opened at all. To understand Winters is to understand much of the 20th century, of what preceded it, and is likely to follow. In his criticism, he was a David who took on the literary Goliaths of his time and earlier times, including Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Frost, Ransom, Tate, Hopkins, Poe, and Emerson. In his poetry, he was “the kind of conservative,” in the eyes of Robert Lowell, “who was so original and radical that […] neither the avant-garde nor the vulgar had an eye for him.”
Whereas the first generation of influential 20th century American poets and critics consisted of Pound, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Ransom, Marianne Moore, H.D. and their like, Winters belonged to a second generation that included poets and critics like Tate, Blackmur, Crane, Bogan, Warren, Cowley, and Kunitz, all born in or around 1900. By 1918, the date of the first of these letters, the New Poetry, in its experimental, free verse phase, had pretty well unveiled itself. Within another ten years, it stood in plain sight for anyone to read. No longer new or shocking, it had appeared in high school anthologies.
The inevitable question for Winters’s literary generation was: in the face of the new poetry, the new consciousness, what to do? Join the revolution of Pound and other “modernists,” waving the flag of free verse? Or, stubbornly resisting, not join? Or was it a revolution at all? In the letters, Winters has called it “the rebellion of 1912.” Or was it, perhaps, (as Pound seems to have originally conceived it) rather, a reformation, a protest against the perceived evils of Romantic rhetoric?
Whatever it was, revolution, rebellion, or reformation, Winters joined. By 1917, at the age of seventeen, he sat precociously in the Chicago offices of Poetry reading back issues and chatting with Miss Monroe. For the next ten years, he zealously wrote and publicly defended the new poetry. He corresponded with Pound, Moore, Miss Monroe, Crane, and many other acolytes. However, if one actually takes the time to study Winters’s poetry and especially his criticism from this period carefully and repeatedly, what then followed after 1927 or so—a conversion to more traditional poetic methods and modes of thought—is not quite so altogether surprising or illogical as it at first might appear to be. The man who at twenty-two years of age wrote a long review praising extensively the poetry of E.A. Robinson as indubitably great and at roughly the same time preferred the precision of Plato’s mind to the “plasmodial delirium” of Whitman, was not likely to last long in the modernist movement per se. For the essence of the movement was, is, and always will be, in a word, indeterminacy—a pure and unrestricted freedom of expression, real or imagined. And indeterminacy was, perhaps, the last thing that Yvor Winters could live with, after lies and deception. He preferred a poetic “cold certitude.”
Therefore between 1927 and 1930, Winters launched what Allen Tate has called “a counter-revolution all his own” against both Romantic excesses and modernist credos of indeterminacy (primacy of subjectivity and pure connotation) in the name of what he saw as the classical, a “stable and comprehensive point of view” (primacy of objectivity and denotation). However, this was intended to mean more than simply abandoning free verse for traditional iambic meter, solipsism for clarity, obscurity for comprehension, reverie for logic; to mean more than modeling one’s poetry and literary sensibility on the influences of Bridges, T. Sturge Moore, Baudelaire, and Hardy. It was, rather, a second stage in Winters’s lifelong knightly and artistic quest for artistic excellence in the form of poetic perfection—nothing more, nothing less. Since the systems of free and traditional verse happened to be incompatible, it also meant a revisionist way of artistically meeting the world. The wild oats had been sown. Following his conversion of 1927 or so, Winters seldom looked back at the rebellion of 1912 with anything but distaste. For the next thirty-five years or so he championed his counter-revolution at every turn of his published poetry and criticism. His intention was not reactionary—it was not, really, a stoic’s regress—but, instead, to pour the best of the wine harvested from the fields of the new free verse (spontaneity of movement, fresh perceptions, experiment) into what the traditional, time-tested forms still had to offer (regularity, finish, harmony, and invention). It is the major subject of the letters of this period.
Are the letters worth reading? They are, and by several different kinds of readers: readers wishing to increase the acuity of their knowledge of literature, especially poetry, as well as their idea of why or why not literature may matter; readers wishing to gain insight into the workings of the genuinely independent mind of a great and original writer; and readers desiring to gain a little closer glance at Winters’s personality. Except to the potential biographer, however, who has here pretty much the essential materials for the biography complete, personality is pretty much beside the point. As Barth gives it to us, this collection of letters presents Winters’s view of the mystery of literature and, pari passu, of life itself as he was able to understand it. The rest is the material of gossip.
The most valuable section of this book comes towards the end. In a series of ten letters, Winters’s defends himself against Tate’s claim that his (Winters’s) poetry is more Elizabethan than 20th century. Winters’s makes the counter-claim—that his poetry is, indeed, modern—defending the idea by taking the fifty-nine year old Tate to school by painstakingly instructing him, point by point, in the very different poetic methods and sensibilities of the two periods. Perhaps the most telling sequence of letters, however, involves three written to Theodore Roethke. In the first letter, 1941, Winters praises Roethke’s first book to the hilt; in the second letter, 1951, having received a gift copy of Roethke’s third book, Winters admits some grave reservations (e.g. “You do not understand free verse”). In the third letter, 1953, he writes, “the poems are not tough enough, not compact enough, not definite enough. It is easy to go on a binge and even display a certain amount of talent while on a binge. It is damned hard to write a good poem […] I honestly don’t think you realize as yet what poetry is.”
What, according to Winters, is it?
It is never, never purely aesthetic. At the age of 27, to Allen Tate: “a poem, for me, is condensation into more compact and consequently intense terms of the facts or suspicion’s of one’s existence” (97). To Tate, age 28: “poetry” is “a personal discipline, a mode of definition and growth” (127). At 30, to Henry Ramsey: to write great poems is to “become intelligent […] To become intelligent is to become more alive” (165). At 50, to Donald Davie: “The poet should be as nearly impersonal as possible, and should concentrate on his subject […] Keep your eye on the ball” (293). To Davie, age 51: “A good writer is an intelligent man saying something worth saying about something worth discussing” (313). At 58, to Malcolm Cowley: “My idea of a writer is somebody who has something to say which will interest superior adults and who knows how to say it” (375). At the same age, to Don Cameron Allen: “poetry has always seemed to me to be the highest form of scholarship” (379).
Yvor Winters’s classical literary sensibility had its roots in the distant soil of the Renaissance Humanism that had flowered in 19th century European literary philology, humanism, and romanticism at a time when Shelley could write—as an article of faith, perfectly confident of its truth—that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. And Emerson: “All that we call sacred history attests that the birth of a poet is the principal event in chronology,” for the poet holds “Man […] steady to the truth till he has made it his own [...] He is sovereign, and stands at the center.” From the hour that he penned the first of these selected letters until the moment he signed the last, Winters believed this. However slow, the influence of Mallarmé’s poems was as great as the force of the Declaration of Independence. This was a principle of faith for this “adventurer in living fact” that seems to have justified his nearly every literary thought and action for over fifty years, as recorded in the letters and elsewhere—the necessary myopia (a comma in Hopkins’ poetry important, in its place, as polio research, for what was bodily health without a healthy mind), the literary warfare, the ranking of poets and poems, Herculean labors (15 cups of coffee/day), the gospel of his last critical work, Forms of Discovery, 1967, an invaluable poetic Last Judgment finished under the grinding pain and death-sentence of cancer of the mouth from a lifetime’s pipe-smoking. Nothing short of the state of civilization was at stake.
Additional samples: 1929, to Howard Baker, “The contemplation of human nature in general makes me, if I look at it steadily, sick onto death; but out of the dung heap of human history and histories I have at one time or another succeeded in extracting moments and even longer fragments that I have found extremely salutary, and I am very much interested in studying their composition.” To Lincoln Kirstein, 1933,
All the best poetry is largely corroborative [...] because [...] all the most intelligent experience is corroborative of Christ and Aristotle. A poet, like Wordsworth or Rimbaud, who conquers new worlds, commonly loses the old—which is the most extensive and interesting despite its age. All poetry is conventional: convention is the basic tone, the norm of feeling which the poet builds from. [Italics mine]. Without convention there is no poetry, since without the norm there can be no departure, that is, perception. Most modern poetry tries, vaguely or violently, to escape convention, and ends by being sloppy. When one dislikes slop one is called insensitive. It takes real sensitivity, however, to perceive the variations in a Bridges or a John Gay, because they are the variations of a civilized man. …. Unless you can realize the role of convention in poetry and take it as a matter of fact and use it, you are wasting your time with poetry. Convention, not as norm of reference, but for its own sake, is dull, but even that may have interest if one is really concerned with the art.
1929, to Pearl Andelson Sherry: “One is born a genius, perhaps, but one is not born perfect or even intelligent. For a genius to make himself intelligent would seem to be the most difficult of tasks, or at any rate the rarest of accomplishments.”
The letters offer fresh insight into the man, his methods, and his mind. He was, beyond debate, a tough, kind, and pugnacious soul. The letters contain countless examples of his personal honesty, generosity, and courage, probably the main qualities of his moral and artistic character, the qualities that underlie nearly the entire corpus of his creative work. And that work has not really been studied. Or, rather, it has not been criticized thoroughly, as Winters himself criticized the work of others poets, contemporary or otherwise. Winters’s disciples and students have praised his poetry; his enemies have dismissed or ignored it. No one, to my knowledge, has ever tried to evaluate it objectively. This would mean l) sorting the overall faults and limitations from the strengths and virtues; 2) pointing to the least and most successful poems, and to those in the middle, explaining why they are so. 3) Comparing one’s own educated list of the best poems with Winters’s own list (starting with the Collected Poems, 1956, Letters, p.301, and elsewhere). Until we have a sound and substantial body of criticism of Winters’s poetry, we will simply not know what his poems are worth. However helpful and dedicated, scholarship, alone, will not do it. The very form of scholarship is too conservative, too dependent, if not slavish. If criticism is the hand-maid to art, scholarship is this to criticism, regardless of the scholar’s massing of an infinite number of footnotes of infinite length. Even a writer as un-classical as Robert Bly has decried the demise of objective, informed, and pointed criticism in our time, oddly citing Winters himself as the exemplar of such an activity.
The critic that I have mind might begin his inquiry by asking: what is expected from the experience of poetry, for the writer and reader? In fact, how do we identify poetry when we think we see or hear it? What makes one poem or poet more worthy of publication or of study than another? Is it ultimately a matter good taste, as Hume concluded? If so, what constitutes good or superior taste? Does poetry differ at all from prose? If so, how? If not, why not?
Winters himself would not have been optimistic about the coming along of the right critic. As he himself remarked at the age of twenty four in The Testament of a Stone, “the mind that can judge a poem accurately is very rare—even more rare than the mind that can create a poem. For this act of weighing requires a mind infinitely balanced, infinitely sensitive, and infinitely familiar with all the technical phases of the medium. Such a mind is, with one exception in a thousand, the mind of the master poet.” But should that critic come along—or more likely, several who might between them get it right—these letters will be invaluable, and afford occasion to ponder Ben Jonson’s remark that only a great person will come to write great poetry.
Goodman, Jeffrey. “Winters’s Classical Literary Sensibility.” The New Compass: A Critical Review 3 (June 2004) <http://www.thenewcompass.ca/jun2004/goodman02.html>