Wednesday, February 02, 2011

`Any Rougher Than Ben Jonson'

In a comment on Sunday’s post devoted to a passage from a letter by Yvor Winters, Helen Pinkerton notes that her friend and former teacher “was stating his judgment of the bulk of a poet's work. One should also look to his judgment of individual poems throughout his essays.” She cites a sonnet by Sidney as an example of a poem he admired and taught, despite dismissing the poet as “inferior.”

I’ve revised some of my preconceived and largely unexamined notions about Winters since reading his Selected Letters. He arrived at critical judgments after long study and thought, and those judgments were more nuanced and likely to evolve over time than most of us could honestly claim. His judgments on poets tended to stick to individual poems. He admired Wallace Stevens not whole, indiscriminately, but for eight or ten poems. Let’s be honest: Stevens, a great poet, wrote some very silly poems.

Winters’ critical language, as displayed in the letters, is sometimes intemperate, often amusingly so. “I see no reason why I should be any rougher than Ben Jonson,” he writes Donald Davie in 1950. Winters could be very funny and had no sympathy for sentimental, slipshod or self-indulgent work.

Three times in the published letters, across more than thirty years, Winters refers to Richard Crashaw, the seventeenth-century poet and Catholic convert. In 1924 he writes to Marianne Moore:

“I have, however, been reading a little Crashaw, during the past few days, and find him very beautiful. My knowledge of him had been extremely fragmentary. This sort of thing:

“`Be it enacted then
By the fair laws of the firm pointed pen,
God’s services no longer shall put on
A sluttishness for pure religion:
No longer shall our Churches’ frighted stones
Lie scattered like the burnt and martyred bones
Of dead Devotion; nor faint marbles weep
In their said ruins; nor Religion keep
A melancholy mansion in those cold

The lines are from “On a Treatise of Charity.” On Christmas Day 1928, Winters writes to Allen Tate:

“I am hypnotized by the cadences in Crashaw: cadences like the definitions of Aquinas.”

Finally, in a 1956 letter to Malcolm Cowley, who urges Winters to translate Paul Valéry (one of the poets Winters most admired), he writes:

“Stay with Valéry. I have to get back to Crashaw. You are in far better company.”

The movement from “beautiful,” to “hypnotized” to the unapologetic preference for Valéry, is subtle, discerning and honest, neither dismissing nor expansively embracing. Winters is a careful critic, no matter how hot-headed and vehement he may sound. I don’t always agree with his judgments but more often than with most other critics, they shine an unfamiliar light on poems and teach me something. What would Winters make of such an inexplicable darling of today’s critics as John Ashbery? Here’s what he wrote to the editor/publisher Harry Duncan in 1950, referring to some of his students at Stanford:

“Most of my poets will never be poets, but they know a damned sight more about poetry right now than most of their critics. Meanwhile I taught [J.V.] Cunningham, Miss [Helen] Pinkerton, [Edgar] Bowers, and [Lee F.] Gerlach. They are better poets than the imitators of Tate, Ransom, and Eliot, such as Warren, Randall Jarrell, and Berryman. When somebody else comes up with a better kennel-full I shall be glad to see it.”

Besides being a poet, critic and teacher, Winters bred and showed Airedale terriers.

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