Friday, February 04, 2011

`Gone Sadder Ways'

In 1932, Yvor Winters became Western editor of The Hound and Horn, a literary quarterly founded in 1927 by two Harvard undergraduates, Lincoln Kirstein and Varian Fry. The magazine served as an American showcase for literary Modernism, and its contributors included some of the movement’s prominent usual suspects, many of whom then or later met with Winters’ disapproval. He starts an Aug. 6, 1932, letter (The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, 2000) to Kirstein like this:

“I vote against all the enclosed mss. Unreservedly and regardless of what else does or does not come in. It is better to get out a smaller issue, or an all-critical issue than to run stuff like this.”

Winters then gets serious. A poem submitted by Walter Lowenthals he dismisses as “a bastard compromise between bad poetry and bad expository prose.” Another, by Paul Eaton Reeve, is “Dead flat meter, utterly ludicrous and amateurish grandiloquence.” Winters thanks Kirstein for accepting a poem by twenty-one-year-old J.V. Cunningham, and urges him to publish Louise Bogan and Allen Tate, among others. Then he adds:

“In the interests of controversy also, I suggest that you reread in the current Poetry, my wife’s poem `The Clock,’ which you rejected a year or more ago because you did not like its rhythms. Do not write me and tell me you now like it. Don’t mention it at all. Study it. No one in my generation, and I do not except Tate or Crane, is capable of such firm and masterly rhythm. Set this down to egoism, but keep on studying the poem. I would gladly sacrifice my reputation to civilize the H. and H. Incidentally, my wife has no poems for sale at present.”

Winters’ wife, of course, is Janet Lewis. A spouse’s devotion and advocacy, particularly in a public forum, is always touching and worthy of emulation. Disloyalty is another name for a selfish, ungenerous spirit. I likewise admire Winters’ refusal to endorse, even tacitly, Kirstein’s editorial judgment. In fact, he rubs his nose in its trendiness and bad taste. Winters doesn’t deny husbandly nepotism, but like any good teacher advises Kirstein to “study the poem.” Winters’ final sentence is worthy of Swift. Here’s Lewis’ poem, “The Clock” (Poems Old and New 1918-1978):

“Whose is the clock that strikes the hours,
And strikes them true?
Above my beds of gaudy flowers,
Of mint and rue,

“The sound floats like a light that left
A turning glass
To flicker along a wall, more deft
Than hands that pass,

“Having laid down the mirror’s round,
To coil soft hair,
Brushed on a summer morning, smooth
To summer air.

“Is it the clock we hid away
Whose busy sound
Startled so loud our dreamy day,
Cocoon-like wound,

“And ever overlaid our lives,
Mechanic, clear,
With ticking gossip of their lives
Who first dwelled here?

“Deep in the attic does it bide,
Chatting alone,
By the warm rafter’s roughened side,
In monotone;

“A heart, a recollection even,
Of happy days
For those, since it was relegate to heaven,
Gone sadder ways?

“Or is it but some neighbor’s clock,
Some neighbor’s, far
Across still fields, whose silver shock
Floats the warm air?”

The effect is of a benign “Tell-Tale Heart.” The poem’s second and third stanzas are masterful. The poem is five sentences, four of them questions, answerless. The mention of “rue” reminds me of Ophelia’s mad catalog of wildflowers and herbs: “There's fennel for you, and columbines. There's rue for you, and here's some for me.” What of the “firm and masterly rhythm” singled out by Winters? The poem contemplates the obscure temporal rhythms that rule our lives. Listen to the sound of “the clock we hid away”:

“Mechanic, clear,
With ticking gossip of their lives
Who first dwelled here?”

Lewis matter-of-factly renders a mystery so familiar we fail to see the mystery. “Gone sadder ways.”

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