Monday, March 28, 2011

`These Remarks Are Heretical'

Serious readers cultivate a personal canon, the books well-known and obscure meant to sustain them across a lifetime. It’s not a canon in the dogmatic sense but a library one stocks and culls without answering to prevailing tastes or other forms of censorship. Dissenters are not to be chastised for fashioning their own wayward canons – this is inevitable and ought to be encouraged. Readers who prize what is best in the literary tradition tend to be traditionalists with an anti-authoritarian streak – at least this reader is. We reject the notion that the new and fashionable are necessarily worthy of attention, and that the old and seldom-read should be forgotten.

Yvor Winters is the rare sort of critic who gives the impression of being first of all an enthusiastic reader, not a burned-out academic drudge. Known popularly for the harshness of his assessments, Winters was in fact an enthusiast. He loved Greville and Bridges even if the world thought otherwise. In “Yvor Winters—,” Marianne Moore calls him “a badger-Diogenes” and praises his “hostility to falsity” and “tenacity unintimidated by circumstance.” In “English Literature in the Sixteenth Century” (The Function of Criticism: Problems and Exercises, 1957), Winters writes:

“I am not trying to be insulting (the technical term, I think, is `arrogant’); I am trying rather to state an important truth which is overlooked for the greater part in the academic world. There is likely to be over long periods what one might call an underground, or unpublicized, tradition of the best writing which one can discover only if one has the perception to trace the tradition from poem to poem. I am fully aware that these remarks are heretical.”

I resist using “underground” because of its countercultural connotations (which have long since gone “over-ground”), but the word is apt. Moore, an old friend, writes in her poem to Winters:

“He does not hesitate to call others foolish,
and we do not shrink from imputations
of folly—of annoying a man to whom
compliments may be uncongenial;
--wise to be foolish when a sense of indebtedness
is too strong to suppress.”

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