Monday, May 02, 2011

`Diffident Sweet-Naturedness'

“What of the charge that all of his students write alike? We do. If you find a coherent poem written in rhyme and meter and published since 1945, chances are that one of us wrote it. Where else would it have come from? On the other hand, if you cannot tell the work of Helen [Pinkerton] Trimpi, a finely perfected devotional poet, from that of the head chronicler of Hell’s Angels [Hunter S. Thompson?], you had better give up. I am seldom taken for a lyric poet at all, still less one trained by Winters.”

Helen Pinkerton has loaned me a copy of The Southern Review, the Autumn 1981 issue devoted to Yvor Winters, her former teacher at Stanford University. The passage above is from “Notes from a Conservatory,” a reminiscence by the poet/librarian Turner Cassity (1929-2009), who studied with Winters in 1951-52. Winters is known for his pugnacious style as critic and teacher, but he inspired lasting devotion among students and academic colleagues. Thom Gunn contributes poems and a reminiscence to the Winters issue, Pinkerton a poem, and Kenneth Fields an essay.

The Gunn and Cassity remembrances are interesting for the way they combine anecdote with informal analysis of Winters’ poems, criticism and teaching methods. Both acknowledge their debt to their teacher and declare independence. Both are respectful but hardly uncritical. Cassity writes:

“His greatest failure, and really, the only one, was beyond his control. Painful, therefore, to have to draw up the indictment. It is that, in spite of his appreciation of the physical world—some of it—and in spite of his sharp sense of humor and great kindness, he was unable to convey to his poets any sense of what I shall have to call a largeness of life and a joy of craft. He could convey none because he had none, and he made too much of difficulty and struggle. He need not have let his masters overawe him; he was fully their equal.”

He was. Over the last year or so I’ve immersed myself in the work of Winters, Janet Lewis and some of the writers associated with them (Pinkerton, Gunn, J.V. Cunningham and Edgar Bowers in particular). Just as Winters accepted no reputations as handed on by critics, judged poets by individual poems, and championed the work of unfashionable “minor” writers, so his work has pushed me to reevaluate some of my literary tastes and assumptions. As an autodidact, I’m predisposed to self-criticism and have often jettisoned early and not-so-early enthusiasms, and adopted new favorites. Winters encourages such scrupulosity in his poetry and criticism, and by the example of his own too-short life. Gunn writes:

“The complete disinterestedness, the modesty, the lack of anything self-serving, only made his character more seductive and his personality more inadvertently charming. It is difficult to explain his diffident sweet-naturedness to those who know his personality rather through the prickly and often eccentric footnotes of Forms of Discovery. His manner could be, in Marianne Moore’s word for it, `bearish’; it could be brusque, intolerant, even brutal; it could also be generous, good-humored, and relaxed. His wit was quiet and disarming. But he had to feel at ease with you first.”

All of which, as with Dr. Johnson, makes him deeply human and attractive. When I recently expressed to Helen Pinkerton surprise that no biography of Winters had been written, forty-three years after his death, she replied:

“He had no love affairs, no scandal whatever, no seamy side, and a successful marriage, and so no one has thought it profitable to write him up. I have often hoped someone with sense and an interest in a serious literary life (two literary lives actually) would research his life while some of the people who knew him were alive. So many have died recently: [Moore] Mike Moran and Turner Cassity. Bob Barth did a noble job with the letters for which I admire him tremendously. But Swallow Press (David Sanders) and he made little if anything on that book.”

[Go here for a video of Helen Pinkerton reading poems by her friend Turner Cassity, and here for more on Cassity by Cynthia Haven.]

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