Sunday, July 17, 2011

`With Sincere Regard'

Almost daily I request books from the Library Service Center at the Fondren Library, an off-campus facility designed, according to its website, “to shelve infrequently used library materials.” Normally the books I want arrive the following day and I claim them at the circulation desk. Most are older volumes, often with a punch card in the pocket at the back and a circulation sheet for stamping the return date. Some identify the school as The Rice Institute, a name formally changed to Rice University in 1960.

On Friday I picked up six books from the LSC written or edited by Yvor Winters: Twelve Poets of the Pacific (New Directions, 1937), Edwin Arlington Robinson (New Directions Books, 1946), Poets of the Pacific, Second Series (Stanford University Press, 1949), The Function of Criticism (Alan Swallow, 1957), The Poetry of J.V. Cunningham (Alan Swallow, 1961), Quest for Reality (The Swallow Press, 1969). The most recent date of circulation stamped in any of the volumes is 1992.  The Function of Criticism hasn’t left the library since 1973. The Cunningham volume is sixteen pages and a cardboard cover – “The Swallow Pamphlets Number 11” – and last circulated in 1985.
The books have the fragrance and gravitas of history. I didn’t look at them closely until I returned to my office, and was most curious about Twelve Poets of the Pacific, the earliest published gathering of the “Stanford School,” poets associated with Winters, many his students or former students. In it are six poems by Winters, thirteen by his wife Janet Lewis, twelve by Cunningham, the rest by Clayton Stafford, Howard Baker, Henry Ramsey, Achilles Holt, Barbara Gibbs, Don Stanford, James Atkinson, Richard Finnegan and Ann Stanford. On the title page is the New Directions colophon designed two years earlier by Heinz Henges.
Winters’ “Foreword” is characteristically pugnacious. In a book put out by the publisher of Ezra Pound, Winters writes:
“The aims of the group might fairly be summarized thus: in the matter of conception, clarity, as opposed to contemporary obscurantistic tendencies, or, to put it otherwise, the expression of the feeling in terms of the motive; in the matter of style, purity and freedom from mannerism, as distinct from the contemporary tendency to substitute mannerism for true originality.”
Winters even goes on to criticize some of the poets and poems he includes in the anthology. Holt is “beset with too great difficulty in generalization,” as Don Stanford is with “too great facility.” Baker “as a stylist is often clumsy to the point of maddening one.” Cunningham is “sometimes clever to shallowness,” though in the first sentence of his 1961 pamphlet, Winters calls Cunningham “the most consistently distinguished poet writing in English today.”
I was enjoying the pleasure of holding the book and marveling at the wonder of libraries when I opened the front cover and noticed an inscription written in a small, spidery but legible hand:
“To Professor and Mrs. Hardin Craig
from Yvor Winters, with sincere
regard. Stanford, 1937” 

Hardin Craig (1875-1968), I’ve learned, was a professor of English at Stanford University from 1928 (the year after Winters arrived as a graduate student) until he retired in 1942. He was a scholar of Renaissance literature, Shakespeare in particular, and his literary interests must have overlapped Winters’. He died the same year as Winters, in Houston, which may account for the signed copy of Twelve Poets of the Pacific being in the Fondren Library. Winters writes in the “Foreword”: 

“It would be easy to point to imperfect achievement of these aims in the book; but too perfect an achievement of them might fairly be suspect, for life is difficult to understand and the irrelevancies of personality are insistent and are but imperfectly amenable to discipline. Let us say that we have sought in the main, and to the best of our abilities, to correct our weaknesses instead of to cultivate them.”

No comments: