Sunday, December 04, 2011

`Hardheaded, Realistic, Past Surprise'

Among Helen Pinkerton’s recent gifts is the Fall/Winter 1997 issue of Hellas: A Journal of Poetry and the Humanities, dedicated to the poet-critic John Finlay who died of AIDS at age fifty in 1991. Included are twelve poems and a brief prose piece by Finlay, and work by Edgar Bowers, Janet Lewis, David Middleton and Clive Wilmer, among others.

Helen’s essay “Acts of Resistance: Finlay on Winters’s `To the HolySpirit’” is an admiring partial disagreement with Finlay’s reading of Winters’ great devotional poem (as collected in Finlay’s Hermetic Light: Essays on the Gnostic Spirit in Modern Literature and Thought, 1994, which Helen also sent). Also in the Finlay issue of Hellas is a poem by R.L. Barth, who was then editing The Selected Poems of Yvor Winters (1999) and The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters (2000), both published by Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. The poem is “To Yvor Winters, While Editing His Selected Poems”:

“What strikes me now most deeply is your trust.
Hardheaded, realistic, past surprise,
You turned a withering, harsh verse on lies,
Betrayed ideals, subverted justice, lust,
And scourged the statesman, scholar, poet, fool.
But even through the anger you were cool 

“In your assurance there were absolutes, by
However mindlessly ignored; the true
Was always just that, true; and some men grew
In hard-won wisdom which no Hell confutes.
Somehow such men, though few in number, would
Both keep alive and perpetuate the Good. 

“Now you are dead these thirty years, and I,
Though none admires you more, am cynical
And unregenerate, product of all
The types you scorned, and say the great must die.
Attempting to refocus oversight,
I wait, Maestro, knowing which one is right.” 

Winters is “Maestro” as Henry James is “The Master.” Both hold us as writers and readers to uncompromisingly high standards, by “withering, harsh” dismissals of the mediocre, yes, but more importantly by the rigor of their work. In a letter, Winters says he tends toward “a predisposition on behalf of the hard, the brave, the reticent, and the stoical.” In an autobiographical piece collected in The Occasions of Poetry (1999), Thom Gunn (like Pinkerton and Bowers, a former Winters student) writes: 

“He was a man of great personal warmth with a deeper love for poetry than I have ever met in anybody else. The love was behind his increasingly strict conception of what a poem should and should not be. It would have seemed to him an insult to the poem that it could be used as a gymnasium for the ego.” 

Such gymnasiums proliferate in contemporary poetry, driving out the groceries and shoe stores, the services we need. In his selection Barth, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, includes Winters’ “To a Military Rifle," which begins:

“The times come round again;
The private life is small;
And individual men
Are counted not at all.
Now life is general,
And the bewildered Muse,
Thinking what she has done,
Confronts the daily news.”

No flag-waving, no suicidal appeasement, "hardheaded, realistic, past surprise."

1 comment:

zmkc said...

Thank you for introducing me to a poet who I probably should not publicly admit I have not encountered before.