Saturday, January 28, 2012

`Poetry is Form'

It looks less like a pamphlet of poems by one of the last century’s great poets than a modest tract from a Bible society. The pale green cover is made of card stock and is turning lichen-brown around the edges. The publisher is The Tryon Pamphlets of Tryon, N.C. On the back cover are small announcements for other pamphlets in the series -- Happy Farmers by John Crowe Ransom and Psyche in the South by R.P. Blackmur. Each costs 25 cents, as does the book in hand: Before Disaster by Yvor Winters. An online dealer is selling it for $275.

The 26-page booklet published in 1934 contains a four-page prose foreword and twenty-one poems, including some of Winters’ best and best-known -- “To a Young Writer,” “On Teaching the Young,” “Elegy on a Young Airedale Bitch Lost Two Years Since in the Salt-Marsh” and “Before Disaster” (subtitled “Written early in the winter of 1932-33,” when Hitler was coming to power). The copy I have, bound in cardboard covers, is from the Fondren Library. A label at the front says the book was a “Gift of George G. Williams September 1954.” It hasn’t circulated in sixteen years.

Before Disaster consolidates Winters’ evolution from early free-verse Imagism to his mature work, traditional in meter and rhyme. He’s a rare poet who matured in the best sense, abandoning youthful avant-garde pretensions to evolve a sensibility that crafted poetry for adults, poetry that lasts. In his foreword Winters writes:

“I cannot grasp the contemporary notion that the traditional virtues of style are incompatible with a poetry of modern matter; it appears to rest on the fallacy of expressive form, the notion that the form of the poem should express the matter. This fallacy results in the writing of chaotic poetry about the traffic [as opposed to “Before Disaster”]; of loose poetry about our sprawling nation [Whitman, Crane]; of semi-conscious poetry about semi-conscious states…Poetry is form; its constituents are thought and feeling as they are embodied in language; and though form cannot be wholly reduced to principles, there are certain principles which it cannot violate.”

Almost eighty years after Winters wrote them, the words are more bracing and probably more futile than ever, an implicit call to seriousness, good sense, respect for tradition and dedication to craft. Rolfe Humphries begins his review of Before Disaster in the February 1935 issue of Poetry with this admission:

“This attractively-priced paper pamphlet will beguile you into more study than you bargain for.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Thanks for the wonderful visit from the poetry pamphlets from yore. Tryon, North Carolina, wow, not exactly a hotbed of poetical thought, but the waterfalls and forests are beautiful. Winters has always been to me a curious case. How can one go in the space of a few years from lines of such stunning beauty as:

“The Christ, eternal
In the scented cold; my love,
Her hand on the sill
White, as if out of earth;
And spring, the sleep of the dead.”
(from “Dark Spring,” thanks for including the link)

To black-and-white paint by numbers verse like:

“Peace is whore to Greed and Hate.
Nowhere may I turn to flee:
Action is security.
Treading change with savage heel,
We must live or die by steel.”
(from “Before Disaster”)

He couldn’t live with the pain, I guess.