Saturday, August 18, 2012

`Its Own Symbol and Its Own Meaning'

The poet, editor and teacher David Sanders, proprietor of Poetry News in Review, has sent me the tribute to Yvor Winters (1900-1968) and Janet Lewis (1899-1999) issued in 2000 by the Stanford University Libraries and the Stanford Humanities Center in connection with the Yvor Winters Centenary Symposium. It’s a splendid piece of printing and design, and a fitting tribute to the most accomplished married couple in American literary history. 

The contents of the olive-colored portfolio (“of Twinrocker handmade paper”) include sheets printed with photographic portraits of Winters and Lewis as very young poets, Winters’ “A Summer Commentary,” Lewis’ “River,” and brief essays by the poets Kenneth Fields (“The Noise of the Village”), Dick Davis ( “A Note on `A Summer Commentary’”) and Turner Cassity (“On Lewis’s `River’”). Fields was Winters’ student at Stanford and co-edited with him The Quest for Reality: An Anthology of Short Poems in English (1969). He defies the conventional wisdom about his teacher, praises his “gruff sociability” and “neighborliness,” and likens his “gregarious reclusiveness” to Matsuo Bashō’s. Fields describes a visit he made to the Winters/Lewis house in Los Altos, where he had worked as their gardener, after Lewis’ death: 

“I was prepared, but still shocked, to see that the house had been razed…The periwinkle that sprawled about the yard and the valerian that scented it were cleared off, but stranger still, all the Winters trees (`These trees, whose slow growth measures off my years’), the towering bay laurels, the fruit trees, especially the loquats, that favorite fruit, so fragile it must be eaten right off the tree—everything was gone. Even the topsoil was scraped away, down to the exposed clay. There was nothing at all there, neither wall nor fence nor shed, just three cavernous holes awaiting the next tenants, `Grass laid low by what comes.’ I sat in a drizzling rain for a few minutes and came away, oddly uplifted by the realization that I knew the location of the last tree grown from the Winters loquats, which I could evoke, even out of season, by saying to myself: `Loquat / smooth stone / soft flesh / poor traveler / all the way from China.’” 

The first two quoted passages are drawn, respectively, from Winters’  “Time and the Garden” and “The Upper Meadows.” Fields leaves the point implicit, but the razing of the Winters/Lewis homestead is an emblem of their reputation among contemporary readers and critics. Davis, author of Wisdom and Wilderness: The Achievement of Yvor Winters (1983), describes “A Summer Commentary” as “a romantic poem about renouncing romanticism,” and concludes: 

“He allows no Wordsworthian note of regret to undermine his poem at its close, preferring a voice touched with a slightly self-mocking irony, but we feel the continuing presence, and yes, romantic attraction, of what is now a `rich decay,’ in the poet’s experience and in his poem itself.” 

Cassity notes that Lewis wrote her late masterpiece, “River,” in 1994 when she was ninety-five years old. He says: 

“As in life itself, reality is its own symbol and its own meaning. It stares at us unblinkingly from surfaces; we must assume they are a dependable, if partial, representation of what is underneath. The most superficial writing is frequently that which sets out to be profound. One hears the clanking of the rusty anchor chains.”

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