Sunday, January 27, 2013

`They Retreat Because They Are Excluded'

A poet is fact-minded, mathematical and harsh. He is musical, satirical and contemptuous of cant. He is not whimsical, dreamy or eager for approval. His politics and social conscience, or their absence, are irrelevant. He may write little but he must write well. Ben Jonson is a poet. So are Swift, Dickinson and J.V. Cunningham. So is R.L. Barth, who lauded Yvor Winters, his “Maestro,” as “hardheaded, realistic, past surprise.” In his own words, Winters ranks among the “tougher poets.” He is an anomaly. He never has enough readers. His readers must be adults. 

David Leightty, a poet, publisher and lawyer, dedicates “Terminal” to “AYW writing Forms of Discovery.” The “A” refers to Winters’ seldom-used first name, Arthur. Forms of Discovery is Winters’ final book, completed while he was dying of cancer and published in 1967. Its subtitle is inclusive: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English (1967). It and Quest for Reality: An Anthology of Short Poems in English (1969), edited by Winters and Kenneth Fields, I would commend to the nation’s high schools as a suitable introduction for students to our poetic tradition. Here’s is Leightty’s “Terminal”: 

“Your frail flesh posed the impasse you must face—
Your life’s strength could just see this last work through.
Greatness, a master who would brook no grace,
Made your last breath stand wager for the true. 

“You culled your wisdom for one final look,
Cast final judgment on both foe and friend,
Bartered your life to consummate this book,
And entered knowing to the utter end.” 

Though embattled even during his lifetime, before the collapse of most critical standards, Winters was influential as teacher, critic and poet. His loosely grouped “Stanford School,” including Janet Lewis, Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, Helen Pinkerton, Catherine Davis, Turner Cassity and Thom Gunn, wrote most of the best American poetry of the last eighty years. Of course, most of their work remains proudly unfashionable. Another former Winters student, the late Donald Justice, judged him “a master obscured by history.” In the essay from Forms of Discovery titled “The Plain Style Reborn,” Winters writes: 

“During the Romantic movement a great deal of sentimental nonsense was written about the isolation of the artist, and the nonsense usually verges on self-pity; there is a trace of self-pity in Cunningham's poems `Envoi’ and `Forgiveness.’ The fact remains, however, that the artist, if he is really an artist, is really isolated, and his personal life in this respect is a hard one. There are few people with whom he can converse freely without giving offense or becoming angry. It is no accident that so many great writers have sooner or later retreated from society; they retreat because they are excluded.” 

Winters died forty-five years ago this past Friday, on Jan. 25, 1968, at age sixty-seven.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I purchased a copy of Helen Pinkerton's book of poems, Taken in Faith, some months ago. I agree with Timothy Steele, who wrote in his afterword, "Her poems are not only enjoyable to read, but rewarding to think about."