Sunday, January 26, 2014

`I Sit Around & Watch the Kids Go'

“About all I can do for civilization is try to counteract a little of the effect of Lewis Mumford & our new School of Humanities, which is a god-awful mess.” 

So writes Yvor Winters in a letter to Louise Bogan dated May 10, 1943 (The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, ed. R.L. Barth, 2000). Seldom is Winters credited with a sense of humor, but the same is true of Swift, another poker-faced, often comic writer. Few have been so thoroughly misjudged and misunderstood (again, like Swift). I choose this letter to examine because it’s typical of Winters’ manner but not a formal critical statement, unlike some of the letters to R.P. Blackmur and Allen Tate. Also, by 1943, Winters was at the height of his powers as a poet. The letter is deeply personal but the poet and critic remain ever alert. He opens by thanking Bogan for her willingness to read poems by one of his students, Ann Hayes, whose work he will include in Poets of the Pacific, second series (1949), and who R.L. Barth will publish decades later. 

Winters tells Bogan that The Anatomy of Nonsense has just been published (it will be folded into In Defense of Reason in 1947) and he expects New Directions to publish a collection of his poems. It will include, he says, only a few pieces she hasn’t already read, and he adds, “I have been pretty much paralyzed by the war.” He is writing seventeen months after Pearl Harbor, and D-Day is more than a year away. Victory was not assured. The passage quoted at the top is preceded by these sentences: 

“I tried to get a commission in the army [as he writes, Winters is forty-two years old], but was turned down because I had a touch of TB over 21 years ago [he spent almost three years in sanitariums in New Mexico]. I could probably go into the merchant marine as a crew member, but I can hardly take a job voluntarily that will pay me too little to support my family. Janet [Lewis, the poet, novelist and former TB sufferer] is not strong & the children are young. My friend [the poet] Clayton Stafford is now a captain in the Signal Corps. Meanwhile I sit around & watch the kids go.” 

One is struck by Winters’ conflicted impulses and by his patriotism, civic-mindedness and devotion to family – not qualities commonly associated with poets today. One of his sustaining attractions is his sense of independence, and indifference to fashion and reputation. No Marxist, no bohemian, he’s a middle-class guy trying to support his family, sustain a heavy teaching load at Stanford, write some of the best poetry and criticism of the last century, and worry about his obligations to the defense of his country and civilization. Reading Winters is always bracing, like a splash of icy water after the sauna, and the pleasure is heightened if you know something about the man. He closes the letter to Bogan like this: 

“I am glad you liked Janet’s new book [the novel Against a Darkening Sky, her best after The Wife of Martin Guerre, 1941]. I do not think it quite so successful in its total effect as the other two [novels – The Invasion and Martin Guerre], but think it contains much of her best work notwithstanding.” 

A critic to the end, even with his wife. Winters was born in Chicago on Oct. 17, 1900, and died on this date forty-six years ago, on Jan. 25, 1968. 

[On May 26, 1941, Winters had written to Bogan: “The note in The New Yorker was very kind, and, along with your letter, raised me greatly in my own esteem. You are one of the very few living American poets for whom I retain, in my old age, any very profound esteem, and of the lot you are certainly the finest master of style, perhaps the only consistent master of style ; so I value your good opinion.”]

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