Tuesday, January 28, 2014

`Untouchable Probity and Distilled Power'

“That this conservative tendency has become so rare nowadays that it is again almost avant garde is an interesting fact in itself.” 

A conservative conserves what is best in his cultural inheritance. He prizes originality and subversion less than artful recrafting of the given. To do otherwise is to scorn one’s teachers. Like Bob Dylan, who can’t sing eight bars without footnoting Muddy Waters or Hank Williams, a writer of conservative bent moves his pen with the assistance of useful forebears, all the good writers who’ve taught him a lesson. In this sense, as Michael Oakeshott reminds us, to be conservative is “to prefer the tried to the untried” and “present laughter to utopian bliss.”

The passage quoted at the top is drawn from Louise Bogan’s 1944 review of The Giant Weapon, a collection of thirty-three poems written by Yvor Winters in the fifteen years since he moved from Imagism to poetry of meter and rhyme. Strictly as professionals, without the disabilities of politics or romance, Bogan and Winters were mutually admiring of the other’s poems. This is from Bogan’s review, collected in Selected Criticism: Prose, Poetry (1955) and A Poet’s Alphabet (1970):

“This poetry’s light, undercutting observation, its tenderness, which keeps it on the side of life and joy even when it seems most grave, its total avoidance of cliché, its lack of sentimentality, its deep interest in themes of truth and justice—these elements separate it completely from dead formality and generalized emptiness.” 

Bogan’s reading of Winters is remarkable for its independence of critical thought. Who else sees the enormous tenderness in his poems? Or their endorsement of “life and joy?” And “generalized emptiness” is a marvelous indictment of much that is worst in fashionable writing of any sort, in any age. Bogan singles out a poem Winters wrote in 1942, after the start of World War II, titled “To a Military Rifle.” Elsewhere, Auden described it as “very fine” and Helen Pinkerton judged it, among Winters’ poems inspired by World War II, as “probably the finest, with its indictment of the lust for power.” You’ll find it in The Selected Poems of Yvor Winters (ed. R.L. Barth, Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 1999). Here are the opening lines: 

“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.” 

And here, at the conclusion of her review, is Bogan’s assessment: 

“[The poem] turns out to be one of the fine poems produced by the war. It is as far removed from ordinary war verse as a poem can possibly be and still deal with its subject. That Winters should have written this poem, which is a poem of the future, that he should continue to exist at all, that he should have persisted in his way of writing until the turn of the wheel brought him back as modern—these facts should delight us. They are proof that as a people we can produce untouchable probity and distilled power in the most unlikely times.”

1 comment:

marly youmans said...

I love the last line--it's hopeful for us as well.