“This paradoxical person, great doctor of abstractions in his own verse and when he discussed the verse of others, gave the impression, when one met him, of lifting a heavy boot with immense difficulty out of a tangle of the earthiest particulars. What passed for conversation with him was a ruminative and halting monologue about the behavior of Canadian waxwings when they migrated southward over his home in Los Altos, or the multiple nice distinctions within the botanical family that includes the great madrone; or else, though this pleased him less as it embarrassed us more, the three best poems (in order) by that underrated poet Robert Bridges, the three most over-rated poems by that overrated author, W.B. Yeats.”
The author is the English poet-critic Donald Davie (1922-1995) in These the Companions: Recollections (Cambridge University Press, 1982). Davie is forthright about Winters’ pugnacity. They clashed, but Davie is honest enough to admire the man and the work behind the astringency. “Great doctor of abstraction” rightly recalls Dr. Johnson, a comparably fearsome critic. The boot metaphor is appropriate for several reasons, including Winters’ love of his garden and the natural world. “Canadian waxwings,” I assume, are cedar waxwings, Nabokov’s bird. Fruit is their meal of choice and Winters was a proud pomologist, growing “Persimmon, walnut, loquat, fig, and grape.” In “The Manzanita,” a poem about the arbutus or madrone, a tree common on the West Coast, Winters writes:
“This life is not our life; nor for our wit
The sweetness of these shades; these are alone.`
There is no wisdom here; seek not for it!
This is the shadow of the vast madrone.”
Winters no doubt sometimes exaggerated his ferocity, reveling in provocation, but with good reason. Bridges was a great poet underrated if not forgotten. Yeats, who never encountered a ridiculous idea without embracing it, may possess the most over-inflated reputation of any twentieth-century poet. With time, Winters and the other Stanford poets – Cunningham, Bowers, Lewis, Gunn, Pinkerton, Justice and others – are coming into focus as the great literary Renaissance of the last century, long overdue for a Library of America volume of their own (Gunn edited one of Winters’ poems).
Davie, who succeeded Winters at Stanford after his death in 1968, and in 1978 provided the introduction for The Poetry of Yvor Winters, writes:
“What I liked most about Winters’ poetry was just the side of him that numbered the botanical relations of the madrone, on which very subject, in fact, he has a somber and mysteriously evocative short poem. Better still to my mind are some poems of his, such as `John Sutter’ or `California Oaks’ or `A View of Pasadena from the Hills,’ in which a Californian landscape, regarded with just this particularizing intentness, intersects with, or leads into, some chapter of California history.”
Davie remembers that he left Winters “with a paper sack full of the Santa Rosa plums that he took such pride in, from his little orchard.” On page 109 of These the Companions is a photograph of Davie and Winters’ wife, the great poet and novelist Janet Lewis, seated on the porch of the Lewis/Winters house in Los Altos. In “Essay on Psychiatrists” (Sadness and Happiness, 1975), Robert Pinsky writes of Winters, his former professor:
“As far as he was concerned
Suffering was life’s penalty; wisdom armed one
Against madness; speech was temporary; poetry was truth.”`