Sunday, January 30, 2011

`If One Has Something to Say'

Yvor Winters in a letter to Malcolm Cowley written July 7, 1958:

“So far as prose is concerned, I think that you and I could be classified as members of two schools which among the sixteenth century poets were known as the courtly and the plain. You belong to the courtly, I to the plain. The plain style poets—Wyatt and Jonson, for examples—believed that poetry should say something efficiently, and they believed that such saying was an art, and in their hands it was a very great art. Sidney and Spenser, however, were less interested in saying something than merely in saying with grace and ornament, and their poetry was inferior.”

And that’s just the first paragraph. Winters had a gift for calm, mannerly evisceration that sounds almost like fatherly advice. Cowley never transcended his niche as literary camp-follower. He associated with writers more gifted than himself – Hart Crane, Faulkner, Cheever – and glowed with some of their reflected light, but was also responsible for helping Kerouac see On the Road into print. For that, Dante devised the sixth and tenth bolgias.

“Say something efficiently” echoes Swift’s 1719 dictum: “Proper words in proper places, make the true definitions of a style.” So much writing is inert gas emitted merely to attract attention, like pheromones. Reading Winters’ poems, criticism and letters, we think: Here’s a man with something to say, something interesting and memorable, who possesses the gifts necessary for saying it with precision, concision and forcefulness. The drive behind much writing is the wish to have written something, and to be recognized for it. Later in the letter to Cowley, Winters writes:

“When you say that I don’t recognize prose as an art, you are dreaming. [Henry] Adams’ history is great art. So is Johnson’s introduction to his dictionary.

“What bothers me about your prose—not merely this one essay, but nearly everything I have read—is the elaboration of elegance, out of all proportion to what you are saying. I get bored very early, and stop. The same kind of poetry bores me equally.”

Winters’ diagnosis of Cowley’s work is exact, and might be broadened to include nearly all writing in most historical periods. The gift is rare. In his next-to-last sentence, Winters writes:

“One can write only if one has something to say (and exercises on nothing in particular are a curse), has talent, and acquires scholarship.”

[All quoted passages are from The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, edited by R.L. Barth, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2000. The frontpiece photo is priceless: Winters is seated behind a desk, wearing a suit and tie, pen clipped in the jacket pocket, left arm in his lap, right slung over the back of his wooden chair. On the desk are two ashtrays, papers and a stack of books, including a fat edition of Moby-Dick and what appears to be a dictionary. Winters makes no concession to congeniality or public relations. (The photo is credited to the “News and Publications Service, Stanford University.”) He looks impatient and refuses to “sell” himself. His demeanor is the opposite of contemporary author photographs, all teeth and sincerity.]


Zed said...

This should probably be filed under "irreconcilable differences of taste" but I do find it a little tiresome of Winters to assert without argument that Spenser is inferior to Wyatt. I don't see why one is forced to choose between elegance and statement; a healthy poetics has room for both, and English poetry would be quite dreary without Spenser, Donne, and all the other "inefficient" tongues.

zmkc said...

'So much writing is inert gas emitted merely to attract attention, like pheromones' - what a great phrase. I wish we could see that photograph of Winters.

Helen Pinkerton said...

I always try to remember in reading Winters' criticism such as that quoted here that he was stating his judgment of the bulk of a poet's work. One should also look to his judgment of individual poems throughout his essays. For example, he greatly admired Sidney's "Leave me, O love that reachest but to dust / And thou, my mind, aspire to higher things. . ." And he taught it always in his class in the English Lyric at Stanford.