Friday, July 20, 2012

`This Cold Eye for the Fact'

A young poet, still in his twenties but rapidly maturing as writer and man, writes:

“It was the dumb decision of the
madness of my youth that left me with
this cold eye for the fact.”

This admirable self-evaluation is Yvor Winters’ in “The Rows of Cold Trees,” written when he was twenty-five (the age at which Keats died) and published in his third collection, The Bare Hills (1927).  Winters describes himself as “bent heavily on books.” He was still recovering from the tuberculosis that reduced his world to a bed, fresh air and books. Elsewhere, he writes, “In 1928, I abandoned free verse and returned to traditional meters,” and in the process, counter to the Modernism then in its ascendancy, became a great poet. Some of us understand self-repudiation, the willful turning away from the “madness” of youth, the unthinking folly and waste.

Think what a contemporary writer would do with a poem titled “By the Road to the Air-Base” – the political posturing and self-righteousness. Here, less than a decade after “The Rows of Cold Trees,” is Winters’ poem:

“The calloused grass lies hard
Against the cracking plain:
Life is a grayish stain;
The salt-marsh hems my yard.

“Dry dikes rise hill on hill;
In sloughs of tidal slime
Shellfish deposit lime,
Wild seafowl creep at will.

“The highway, like a beach,
Turns whiter, shadowy, dry:
Loud, pale against the sky,
The bombing planes hold speech.

“Yet fruit grows on the trees;
Here scholars pause to speak;
Through gardens bare and Greek
I hear my neighbor's bees.”

It might be Winters’ comment on The Waste Land. With its careful delineation of landscape, the poem suggests the “cold eye for the fact” while hinting at powerful emotion tempered by form. Written across forty years, Winters’ poems are modest in number (an example worth emulating) but unmatched in their time for seriousness, maturity and technical aplomb. In 1957, the year he turned fifty-seven, Winters published what may be his final poem, “Two Old-Fashioned Songs,” divided into “Danse Macabre” and “A Dream Vision.” Here is the second of the latter’s four stanzas:

“I had grown away from youth,
Shedding error where I could;
I was now essential wood,
Concentrating into truth;
What I did was small but good.”

A valedictory, a poet’s final farewell to the “madness of my youth.”

1 comment:

George said...

Sure a "By the Road to" poem would answer not "The Waste Land" but Williams's "By the Road to the Contagious Hospital"--a poem that Winters thought impaired by its free verse.