Wednesday, November 07, 2012

`The Life of Art Is a Hard One'

The November issue of Poetry includes a portfolio of twenty-four photographs submitted to the magazine by contributors during its first century of publication. The editors call it “something of a family album.” Most of the pictures are inconsequential and self-regarding, as you would expect, and three include dogs, though only one excludes humans. Yvor Winters wrote this on the back of the photo he submitted: 

“Ch. Buckthorn Black Jack R II 218 by Cinnibar Rags ex Ch. Buckthorn Sal bred, owned, and handled by Yvor Winters. Note the instress of the inscape. This dog is a finer work of art than are most of the poems published in Poetry 

Judging by the contents of the November issue, little has changed in sixty-five years. Of the handsome photo of Buckthorn Sally, Winters’ champion Airedale, the editors write: 

“Yvor Winters sent in this chastening photo in 1947. In a letter reproduced in our July/August 2009 issue, Winters noted that he was `an Airedale fancier. In my capacity as a teacher, I correspond, I suppose, to a professional handler at a dog show.’” 

Winters may have submitted the picture with “An Ode,” published in the October 1947 issue of Poetry. It carries as a subtitle or dedication: “On the Despoilers / Of Learning / In an American University / 1947,” and includes these lines: 

“To hold what men had wrung
In struggle bone to bone
From man’s stupidity,
In labor and alone.” 

By reputation, Winters is judged dour and grumpy, but he’s a drily funny writer in his essays and letters, and occasionally in the poems. For years he bred and showed Airedale terriers, a breed Albert Payson Terhune (1872-1942), the writer (Lad: A Dog) and dog breeder, called “swift, formidable, graceful, big of brain, an ideal chum and guard....To his master he is an adoring pal. To marauders he is a destructive lightning bolt,” which sounds a lot like Winters. In “To Yvor Winters, 1955,” Thom Gunn writes of his former teacher: 

“I leave you in your garden.
                                          In the yard
Behind it, run the Airedales you have reared
With boxer’s vigilance and poet’s rigour:
Dog-generations you have trained the vigour
That few can breed to train and fewer still
Control with the deliberate human will.” 

In a letter dated May 5, 1948, Winters describes to Allen Tate “a mess of dogshow business, three shows on three successive week-ends, which meant hours of working on my dog.” At the second show, in Los Angeles, he tells Tate, “my dog went to best of winners, beating 38 Airedales from all over the United States and Canada.” Of the third show he writes: 

“The last judge was an old woman, weighing about 300 pounds, and since she couldn’t move very fast, she tried to make us show Airedales as if they were setters: set them up, cheek by jowl, pose them for five minutes, and so on. My dog, unfortunately, is an Airedale, and is as restless as if he were on a hot stove, and will kill any dog within grabbing distance; it was pretty hopeless. The life of art is a hard one.”

No comments: