“Your poems strike me as worth very little.”
Precious words rarely uttered. Yvor Winters is answering a letter from Seymour Gresser (The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, ed. R.L. Barth, 2000). The date is Nov. 20, 1951. Gresser, about whom I know almost nothing, had apparently sent Winters an unsolicited manuscript. Winters assumes Gresser is familiar with his criticism, “since you sent me these, yet these represent the kind of loose writing to which I have been objecting for years.” He concludes his brief response: “About the best advice I could give you is to read as many poets as you can, especially in the 16th & 17th centuries & try to find out what poetry is.” Timeless advice. We learn to write by reading. Gresser, apparently, was not pleased. On Dec. 17, Winters responds to a subsequent letter:
“My letter to you of last November was neither pompous nor rude. Yours to me is both. However, I am not shocked, for I have had so many letters like yours over the past 15 years that I am used to them, and merely find them an irritating bore. I have shown your letter to the secretary of my department [at Stanford University], and she has promised to write me a form letter to deal with such situations in the future.”
In my judgment, Winters is a thoughtful man who deals with a presumptuous stranger with honesty and directness. He does Gresser the favor of taking him and his poems seriously. Winters continues:
“Let me rehearse the situation briefly, however. You sent me some poems and asked my opinion of them and I gave it. If you had not been willing to accept an adverse opinion you should have had the ordinary wit not to send them.”
I plan to draft a form letter consisting of that final sentence. Courtroom wisdom says an attorney should never ask a question to which he doesn’t already know the answer. Likewise, writers ought never request a critical evaluation if they can’t take the judgment. An honest critic has no interest in tender feelings. His attention is focused on the writing, not the writer. Here is the conclusion of Winters’ letter to Gresser:
“If I answered all the people who write me as you wrote me, I should have to neglect my professional duties rather seriously. Nevertheless, had your poems shown any talent, I would have answered you in detail. I gave you the best advice I could give you in brief space: to study the poets of the 16th and 17th centuries. Take it or leave it.
“You appear to be young. I trust you will grow up.”