Sunday, August 11, 2019

'The True Shape of the Mind'

“Words should be brief / Lest action come to grief /And be disrupted.”

Some of us naturally associate brevity and concision with craftsmanship and seriousness of intent. Flab and the longueurs of self-expression suggest a shoddy indifference to readers and the business at hand. In a letter written on Dec. 11, 1962, Yvor Winters thanks his former student, Charles Gullans, for dedicating his first collection, Arrivals and Departures (University of Minnesota Press, 1962), to him (“magister ludi”). Winters also thanks him for “the poem addressed to me,” which I assume is “Herr Doktor Addresses His Students”:

“Come, let us teach
The virtue of plain speech
And plainer actions.
Enough of old distractions.
I’m sick of muddled thought
Which has slain kings
And kingdoms with confusion.
Its wars are always fought
To justify illusion
And hide the heart of things.

“Words should be brief
Lest action come to grief
And be disrupted.
Where manners are corrupted,
There language imitates
The public riot
In an excess of kind.
Each word delineates
The true shape of the mind
And the mind’s true disquiet.”

The poem is conspicuously Wintersian, and develops themes found in such poems as “On Teaching the Young” and “To a Young Writer.” Gullans condemns the imitative fallacy (“There language imitates / The public riot”), the customary rationalization for haphazard writing. Words are suffused with the sensibility deploying them. Ego is the enemy of good work. I sought out Gullans’ poem and Winters’ letter after reading James Matthew Wilson’s “The Half-Empty Auditorium”:

“I have noticed that very few poets enjoy sitting and reading other poets’ work. This is not because ‘most of the poetry in any age is bad,’ but because most poetry written and published today is produced within a body of conventions that guide poets in banal, opaque, nonsensical directions—directions that no one, save another poet looking for something to copy, would willingly follow. It is the hack work of the incompetent yet ambitious, a professional parlance with nothing amatory about it suitable for the amateur: but literature is for amateurs or it is for nothing.”

[The quoted letter can be found in The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters (ed. R.L. Barth, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2000).]

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