Saturday, October 17, 2020

'You Are Going Out on a Romantic Limb'

“As to my epistolary style, when it shows traces of high-flown rhetoric, you may safely take it as a specimen of my curious variety of humor.”


The author is poet, critic and humorist Yvor Winters. He is writing on October 29, 1949 to the newly named editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Hayden Carruth, who went on to a long and successful career as a mediocre poet. We could use Winters today. In recent years, Poetry, like so many other magazines, has become unreadable, an embarrassment. Winters had previously written to Carruth about the awarding of the Bollingen Prize to the anti-Semite Ezra Pound. Now he was objecting to an editorial Carruth devoted to poets working for universities. In the December 1949 issue, Winters published “The Poet and the University: A Reply.” In an October 19 letter to Carruth, Winters, who had been teaching at Stanford for twenty years, writes:


“Your editorial struck me as foolish: as if you were taking upon yourself the neurotic burdens of all the spoiled children who think themselves poets and who believe that the world owes them a living. What if there were some odious drudgery in teaching? Who expects to get by without odious drudgery? My wife [Janet Lewis], who has never been strong [like Winters, she suffered from tuberculosis when young], has gone through 23 years of the odious drudgery of keeping house, and has managed to produce three novels, a novelette, a book of short stories, and a book of poems; she thinks I lead the life of Riley, and in comparison, I do.”


We can admire Winters’ self-respect and his rather noble defense of his wife, author of a great American novel, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941). In the second letter, Winters objects to Carruth saying “technique is valueless”:


“You are going out on a Romantic limb. The more a poet knows (a) about his material (that is, the critical understanding of human experience) and (b) about his medium (meter, metaphor, rhetoric, etc.) the better equipped he is. Joe Louis learned to box by the book, learned so well that his learning was second nature in the ring, so well that he might be able even to improve instantaneously on his learning; but that is only the greater justification of his learning.”


Winters adds at the conclusion of his letter: “I send you this letter merely to keep you out of deep water if possible. Please don’t take it amiss.”


In his final published letter to Carruth, dated November 13, 1949, he writes: “your unhappy young poets are most of them, I suspect, as anachronistic as Shelley. They don’t want to work at anything, either studying or teaching, and least of all thinking. . . . And why should they not be unhappy? Most of us are unhappy much of the time. Why get excited about it? And how happy do you think John Berryman would be in the engine room of a tanker? Try to be reasonable.”


Winters was born 120 years ago today, on October 17, 1900, and died January 25, 1968.


[See The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters (2000), edited by R.L. Barth and published by Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. And go here to read one of my favorite poems by Winters or anyone else.]


rgfrim said...

Perhaps Winters’ wisdom would be perfectly unimpeachable had he spelled Joe Louis’s name correctly. Perhaps his prehistoric spellcheck equated Janet and Joe in some respect. Plausible: both consummate professionals. But while we honor Janet Lewis for the perfection of her poetry and prose we cannot number her among those, like Joe, who gave a gift to the language , viz. (relative to a forthcoming bout with a fighter who was known to move around the ring quickly) : “He can run but he can’t hide.”

Thomas Parker said...

Louis wasn't the only fighter with a gift for memorable description. Jim Braddock, when asked to describe what it felt like to be hit with a Joe Louis jab, said it was "like someone stuck a light bulb in your face and busted it."