Monday, June 21, 2021

'With or Without Gloves, Queensbury Rules'

R.L. Barth has been culling his shelves, donating books to a university library, and has given me two volumes: Yvor Winters’ “The Poetry of J.V. Cunningham,” a sixteen-page pamphlet published by Alan Swallow in 1961, and Grosvenor Powell’s Yvor Winters: An Annotated Bibliography (Scarecrow Press, 1983). The latter was inscribed by Powell to Turner Cassity in January 1984. Bob has edited selections of Winters’ letters and poems, and knows his work and that of his circle as well as anyone. In a recent email he writes: 

“[H]ow many people would share our pleasure in having such books? Not many, I'm afraid. When Susan [Bob’s wife] and I were straightening and sorting the poetry shelves, I looked at my Winters collection. I have every book he produced--a half dozen or more of them signed--and, I think, just about every book written about him. I’m delighted to have them, but there was an element of sadness in seeing them, too. Who would care about these books or want them when I’m gone? The answer, I’m afraid, is no one.”


The poets who form the loosely aligned Stanford School (Bowers, Cunningham, Cassity, Lewis, Gunn, Pinkerton, et al.) mean more to me than any comparable group of modern poets. They valued coherence, clarity and formal rigor, and one can hardly imagine less fashionable poetic qualities among today’s poets and readers of poetry. The opening sentence in the Cunningham pamphlet, written sixty years ago, is classic Winters:


“J.V. Cunningham seems to me the most consistently distinguished poet writing in English today, and one of the finest in the language; to make myself clear, however, I shall have to begin with a few reservations.”


What some judge as Winters’ cantankerousness others see as scrupulosity. His brand of truth-telling is not in vogue, and probably never was. In his bibliography, Powell includes an excerpt from a letter to the editors of Hound and Horn, written in 1933 by Basil Bunting. The English poet objects to a review by Winters of An ‘Objectivists’ Anthology (collected in Yvor Winters: Uncollected Essays and Reviews, ed. Francis Murphy, 1973) edited by Louis Zukofsky. Bunting was a modestly gifted poet in his less Poundian moments. He describes Winters’ review as “the vomit of a creature who . . . found his own name omitted from an anthology that proposed to sample everything at this moment alive in poetry.” Winters replied in a subsequent issue:


“Mr. Bunting appears to offer me some kind of challenge. I shall be glad to encounter him at his own weapons – any kind of prose or verse – or, if he will come to California, with or without gloves, Queensbury rules. My weight is 180.”

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