I’ve always thought the truest act of criticism was to read a writer attentively, applying a degree of respectful concentration proportionate to what the writer devoted to the work’s creation. I still believe that but there’s an act of homage even more potent but denied most readers: the selection and editing of texts. The model here, I suppose, is Housman and his five-volume edition of the Astronomica of Manilius.
More recently, the poet R.L. Barth performed a service for readers by editing The Selected Poems of Yvor Winters (1999) and The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters (2000), both published by Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. Without those volumes, or the Library of America edition of Winters’ poems edited in 2003 by his former student, Thom Gunn, the work of a major American poet might be unavailable. Winters is as great and unfashionable a poet and critic as can be imagined today. With reasonable certainty I can assume that few academics have read his work. The last book devoted to Winters was published in 1986, and we still have no biography.
In 1998, the journal Hellas devoted an issue to the poet John Finlay (1941-91), a great admirer of Winters. Barth was Finlay’s first publisher, bringing out The Wide Porch, and Other Poems in 1984. Barth contributed a poem to the Festschrift, “To Yvor Winters, While Editing His Selected Poems”:
“What strikes me now most deeply is your trust.
Hardheaded, realistic, past surprise,
You turned a withering, harsh verse on lies,
Betrayed ideals, subverted justice, lust,
And scourged the statesman, scholar, poet, fool.
But even through the anger you were cool
“In your assurance there were absolutes, by
However mindlessly ignored; the true
Was always just that, true; and some men grew
In hard-won wisdom which no Hell confutes.
Somehow such men, though few in number, would
Both keep alive and perpetuate the Good.
“Now you are dead these thirty years, and I,
Though none admires you more, am cynical
And unregenerate, product of all
The types you scorned, and say the great must die.
Attempting to refocus oversight,
I wait, Maestro, knowing which one is right.”
Like Henry James, Winters is “The Master.” Both hold writers and readers to uncompromisingly high standards, by “withering, harsh” dismissals of the mediocre and by the rigor of their work. In a letter, Winters says he tends toward “a predisposition on behalf of the hard, the brave, the reticent, and the stoical.” In an autobiographical piece collected in The Occasions of Poetry (1999), Thom Gunn writes:
“He was a man of great personal warmth with a deeper love for poetry than I have ever met in anybody else. The love was behind his increasingly strict conception of what a poem should and should not be. It would have seemed to him an insult to the poem that it could be used as a gymnasium for the ego.”
“In Winters’s literary criticism, he repeatedly praised Saint Thomas Aquinas as among the greatest of thinkers. He held up Aquinas as the antithesis to such unsatisfactory modern thinkers as Henry Adams, whose irrationalism, relativism, and determinism would, if true, make it impossible for human beings to take intellectual and moral responsibility for their lives.”