Voices in the Cave of Being
This magpie list is a mixture of works that I’ve known for many years, works about technical matters that I used to recommend to seminar students, works that are specifically mentioned in Voices, works that I’ve looked at recently to see what I’ve been missing during the past dozen years, and works that I particularly like (which is a nice Borgesian medley of overlapping categories).
For better or worse, the things said in Voices are my own (I think) unless there’s a specific mention of someone else.
The commentaries have grown like mushrooms during the final stages of work on this site. Things kept popping up and I let them come.
Baker, William E., Syntax in English Poetry, 1870-1930 (1967).
The first two chapters are particularly useful.
Balakian, Anna, The Symbolist Movement (1967).
An excellent introduction to the subject.
Barzun, Jacques, An Essay on French Verse (1991).
When he’s writing on matters that he’s comfortable with, such as the nature of the French language, the rules of classical French verse, and the poetry of Victor Hugo, he’s first-rate, especially in sections 2, 3, 4, 6 (pp 60–64), 7, and 8.
Bergman, David and Daniel Mark Epstein, eds., The Heath Guide to Poetry (1983).
This was much the best of the introductions to poetry that came my way. I used it with my freshmen for several years, from choice, and they regularly gave it high marks at the end of the year. Its commentaries and explanations were lucid, and it made poetry enjoyable, without condescension, pandering, or political agendas.
Berthon, H.E., “Introduction: The structure of French Verse, Nine French Poets, 1820-1880 (1957).
Fifty pages, very detailed. He says flatly, and importantly, thatFrench verse was from the first both syllabic and accentual. It is well to insist on this point, because some writers have unfortunately spread the erroneous idea that it is merely syllabic and mechanical.
He also explains howIn all French words the stress falls on the last vowel (unless it be a mute). This is because that vowel corresponds to the tonic vowel of the Latin word from which the French word was derived. In all words with a neutral ending (ˆe, es, ent) the stress is thrown back on the penult. (This strengthening of the penult is very frequently marked in spelling by a grammatical accent or a reduplication of the consonant. Compare, for instance, j’achète and nous achetons, chretienne and chretien, etc.)
Which bears on the nature of so-called syllabic verse. .I found him persuasive.
Beum, Robert, The Poetic Art of William Butler Yeats (1969).
Good technical analyses
Beyers, Chris, A History of Free Verse (2001).
Bright and level-headed and particularly salutary on William Carlos Williams’ screwy special pleadings.
Brooks, Cleanth and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry (1938/1950/1960).
The Founding Fathers of intelligent introductory textbooks, with lots of good poems and stimulating comments and questions in this one. But seemingly the only bad, or less than perfect, poem ever written was Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.”
As Brooks and Warren knew, the Word was sent
From God to Man: Whatever is, was meant.
Cunningham, J.V., “Poetry, Structure, and Tradition,” in Tradition and Poetic Structure, 1960.
A major article. Lovely to have someone say things like:
Very nice things are said of [poetry]. In fact, it is felt that one has not only to define poetry but also in so doing to put it in a place of honor, to recover some of the prestige that once accrued to the Muses. A particularly happy definition, one is led to believe, might elicit a donation from some elderly recluse or from a foundation. But these claims for poetry, which invade the description and definition of it, this concern with a higher something, knowledge, or feeling, while they might seem designed to improve its status, have in fact weakened it. They have on the one hand erected pretensions that no linguistic construction, no poem, could ever hope to satisfy. The statements, in brief, are not true. Poets, for example, are not “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and a good thing it is that they aren’t. And the claims have, on the other hand, by qualifying the conception of poetry both limited the kinds of poetry that can be written and the audience that is prepared to receive it. They have exiled most of human experience from the poet’s page, and he is left with an image and a mood.
The account of poetry that Cunningham himself offers will stand a good deal of pondering.—needs it, in fact, since it’s not an easy read, he being as compact in his prose as he is in his verse.
Dacy, Philip and David Jauss, eds., Strong Measures; an Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms (1986).
An interesting mix of works, ranging from the crisply neat to the almost “free” and appealing to a variety of tastes.
My own favourites here are:
Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master”). Martha Collins, “The Story We Know” (“The way to begin is always the same. Hello”), Marilyn Hacker, “Sonnet Ending with a Film Subtitle” (“Life has its nauseating ironies”), Maxine Kumin, “Morning Swim” (“Into my empty head there come”), Joan LaBombard, “By the Beautiful Ohio” (“Now at the dark’s perpetual descent”), Judith Moffett, “Mezzo Camin” (“I mean to mark the Midway Day”), Theodore Roethke, “I Knew a Woman” (“I knew a woman, lovely in her bones”), May Sarton, “Dutch Interiors” (“I recognize the quiet and the charm”).
Davies, Gardner, Les “Tombeaux” de Mallarmé (1950).
Scrupulous and persuasive unpackings (in French) of some of Mallarmeé’s most difficult poems.
Engelberg, Edward, ed., The Symbolist Poem (1967).
A model anthology, furnishing us with useful spectrums, and not pretending that all the items in it are equally good. The six sections are: “Romantic Poetry,” “Aesthetic Poetry,” “French Symbolist Poetry in Translation,” “Symbolist and Decadent Poetry,” “Post-Symbolist Poetry,” and “From Swinburne to Auden; Critical Commentary.”
Fenollosa, Ernest, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” (ca 1907).
Still stimulating about poetic language in general, even though evidently inaccurate or oversimple about Chinese poetry. Some paradigms can present exciting possibilities even when the fit with how things “really” are is loose. And more complex accounts can entail losses, such as when you try moving beyond the basic stressed/unstressed symbols in scansion. But see Kennedy below.
Finch, Annie, ed., A Formal Feeling Comes; Poems in Form by Contemporary Women (1994).
More ideo-political than Strong Measure, and it’s hard not to feel that the poets in it are all expected to like each other’s work (real-life sisters, as we know, always getting along so famously together). Which can impose its own brand of mind-forged manacles. But there are good poems in there, especially (for me)Catherine Davis, “Belongings” (“Nothing about the first abandonment”), Emily Grosholz, “The Last of the Courtyard” (“Who will believe me later, when I say”), Marilyn Hacker, “Ballad of Ladies Lost and Found” (“Where are the women who, entre deux guerres”), Rachel Hadas, “Winged Words” (“Trying to speak means flailing with”), Carolyn Kizer, “A Muse of Water” (“We who must act as handmaidens”), Maxine Kumin, “The Nuns of Childhood; 2” (O where are they now, my darling nuns”), Janet Lewis, “Time and Music” (“Time, that gives to music life”), Helen Pinkerton, “On Vermeer’s ‘Young Woman with a Water Jug’” (“Not Martha nor Diana—only a woman”), Marilyn Nelson Waniek. “Daughters, 1900” (“Five daughters, in the slant light on the porch”).
Flores, Angel, ed., An Anthology of French Poetry from Nerval to Valér in English Translation with French Originals (1962).
A superb choice of poems, with translations by a variety of hands, among them Stanley Kunitz, Richmond Lattimore, Barbara Gibbs, Richard Wilbur, Vernon Watkins, Kenneth Koch, William Jay Smith, and Dudley Fitts.
Flores, Angel, ed. An Anthology of German Poetry from Hölderlin to Rilke in English Translation, with German Originals (1960)
Unfortunately, obviously because of space, the originals are printed with the lines run on, separated by diagonal strokes.
Furbank, P.N., Reflections on the Word ‘Image’ (1970).
A first-rate book, demonstrating the strengths of a Leavisian approach to language. Furbank is testing out—very readably, but you have to read carefully—various theoretical statements in the light of a rich variety of concrete examples. What chutzpah it is for North American academics to speak as if “theory” were coterminous with what started being imported from Continental Europe in the 1970s. And what a disaster that identification was for the reading of poetry.
Fussell, Paul, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, rev. ed. (1979).
Still much the best general guide to the subject. Here he is, for example, on what he calls the “immense difference” between the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean sonnet:
Both present and then “solve” problems, the Petrarchan form in its octave and sestet, the Shakespearean in its comparatively hypertrophied initial twelve lines and then in its couplet. In the Petrarchan sonnet the problem is often solved by reasoned perception or by a relatively expansive and formal meditative process, for the sestet allows enough room for the enacting of reasonable kinds of resolutions. But in the Shakespearean sonnet, because resolution must take place within the tiny compass of a twenty-syllable couplet, the solution is much more likely to be the fruit of wit, or paradox, or even a quick shaft of sophistry, logical cleverness, or outright comedy.
You can learn from a book like that.
Graff, Gerald, Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma (1964).
A scrupulously argued refutation of various claims by I.A. Richards, and others for the supposed special status of poetic discourse, a status exempting it from being asked appropriate truth-testing questions. But there are aspects of poetry that Graff doesn’t go into, and his essentially realist mode of reading, to judge from his later books, proved inadequate to the challenges of Franco-American big-T Theory.
Gross, Harvey, Sound and Form in Modern Poetry (1964).
Gross, Harvey, ed., The Structure of Verse: Modern Essays on Prosody, rev. ed. (1979).
A handy gathering-together of well-reputed discussions of metrical matters. Jespersen, Wimsatt-and-Beardsley, Pound, Eliot, and, and Roethke are among the writers.
Hartman, Charles O., Free Verse; An Essay on Prosody (1980).
Williamsish rather than Poundian in orientation, but excellent. He lucidly explains the general principles of versification, and provides a sufficiency of careful analyses of individual poems, demonstrating the expressive functions of their various features.
Hofstadter, Douglas R., LeTon beau de Marot; In Praise of the Music of Language (1997).
By the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach (a phrase which by now must be virtually a compound adjective). If you want to know what bright is, this is bright, with fresh sharp perceptions and wide-angle generalizations springing up with every step you take, like grasshoppers in a summer field.
It’s an overwhelming six-hundred-page demonstration, in the prose of someone enviably at ease with himself and his readers, of the richness of language and the abundant expressive resources of “form,” its argument structured around a series of current and plausible translations by various hands of a charming little poem by the sixteenth-century French poet Clement Marot.
I myself fell off the back of the truck before page 100, and I suspect that there are things about both the reading and writing of poetry that elude Hofstadter’s net. Marot’s poem is a simple one, a single uninterrupted flow of uniform discourse, with no stanzaic breaks, strong shifts in tone, striking figures of speech, significant obscurities, or noticeable variations in quality, so that certain problems and challenges—certain experiences—may not arise for him.
Sometimes too, someone’s mind can work too fast as they read.
Leavis has an amusing anecdote about Wittgenstein impatiently leaping ahead of Leavis’s slow unpacking of a poem by Empson and offering the account of its “meaning” that Leavis himself would have given, “if he had let me.” But Empson, like Wittgenstein, was very bright, and his poem was a cerebral one, and I wonder if there were aspects of the feeling in it that Wittgenstein missed, and aspects of other poems that he would have missed.
But in any event, and without talking about them at all, Hofstadter’s book simply knocks the Franco-American pontificatings about “language” and “textuality” out of the ring. Or, if that’s too Hemingwayesque, shows up their emotional and intellectual poverty.
Hollander, John, Rhyme’s Reason; A Guide to English Verse (1981).
Charming, deft, lucid, helpful, and brief. Lots of information given painlessly in only fifty-two pages, much of it in the form of verse exposition demonstrating the features being described—a villanelle about villanelles, and so on.
But why does Hollander assert that French verse is “purely syllabic” in the way that English syllabics are, as if you have no idea, each time you embark on a new line, of how it’s going to go, beyond the fact that there will be eight, ten, twelve syllables, or whatever the case may be?
In English, the principal stress in a word can be on any syllable—“admiral,” “protesting,” “absurd.” In French the stress normally falls (with consistent exceptions) on the final one, which is already a patterning of sorts. See Berthon above.
And the classical alexandrine (the oddest line to Anglo ears) falls, modular fashion, into a variety of acceptable rhythmic groups (see my Note on Metrics).
If you use your ears while voicing, say, Valéry’s “Le Cimitière Marin,” it doesn’t sound in the least like something by Thom Gunn, or Donald Hall, or J.V. Cunningham or others who have had a go at English syllabics, where most of the skill, as in managing a too spirited horse, goes into preventing it from going iambic and acquiring rhythmic momentum.
Some myths, once established, are evidently there to stay, like the one about Bessie Smith dying because she was refused admission by a white hospital.
Hulme, T.E., “Romanticism and Classicism,” Speculations (1936).
In 1962, Karl Shapiro called this “probably the most important single twentieth-century prose document in the formation of modern poetics.” It’s still important.
Hungerland, Isabel, Poetic Discourse, 1958.
You have to cherish someone who can write, ”The function of allegory is hardly to present an unimportant story which conceals a story that might be important if we could find out what it is.”
This scrupulously argued book by a linguistic philosopher never entered the bloodstream of what used to be called metacriticism when it appeared, partly because it was addressed primarily to philosophers, partly because it required very attentive reading, and partly, maybe, because it lacked an index and its format was unprepossessing.
So, its arguments not having been summarized and debated in literary circles, it isn’t an easy read now, since you’re not sure what ammunition it’s providing to what side in the culture wars.
But the chapter on “Symbols in Poetry” (at least) is still well worth a visit, and there are admirable formulations elsewhere. If more people had been talking in such terms back then, rather than grinding the various axes of the New Criticism, Derrida, De Man, and their East Coast epigones might not have had such a walk of it later.
Jones, Griff Rhys, foreword, The Nation’s Favourite Poems (1996).
A fascinating and heartening assembly, in descending order of voters’ preference, of the hundred most popular poems in English of the respondents to a poll conducted by a popular BBC book programme.
A humanistic selection, revealing an enjoyment of expressive voicing in a variety of forms (very little free verse here), and with T.S. Eliot out ahead numerically with five poems. Very few duds (such as Kipling’s nauseating “The Glory of the Garden”), in terms of the successful accomplishment of something worth doing.
An nice demonstration of what is meant by “standing the test of time.” My thanks to my sister Deborah Gibson, herself an excellent performer of poetry, for sending it to me.
Keegan, Paul, ed., The New Penguin Book of English Verse (2000).
A thousand-page cornucopia of over a thousand poems by over three hundred poets, arranged in order of their first appearance in print. This diminishes the authority of the majors, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but it tends to make everybody sound like a large and talkative clan, the MacLits perhaps, with no intense depths or heights anywhere.
Kennedy, George A., “Fenollosa, Pound, and the Chinese Character” (1958), on the Web as “Ernest Fenollosa, Ezra Pound, Chinese,” from Selected Works of George A Kennedy.
This splendid article, which I have only just come across, wreaks havoc with the Fenollosa/Pound argument about the nature of Chinese ideograms, but without the totalizing arrogance of someone marketing a counter-ideology. He simply, unless appearances are greatly deceiving, knows a lot more about the subject than they did, and has thought a lot about the problems of translation, and conveys a lot of useful information very readably. I particularly like the statement thatIt is impossible to say anything on the subject without emphasizing and reiterating that characters are symbols for sounds, and through sound are symbols for words. They are not a code for the deaf and dumb, nor a collection of pictures to entrance the eye.
Fenollosa’s article is still stimulating for the reading and writing of English-language poetry.
Kilpela, Ben, The Yvor Winters Web Site. (www.msu.edu/user/kilpela/WINTERS-LIFE1.htm)
Kilpela’s commentaries make Winters come across as much more absolute and exclusionary than he was, in part by treating what’s said and done in Forms of Discovery and Quest for Reality as if that was what Winters always believed, in part because of an insufficient attentiveness at times to Winters’ exact words.
And Kilpela’s evident belief, despite his solicitation of “dialogue,” that he alone truly understands Winters is not likely to sit well with others who have written on Winters, or who studied with him, or were given the gift of his friendship, sometimes all three together. See especially the Yvor Winters issue of the Southern Review (1981)
But nobody owns the Winters franchise, and Kilpela is willing to stand there unintimidated and argue with, or try to enlighten, all comers, and a hell of a lot of work has gone into giving us a substantial passage or poem by Winters for every day of the year, plus commentaries on them, plus helping readers to get to texts of the poems in Quest, Winters’ and Field’s anthology.
If a passionate conviction of his greatness, and a willingness to speak out about it, would drive Winters’s reputation up to where it ought to be, Kilpela’s would do it.
Kirby-Smith, H.T., The Origins of Free Verse (1998).
Written with the refreshing self-confidence of someone who’s very bright, has read and remembered and made sense of vast amounts of stuff, and has no problem indicating, often amusingly, what he doesn’t like.
Kugel, James L., The Technique of Strangeness in Symbolist Poetry (1971.
Excellent on aspects of Symbolist poetry.
Larkin, Philip, Further Requirements; Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews 1952-1983, ed. Anthony Thwaite (2001).
Displays Larkin as a perceptive, fearless, hard-working, and, in the proper sense of the word, discriminating poetry reviewer, probably the best then writing in England—and oh, beyond that, as just so bloody all-round alert and unfakey. And funny. And if you think he’s funny here, wait till you try his jazz reviewing in All What Jazz (1970/1985), a model of what “evaluative” criticism can be.
Larkin, Philip, ed., The Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse (1973).
Fresh, fearless, wide-ranging. By his own account in Further Requirements, he’d read all the 20th-century British poetry that had been published up to his cut-off date. Lots of pleasant surprises. Demonstrates how much more natural the writing of regular verse was in England as a mode of speech than it was in the States.
Leavis, F.R. See section 3.
Maloff, Joseph, A Manual of English Meters.
McAuley, James, Versification; a Short Introduction (1966).
This lucid 84-page text was brought to my attention by Tiree MacGregor, for which, as for other things, my thanks.
McCarthy, Mary, “Settling the Colonel’s Hash” Harper’s Magazine (1954).
A liberating discussion of symbolism by a writer who knew what it was like to have a short story of her own “interpreted” in terms of its alleged symbolism.
McGann, Jerome J., ed., The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse (1993).
Poems arranged by date of first publication, year by year, from 1785 to 1832. This is probably as good a presentation as can be made of those gallimaufry transitional decades, with their uneasy combinations of older poetic diction, new and untested forms, heavy-handed rhythms, and more or less exotic subject matters—and so much of it so damn literary.
It is a pleasure to be momentarily out in the fresh air, stylistically, with Mary Robinson’s “The Camp,” beginning “Tents, marquees, and baggage-waggons;/ Suttling houses, beer in flagons;/ Drums and trumpets, singing, firing;/ Girls seducing, beaux admiring….”But alas, she doesn’t stay there.
How weird the high-octane rhetoric of Shelley and Keats must have looked at the time.
Murphy, Francis, ed., Discussions of Poetry: Form and Structure, 1964.
Some excellent items there, especially those by Burke, Winters, Cunningham, Trickett, Wimsatt, Hubler.
Poésie française (http://poesie.webnet.fr)
This elegant site contains over 6000 poems in French from the Middle Ages to the end of the Nineteenth Century by over 400 poets. On my screen the texts are a tasteful blue-green, a bit on the pale side, which seems to me counter-productive. If one wants maximum legibility, why not black, or dark brown, or dark blue? But maybe they are there on other screens? And the poems, in contrast to those in Voices, are all centre-aligned, which makes them look as if the presiding deity were La Fontaine. But one can copy them to one’s own site and adjust them there. In any event, this is a cornucopia to be grateful for—34 poems by Villon, 112 by Desbordes-Valmore, 420 by Hugo (hélas!), 159 by Baudelaire, 61 by Rimbaud, and so on.
Pound, Ezra, ABC of Reading (1934).
A still refreshing textbook (his own term) “for those who might like to learn [on their own]. The book is not addressed to those who have arrived at full knowledge of the subject without knowing the facts.”
Blessings on a writer who can open with, “There is a longish dull stretch shortly after the beginning of the book. The student will have to endure it,” and who says that “gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man.” Pound makes reading seem do-able, and exciting, and not dependent on being taught professionally.
The ugly political Pound of those years isn’t present here.
Pound, Ezra, “French Poets,” Make It New (1934).
A long 1918 article that appeared in the important modernist Little Review, with lots of poems from the previous fifty years quoted in full, plus commentaries that gave you tips and left you free to range back and forth over the poems on your own.
The poems, by Laforgue, Jammes, Corbière, Moréas, Rimbaud, Mallarmè, and others, evidently constituted for him, in their psychological and formal subtleties, a demonstration of what a civilized collective European consciousness felt like.
Around that time, he was also engaged on the translations of Cathay (another pattern of civilization) and the long essay on Henry James as an embodiment of some of the best potentials of American culture.
Preminger, Alex, and T.V.F. Brogan, co-eds., The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993).
An excellent reference work. The entry on twentieth-century American and British poetics in the first two editions, initialed J.F., was done when I was in my second year in the Ph.D. programme at Minnesota. If I’d known how much I didn’t know when I agreed to do it I could never have done it. But it’s amazing what you can do sometimes when you’re invested with authority. The article that replaced it in the much-revised later edition is also, I’m glad to see, by someone at Minnesota.
Pye, David, The Nature and Art of Workmanship (1968).
Delightful. One of those brief books whose generalizatons can set the mind profitably roaming beyond the borders of its particular subject.
Richman, Robert, The Direction of Poetry; An Anthology of Rhymed and Metered Verse Written in the English Language Since 1975 (1988).
My own favourites here are: James Fenton, “God; a Poem,” Edward Hirsch, “Fast Break,” Donald Justice, “Psalm and Lament,” Stanley Kunitz, “The Wellfleet Whale,” Brad Leithauser, “Angel,” Herbert Morris, “The Road,” John Frederick Nims, “Tide Turning,” Christopher Reid, “The Gardeners,”
Especial thanks for Fleur Adcock’s “Future Work,” a nice example of that “poetry of risk” that I was touching on at the outset of “Powers of Style,” a poem so pitch-perfect in its unfolding of Everyperson’s dream of the Good Literary Life, at least back then, that the slightest stylistic wobble along the way, or, much worse, at the end, would have wrecked our sense of her own knowledgeable poise in relation to such dreaming.
A puzzlement, though.
Richman writes in the introduction as if from the HQ of an army of formalists sweeping in to repossess a region devastated by a couple of decades of militant free-versing. But in the April 2003 issue of the New Criterion, Dick Davis, who’s in Richman and was friends with Edgar Bowers, writes as if the forces of darkness had swept back in again and the best one could do was lie doggo, reread Pope and Christina Rossetti, and try and pick up some linguistic tips from Rap. What went wrong?
Ryle, Gilbert, The Concept of Mind (1949)
I was grateful for this book when it came out, and a glance into it the other day in the stacks suggests to me that I would be grateful for it still if I were to reread it.
I did not feel then, or subsequently, that Ryle was denying the existence of “inner” lives or individual selves. What he was doing was reminding us, with the aid of many common-language examples, that when we talk and think about what others are “feeling,” we are dealing initially with how, as physical beings, they are behaving, as distinct from, though not inseparable from, what they state about themselves—the way they talk being itself a behaviour. And if we can and do make inferences (often so fast that we call it intuition) about what’s going on “inside” someone else, it’s partly because we are conscious of the relationship between “inner” and “outer” in ourselves. The Terminator doesn’t understand tears. We do.
What Ryle does appears to me compatible both with the insistence of critics like Leavis and Winters that what we’re talking about when we’re talking about a poem is this particular sequence of words that we enact into sound, and also with what distinguished fictionists, like Conrad, and Crane, and Rhys, and Lawrence and many others, show and tell us about what’s going on “inside” their characters in particular situations.
The wealth of common-language examples that Ryle offers about “interior” mental processes are intermediary between, on the one hand, the more narrowly focussed ones in books like Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, and, on the other, the greater particularity of works of literature.
It is highly desirable to have this mode of discourse available—and the questions and the demands for examples that it permits—when trying to cope with the pretentious and (in flesh-and-blood terms) incorrigibly general discourse of Derrida and others.
You have to be able to pull back out from literary and, in its more portentous manifestations, “philosophical” discourse, and demand or propose common-language examples and analogies by way of testing out the truth-claims that are being made—or, all too often, simply figuring out what the claims are.
For if you can’t do that, you cannot maintain a space for the more subtle examples and analogies that are possible in poems.
And you will be playing into the hands of sophists bent on leveling down complex individual modes of perception, including moral ones, in the interests of a politics in which there are only generalized “feelings” and “emotions” and “states of mind,” the pursuit of power, and the rhetoric of clever individuals who have figured out the rules of the game and are working them to their own power-accumulating advantage.
Seth, Vikram. The Golden Gate; a Novel (1987).
A bravura verse novel about California yups, dexterously employing the intricately rhyming fourteen-line stanza used by Pushkin in Eugene Onegin.
It demonstrates, as did Byron in Don Juan, and Pushkin in Onegin, and Auden in his Letter to Lord Byron, and Anna Adams in A Reply to Intercepted Mail (a verse letter to W.H.Auden) and others how the elaborate syntactical structurings of stanzaic verse can arise from, and intensify, the patterns of intelligent conversational speech.
How fresh some of those excerpts from Don Juan in McGann’s New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse still feel, in comparison with so much there that is merely “period.”
Unfortunately Seth’s yups aren’t all that interesting to start with (not a single original thought among them), and the verse-form blurs their identities when we’re given dialogue, and it’s not a form in which to present (seriously) a sermonette by one of the Enlightened against atomic weaponry. Also, the most appealing character in the book, dear timorous Schwarzenegger, the five-foot pet iguana, is allowed to fade from sight after awhile.
After awhile, too, you stop ooh-ing and ah-ing at Seth’s prodigous verbal dexterity— though in fact his metres become a little less impeccable near the end when real-feeling experiences of grief are evoked.
In any event, though, there’s an enduring pleasurableness to poised and intelligently “worldly” voicings, whether in such poems, or those of Cavafy, or Harriet WIlsan’s glorious Memoirs of her Regency years, or some of the thrillers that I talk about in “Quickies” elsewhere on this site.
The problem is, knowing just how hard you ought to be thinking about your chosen topics. Auden is at his best in the light verse assembled in As I Walked Out One Evening.
Shapiro, Karl, ed., Prose Keys to Modern Poetry, 1962.
An excellent anthology. Contains the items by Hulme and Fenollosa.
Smith, Barbara Herrnstein, Poetic Closure: a Study of How Poems End, 1968.
Lucid, intelligent, and instructive. As with Baker and Gross, you don’t need to read all of it to get the point.The nature of closure, as distinct from mere cessation, is important, and involves the whole poem.
Smith, Logan Pearsall, “English Idioms,” Words and Idioms (1925).
Everyone seriously interested in poetry, or simply in writing well, or in the sensitizing of the young to language, will find this lucid text by a scholarly amateur worth a visit.
It’s fascinating to learn from the numerous lists how many more of the terms and phrases in everyday speech than you realized are figurative and come from literal contexts— ships, the kitchen, medicine, war, and so on. Over six hundred from parts of the body alone (“somatic” is Smith’s term for them). Over eighty from Shakespeare.
With bearings on their meanings, too, and observations about the dynamics of their formation, and their functions.
Of particular interest is Smith’s discussion of the workings of what he calls “phrasal verbs,” constructions like “take up,” “look into,” “fall back on,” by means of which, as he puts it,
the relations of things to each other, and a great variety of the actions, feelings, and thoughts involved in human intercourse, are translated, not into visual images, but into what psychologists call ‘kinaesthetic’ images, that is to say, sensations of the muscular efforts which accompany the attitudes and motions of the body.
The website American Idioms (Meanings and Origins) (pride-unlimited.com/probono/idioms) deals in an exemplary fashion with a relative handful of idioms.
W.D. Snodgrass, De/Compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong (2001)
An admirable idea excellently carried out. Snodgrass has reworked a lot of interesting poems, some familiar to any lit. teacher, others not (and presumably testifying to his own tastes and practices as a teacher), and weakened them, but not to the point of parody.
The texts of parodies are ones that one can’t imagine having come seriously from a serious poet’s pen. The texts here could have done so. It’s as if Snodgrass has become so intimate with a poem that he can enter into the writing of it, see what the author was trying to do in it, and re-present it either as a finished work by an inferior poet or an insufficiently worked-on one by a better poet. The same kind of entering-into obviously happens with good verse translations.
A remark in Donald Hall’s Foreword implies that any person of sensibility will of course instantly see through, perhaps amusedly, the pretensions of inferior writing. Personally I doubt it. I suspect that a lot of teachers, if unacquainted with the originals, would simply proceed to teach the “translations” in the same way as they would the originals.
Divine insemination commences there
The rise of Western empires, fall of Troy
And Eastern culture dead. Being caught up so,
Subjected to the iron will of the air,
Did she, too, see our future, share the joy
Zeus felt before his wings could let her go.
Thus the sestet of Snodgrass’s “Leda and the Swan.” As things stand, it’s no contest, power-wise—on one side of the balance, Snodgrass’s naked text (which is a poem), on the other Yeats’ text, with all its accretions, and the assurance that here we’re in the real world of poetry. But if what concerns someone is the “thought” of a poem… ? And if he or she didn’t know Yeats’ version?
Personally, I’ve caught myself reading some of the rewritings, even of poems I care about but don’t sufficiently remember, and not instantly discerning a general wrongness. So all right, Is the following a rewrite or the original?
These grasses must be she
Who prayed last century,
For peace, after life’s woes.
And the girl, fair and sweet,
I had often tried to meet
Is reborn in this rose.
A fascinating set of class discussion could developed around the dulcification of the great tragic ballad “Edward” as “The Bad Son,” which provides a more compassionate and enlightened “modern” take on what, one has to admit, is some pretty unacceptable social behaviour.
But as Snodgrass points out in another connection, the critiquing should ideally emerge from dialoging among the students themselves. The “right” ideas shouldn’t be force-fed them or pseudo-Socratized out of them by teachers whose personal inclinations these days might be towards the Weltanschauung of the rewrite.
Among the poets: Hardy, Cummings, Jonson, Creeley, Eliot, Whitman, Bishop, Roethke, Shelley, Robinson, Moore, Herrick.
Spencer, Theodore. “How to Criticize a Poem (In the Manner of Certain Contemporary Critics).” New Republic (December 6, 1943) and Selected Essays of Theodore Spencer (1966).
Over the top in one or two places, but otherwise a splendid deadpan demonstration by the author of Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (1942) of some of the ways of overreading a poem and “solving” problems that the critic himself has created. The poem in question is “Thirty days hath September.” Students in theory classes might profitably be asked to decide what, if anything, is wrong with the critical procedures here. Some, no doubt, would find them unexceptionable.
Steele, Timothy, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (1990).
An important book by a poet whose Uncertainties and Rest (1979) shows that you could be young and Sixties, and do coke, and listen to Merle Haggard and the Stones on Florida jukeboxes, and talk about such things, and about Pascal and lots of other stuff, with perfect ease and intellectual profit in more or less regular forms.
Steele, Timothy, All the fun’s in how you say a thing; an explanation of meter and versification (1999).
Tells you lots and is an essential reference source, I would imagine. But there are only nineteen pages on The Stanza, and the major topic of stanzaic progression goes virtually unnoticed.
Personally, I’ve come to suspect that the real unit in poetry is the stanza (verse paragraph) or the unit delimited by rhymes (couplets, quatrains inside sonnets, etc), and that it’s in relation to those that the success or otherwise of what goes on in individual lines is to be judged.
And has there yet been a guide to “form” in which a sufficiency of examples of bad more or less contemporary writing (not made up) are discussed candidly?
Thornton, R.K.R., ed. Poetry of the ‘Nineties (1970).
A wide-ranging and well-organized “period” anthology.
Waley, Arthur, Japanese Poetry; the ‘Uta’ (1919).
Practically a kit, with originals, translations, grammar, and glossary, for dealing with some eighty short classical Japanese poems.
Wimsatt, W.K., “One Relation of Rhyme to Reason” (1954).
A deservedly well-known discussion of rhyming, principally in couplets. Simply learning that Pope (in contrast to Chaucer) normally rhymed on different parts of speech (“Know then thyself; presume not God to scan;/ The proper study of mankind is Man.”) is one of those things you don’t forget.
Winters, Yvor. See section 3.
Baudelaire, Charles, Artificial Paradise; On Hashish and Wine as Means of Expanding Individuality, trans Ellen Fox, fore. Edouard Roditi (1971).
The brilliant middle section, the so-called “Poem of Hashish” (which isn’t a poem at all) is the classically intelligent analysis of the allure and, in its supposed creation of new and true knowledge, delusoriness of hash, as well as the by now well-known downsides of addiction. Despite, as he puts it, “man’s endless longing to rekindle his hopes and rise to infinity,…hashish reveals nothing to the individual but the individual himself.” Moreover, “It is especially your will—most precious of all your faculties—that has been attacked.”
But Baudelaire does all this with an intense awareness of the allure. He speaks of how:
In his ceaseless yearning to rekindle his hopes and uplift himself towards the Infinite, man has displayed, in all places and at all times, a frantic predilection for any substances, however dangerous, that might personally exalt him and thus for a moment evoke for him that adventitious paradise upon which all his desires are fixed.
He observes how “The simplest words, the most trivial ideas, assume a new and strange guise; you are actually astonished at having hitherto found them so simple.”
you develop that mysterious and temporary state of mind in which life in all its depth, bristling with its manifold problems, reveals itself in its entirety upon whatever scene, however ordinary or trivial, presents itself to your eyes; a scene in which the first object you see becomes an eloquent symbol.
The following is particularly fine:
It sometimes happens that your personality disappears and you develop objectivity—that preserve of the pantheistic poets—to such an abnormal degree that the contemplation of outward objects makes you forget your own existence, and you soon melt into them.Your eye rests upon an harmoniously-shaped tree bowing beneath the wind. Within a few seconds something that to a poet would merely be a vary natural comparison becomes to you a reality. You begin by endowing the tree with your own passions, your desire or melancholy; its groanings and swayings become your own, and soon you are the tree.In the same way, a bird soaring beneath a blue sky at first merely represents the immortal yearning to soar above human life; but already you are the bird itself.
A whole Romantic programme is encapsulated there. According to Edouard Roditi’s foreword, “Among the German Romantics, the use of opium was even adopted as part of an ethical or esthetic creed, especially in the circle of the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling.”
The informed and empathetic attentiveness to natural phenomena of a Hopkins, a Richard Jefferies, a D.H. Lawrence in texts like “Flowery Tuscany” and “She-Goat,” is an entirely different matter.
Behler, Ernst, ed., Philosophy of German Idealism (1987).
Texts by Fichte, Jacobi, Schelling, and Anon., in the 100-volume German Library series.
Breton, André, Conversations: the Autobiography of Surrealism, tr. Mark Polizzotti (1993).
A major work of cultural history by one of the major 20th-century thinkers, whose creation and maintenance of the central intellectual core of Surrealism, rather than his own “poetry and fiction,” may have been the greatest artistic achievement by a man who, like Leavis, denied an interest in merely “art” values.
This passionately partisan figure, who was nothing if not judgmental, and who, like Leavis, had been involved in bitter quarrels with associates who hadn’t sufficiently kept the faith, nevertheless displays a remarkable objectivity in his recall of happier times.
As they had done for Leavis, the “blood, mud, and idiocy” of the Great War trenches had resulted in Breton and his associates intensely interrogating those so-called traditional values that had led to the war and helped keep the fighting men in spiritual servitude.
But when you think you know what he’s going to like and dislike in literature and art, you may be in for some surprises.
Here and in Surrealism and Painting (2002) he’s so widely-read and avid-eyed, so reflective, so surprisingly catholic in some of his praising, so civilized—and at such a distance from the spiritual coarseness and moral bullying of North American neo-Dada, particularly in its ensconced art-school manifestations.
Like Leavis across the Channel, with Lawrence and Blake as his key visionaries, Breton was seeking a grounded spirituality, free of both gods and drugs.
Carter, Angela, “Poets in a Landscape,” Nothing Sacred; Selected Writings (1982).
Unfair, no doubt, but what she does to the Wordsworths is so wickedly funny.
Claudon, Francis, The Concise Encyclopedia of Romanticism (1980/86)
Lucid, helpful, and splendidly illustrated.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literarie; or Biographical Sketches of My Life and Literary Opinions (1817/1847).
What made Coleridge matter so much was that, in contrast to German Transcendental Idealists like Fichte and Schelling, he was attending carefully, as he tried to construct a poetics, to his own experiencings as a writer and reader of poetry,
So he could be phenomenologically helpful even when you discounted the metaphysical explanations of the phenomena. You don’t need the dish in order to eat the sundae—if sundaes are what you like.
The poems that I talked about in “Personals” could all be said, if you wished to use the metaphor honorifically, to have “organic” unity. They go on developing, phrase by phrase, line by line, stanza by stanza in a deeply satisfying way (satisfying for me, at least), and reach a satisfying closure (see Barbara Hernstein Smith) instead of merely stopping or winding up with some desperately would-be-major line or two.
But then, so does Timothy Steele’s epigram ”Here lies Sir Tact, a diplomatic fellow/ Whose silence was not golden but just yellow,” and so do good limericks, and good prose paragraphs and runs of paragraphs, whether or not in works of fiction.
The magnificent symbol-laden art of Carol Hoorn Fraser in the other wing of this site will repay a visit.
Ebin, David, ed., The Drug Experience; first-person accounts of Addict, Writers, Scientists, and others (1961).
Contains the best part of Baudelaire’s essay, Gautier’s more enthusiastic (and cruder) account of a night of hash in the 1840s with the so-called Club des Haschischins, and lots of other pieces.
Fichte, J.G., Science of Knowledge, ed. and trans. Peter Heath and John Lachs (1970/1982).
I really did read this, his major work, some years ago, pencil in hand, and have the pencil marks to prove it. It feels like Spinoza on acid, without a single concrete example anywhere. But obviously for Fichte and no doubt others, the abstractions had concreteness and he was seeing them interacting in his mind’s eye.The imagination posits no sort of fixed boundary; for it has no fixed standpoint of its own; reason alone posits anything fixed, in that it first gives fixity to imagination itself. Imagination is a faculty that wavers in the middle between determination and nondetermination, between finite and infinite.
And so on and so forth. Welcome to the world of Post-Kantion Transcendental Idealism.
The opening of Peter Heath and John Lach’s Preface is a model of intellectual candour. After suggesting that “Philosophers who are neither narrow nor impatient will find Fichte’s The Science of Knowledge an interesting, perhaps even exciting work,” they go on:This is all the more remarkable because Fichte labors under a number of severe handicaps, not the least of which is his cumbersome, unnecessarily complex style. His thought, which may be difficult enough to follow in the clearest exposition, is obscured by the vagueness and the ambiguities of his writing. Bad punctuation, idiosyncratic sentence structure, and a dismaying overabundance of nonfunctional expletives interfere with the task of understanding, and it is ironic that a thinker in whose philosophy the requirement of unity plays such an exalted role, could have endowed this work with no more readily discernible structure than it displays. On a charitable interpretation we could say that Fichte was so intent upon his ideas that he could pay little attention to the way he communicated them. It may be more nearly correct to say that he was one of that ever increasing host of philosophers who never quire learn to write well.
They continue:Infelicities of expression are by no means the only obstacle to appreciating Fichte’s work. His literary persona, alternating between arrogance and mock humility, and always ready for vitriolic personal attacks, is thoroughly unbearable. In addition he can be infuriatingly careless and inconsistent in his views. Consciousness and self-consciousness, for example, are central concepts in his system, but not once throughout the Science of Knowledge and its two Introductions (written subsequently to the main work) does he attempt to give a serious account of them; some of his cursory remarks about them are plainly contradictory. Finally, he also suffers from the fault that has discredited much of speculative philosophy: his arguments frequently seem shallow and verbal. Not only are the meaning and referent of some of his words unclear, many of his syntheses in the theoretical part of the main work turn on what appear to be forms of linguistic sleight of hand. We may well come away with the feeling that such dialectical involutions can have little to do with reality.
Lachs and Heath were philosophers themselves, and that was back in 1970. Had they been literary theorists writing today, they would not, I imagine, have felt that there was anything here that needed apologizing for.
J.G. Fichte, The Vocation of Man, trans. and introd. Peter Preuss (1987)
The Vocation of Man (1800), which I have now read, is a very different matter. Some attention to it would be essential in any course on Romanticism, I would imagine, and you could structure a fascinating Great Books seminar-sequence, part technical, part historical, around figuring out where, how, and why its arguments go wrong. More than one kind of beast is getting ready here to start the long slouch towards Bethlehem.
Written just after Fichte had lost his professorship at the University of Jena, The Vocation of Man is a re-doing of Descartes’ Discourse on Method in which the hunt for certainty begins with a self much less clear and distinct than Descartes’ hypothesized enquirer. It contains a good deal of genuinely heuristic arguing, cast at times in the form of a dialogue with a shrewdly games-playing Other, and.takes us in a hundred and twenty pages from a sympathetic, intelligent, and sophisticated self to total New Age lunacy.
The chains of reasoning are too technical at times for me to follow, but Fichte is obviously trying to be clear, and he provides an invaluable look into the philosophical heart of Romanticism.
In the first of the three chapters, “Doubt,” the enquiring “I” (a fiction, Fichte points out, into which the reader is invited to project himself) works out and rejects a wholly mechanistic view of existence in which
At every moment of its duration nature is an interconnected whole; at every moment every particular part of it has to be as it is because all the rest are what they are; and you could shift no grain of sand from its spot without thereby, perhaps invisibly to your eyes, changing something in all parts of the immeasurable whole.
This view of things, in which “strict necessity has me in its inexorable power” and neither virtue nor vice is a matter of choice, “makes me indescribably miserable in that it erases me myself in my being.”
In the second chapter, “Knowledge,” the contrary approach of a thoroughgoing idealism, in which the only reality is the individual consciousness, leads to an even worse anxiety, the anxiety of nihilism.
Nowhere is there anything which endures, neither outside of me nor in me, but only ceaseless change. … There are images: they are all that exists…—images which drift by, without there being anything by which they drift; images which hang together through images; images which do not represent anything, without meaning and purpose. I myself am one of those images…. All reality is transformed into a…dream, without there being any life the dream is about….
So, in chapter 3, “Faith,” we have a daring leap into organicism. The mechanistic world of chapter 1 is itself implicitly a fiction. Things in fact change and grow, and literally or figuratively die, and individuals are organisms, centers of energy, that do in fact desire and have effects. It is a development of Spinoza’s concept of the conatus—in Jorge-Luis Borges’ words, the idea “that all things try to keep on being themselves; a stone wants to be a stone and the tiger, a tiger.”
We are on the major route that would be followed, in their various ways, by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and William James, among other professional philosophers, and by novelists like Emily Bronte and D.H. Lawrence.
Unfortunately, Fichte wants the assurance that all this is GOOD (as well, perhaps, as hoping to refute the accusation of atheism that cost him his Chair), and so off we go on an increasingly wild ride.
Human society, it appears, is going to keep getting better and better and better and better until it reaches a steady-state egalitarian cooperativeness that has a good deal in common with that of the beehive (my analogy, not Fichte’s), except that there is no queen and no division into workers and drones. Everyone works willingly.
In this one true state all temptation to evil, indeed the very possibility of anyone’s rationally deciding upon evil behaviour, will be fully eliminated, and man will be given all possible encouragement to direct his will to the good…. This is the purpose of our earthly life which reason prescribes for us and the infallible achievement of which it guarantees.
Furthermore, there is already a discernible perfection in the very nature of existence, an emollient perfection.
Formative life flows as one continuous stream, drop by drop, in all forms and wherever my eye can follow it…. Borne along in this stream of light thought floats unhindered and remaining the same from soul to soul…. The kinship of spirits flows out into the tenderness of parents and children and siblings, as though souls also were born of one blood, like bodies, and minds were branches and blossoms of the same tree; and from there, in narrower and wider circles, it embraces the whole sentient world…. The universe…has become spiritualized and bears the mark proper to spirit: constant progress to greater perfection in a straight line which goes on to infinity.
At the height of the dithyramb we hear how
The sun rises and sets, and the stars sink and come again, and all spheres carry on their circle-dance. … [N]ew life and new love rain down from the spheres like dewdrops from a cloud, and embrace nature like a cool night embracing the earth. … [N]ature is throughout nothing but life….Death and birth are only the struggle of life with itself in order to present itself ever more purely and more like itself.
Somewhere in all this, “the world’s highest good grows and flourishes quite independent of all human virtues and vices according to its own law, through an invisible and unknown power, just as the heavenly bodies follow their allotted course independent of all human effort….”
All this barely six years after the winding down of the Terror in France!
In the face of the towering edifice of German philosophy, with the pseudo-substantiality of its compound nouns, one needs to remind oneself that Fichte was not reporting here on how things were at that time. He himself, in his rhetoric, was helping to create how they were perceived.
His cartoonish asseverations are not at all the same thing as the lovely complex explorings and celebratings of Hölderlin during the decade that had just ended, though Fichte would obviously have been familiar with some of them.
And we are so far here from the observable facts of human existence—as would become increasingly apparent during the century that was getting under way—that lurking in this kind of idealism too were the Furies of the nihilism that Fichte himself had powerfully defined in Chapter 2.
Moreover, there was, as also in the certitude of Descartes’ Discourse (on which see my “Descartes’ Discourse; a Look at its Rhetoric”), the potentiality for more literal Furies, given that all of this was Fichte’s own unaided extrapolation, without a single reference to any other thinker or any actual historical event. As his “I” puts it,
My mind is forever closed to perplexity and confusion, to uncertainty, to doubt and anxiety; my heart to sorrow, to regret, to desire. I care to know only one thing: what ought I to do, and this I always know infallibly.
Way to go, die Fahne hoch, ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer, etc.
This isn’t just the academic History of Ideas.
Fichte’s loony perfectibilism can’t be blamed on Rousseau, whose Emile (1762) and The Social Contract (same year) demonstrated how far Rousseau was from any naïve trust in innate unstructured human goodness, whether in the individual or in social organizations.
I suspect, rather, that Fichte was trying to cope with the problem of power-seeking selves that D.A.F. de Sade had been drawing visceral attention to in philosophical novels like Justine (1791), Philosophy in the Boudoir (1795) and Juliette (1797). Why should my being and my pleasure, however dreadful, have to defer to yours? The tiger doesn’t consult the feelings of the lamb.
In the absence of an interventionist and demanding deity with heaven and hell at his disposal (Descartes had got rid of him), there had better be that intuited “invisible and unknown power” out there for moral reassurance. How do you know it’s there? Because the world is good. How do you know the world is good? Because the Spirit is there. How do we know these things? Because I intuit them. Here, have another piece of Infallibility Pie.
Would Fichte have been aware of Sade, that imperial ne plus ultra of rationalist-materialist (French) atheism? I don’t see why not. There were no intellectual tariff walls, and word of mouth, if the texts themselves weren’t to hand, could be potent. Machiavelli’s thought, however garbled in transmission, reached and alarmed the Elizabethans, including Shakespeare.
After putting the foregoing on-line, I started to wonder whether the political allusion mightn’t be a stretch. Then I happened to pick up Klaus Vondung’s The Apocalypse in Germany (1988/2000), a work of thorough German scholarship about the centuries-old belief in an imminent great collapse, to be followed by a soaring to new heights. Bingo!
Fichte, it appears, was “one of the [two] outstanding spiritual fathers of German nationalism” (the name of the other, Arndt, being unfamiliar to me). His Addresses to the German People (1808), written in response to Napoleon’s brief occupation of Germany, appeared in “at least fifteen new editions” between 1870 and 1914 and were particularly popular with bellicose university professors during the 1914 war.
In those addresses, among other things, says Vondung, Fichtedistinguished between original, pure, and therefore living language like German, and others, such as the Romance languages, which he viewed as the results of adulterations and therefore as abstract and lifeless. Accordingly, he also viewed the Romance peoples as mongrelized, while the German people were an aboriginal people, the people as such.
Moreover, the German spirit was intended for “world dominion” (Fichte’s term, in translation), and the Germans, in their struggle against Napoleon, carried with them “the hope of the whole human race for salvation from the depth of its evils.”
It doesn’t require much effort to see twentieth-century applications of the mode of characterization that Fichte applied to Napoleon.[E]verything evil, everything inimical to God and freedom, which has been opposed by all virtuous persons from the beginning of time, may be found in him, and have appeared all at once, equipped with every force that evil may possess.
Like Goya’s Sleep of Reason, the Sleep of Idealism could bring forth monsters.
The Chancellor of the Third Reich, on whom see, fascinatingly, Frederic Spott’s Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (2003) and Peter Cohen’s documentary The Architecture of Doom (1991), was an idealist—a neo-Romantic idealist. He would undoubtedly have read the Addresses in his youth.
He would also, no doubt, have read The Vocation of Man.
And bingo again! After writing that section, I embarked on Eric Michaud’s The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany (1996, trans. 2004), with its absorbing analysis of the, yes, idealistic conflation, to terrible effect, of the Romantic cults of the genius artist and the genius political figure, and read how,hoping to confer upon the word of Hitler the authority of a German philosophical tradition, Arthur Kampf—a fateful name—painted a large fresco in the hall of the University of Berlin [in which].the philosopher Johann Fichte was seen in one of Hitler’s favourite poses delivering one of Fichte’s speeches to the German nation.
I don’t know if Fichte elsewhere says things that are at odds with those that I have drawn attention to. But if it is a mistake to speak of a poet’s “thought,” as distinct from the kind of thinking that goes on in this or that individual poem, it is likewise, I am sure, a mistake to speak of a philosopher’s “thought,” as distinct from his or her various text-and-rhetoric-bound thinkings-through. To judge what happens in this work, and this—and in this passage in a work—you don’t need to have read everything that someone wrote.
Which is why conventional histories of “ideas” can be worse than useless when it comes to seeing what kind of thing it is that one has in front of one, and what its consequences might have been.
In Jeff Collins and Howard Selina’s excellent Heidegger for Beginners (1998), which I have now read, Collins characterizes Fichte in passing as “idealist philosopher, proto-nationalist and honorary forerunner of National Socialism” (p.104).
And that’s enough about that.
Fitzgerald, Penelope, The Blue Flower (1996).
A lovely, short, intelligent novel about one of the stars of German high Romanticism, Fritz von Hardenberg, better known as Novalis. You have the feeling that Fitzgerald must have lived in those times in a previous incarnation, so that the details of everyday rural and small-town German living at the end of the 18th century are simply there before her in her mind’s eye as she presents the tragicomedy of Fritz’s hopeless (and perfectly “correct”) over-idealization of a young and very ordinary miss of good family. Ideal winter reading. It warms your Geist.
Hayter, Alethea, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (1968).
You couldn’t—well, I couldn’t—hope for a better guide through this at times scary and/or repulsive territory, namely the dealings with laudanum of lots of individuals, but especially De Quincy, Crabbe (yes, Peter Grimes Crabbe), Coleridge, and Wilkie Collins.
Back in those days of at times appalling bodily suffering, laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol, so you got a double jolt) functioned like aspirin, valium, codeine, prozac, demerol, halcion, sodium amatyl, dexamyl—a whole analgesic, sedative, and anti-depressant pharmacopia combined—and one thing could all too easily lead to another.
She scrupulously examines data—reports of what individual writers took, how much they took, when they took it, what they said about it themselves, what others said about them—and what she finds when she compares it with what was going on in their works confirms Baudelaire’s analysis.
You don’t get out more than you put in.
And while anxiety can diminish to the point of bliss at the outset of an addiction, it is going to be followed by a dwindling empathy with others and a diminished ability to represent others in their concrete particularity. Which will be to the detriment of one’s work, despite an initial sharpened perception of details, and a sense of perceiving new and quasi-mystical interconnection between details that have coalesced into symbols and symbol-clusters.
As she puts it in the concluding chapter,Many of these writers felt that they had been endowed with an exceptional insight into the secret of the universe, and could reveal the philosophical framework for the enlightenment of mankind, but the great work could never be finished, because the power to hold things together had gone, everything disintegrated, fell away into fragments.
And woe to him, as the book abundantly demonstrates, who doesn’t begin with a sufficiently formed and structured self.
Chapters 9 and 10, on Coleridge and De Quincy, are particularly good.
Hölderlin, Friedrich/ Eduard Mörike, Selected Poems, trans. and introd. Christopher Middleton (1972)
Excellent-feeling verse translations of Hölderlin, the greatest Romantic poet. Mörike’s “To Wilhelm Hartlaub,” “Johann Kepler,” and “Divine Reminiscence” are lovely in translation. Originals and translations printed opposite one another
Lautréamiont, Comte de [Isidore Ducasse], Maldoror (Les Chants de Maldoror, tr. Guy Wernham (1965).
A still remarkable and unique work, seminal for André Breton (even more than Rimbaud was) and probably the greatest Surrealist book, even though first published at the end of the 1860s. A phantasmagoria that I don’t pretend to understand, but written with the total conviction, both in its content and stylistically, of someone —a widely read someone—who is simply seeing things, three-dimensionally, in his mind’s eye and setting them down without any concern with how it might be received—this at the age of twenty-two or so.
Lorrain, Jean, Monsieur de Phocas. Astarte (1901).
A more candid and scandalous replay of Huysmans’ A Rebours by a central figure in the French Decadence, with whom Proust fought a duel with pistols in 1897. Drugs and “gay” sex are what it’s really all about. With no happy endings. Lorain himself died horribly five years later of the physiological consequences of ether-drinking. The book was no doubt one of those “mature” yellowback novels that are alluded to disapprovingly in Henry James’ The Awkward Age.
Lorrain, Jean, Nightmares of an Ether-Drinker, trans. and introd. Brian Stableford (2002).
In one of the marginally better stories (most of them are slick magazine-type artifacts and utterly unpoetical), we hear about an intimate dinner for four given by one of the aristocratic Parisian hostesses, whose
little town-house in the Place des Etats-Unis, and its antechamber with white enameled walls and carpets like snowdrifts, was the centre of attention of the entire tribe of society reporters. The Comte de Montesquiou [Proust’s Baron Charlus] was regularly to be seen there, with his ornamental cane and his blue hydrangea.
On this particular evening,
To surprise her, we had bedecked her dining-table with yellow tulips, there were tulips in clusters about the candlelabras, in sheaves in the silver centerpiece, tulips scattered like rushes about the tablecloth. The conversation—whose principal topics were art and literature—was sparkling; it extended from the new illustrations for Grimm’s tales done by Walter Crane to the recent acquisition by the Louvre of nightmarish paintings by Brueghel and Hokusai, taking in en passant Maeterlinck and the Goncourts, Ibsen and Outamara.
The meal over, the marquise, “delicately nibbling the long stem of a tulip,” tells them about “some strange and mysterious events which she recalled from childhood” (undescribed), and,
Once the subject had been broached, the conversation took up the occult theme, sliding easily into a discussion of magic, spiritualism and all the mysterious sciences which so fascinate our tired and enervated fin-de-siècle.
After which, after an unsuccessful bit of table-turning, we get the following from one of the guests as he readies them for a different go at trans-world communication:
“The first necessity,” he said, in a very solemn voice, “is to believe. None of us has the least doubt as to the immortality of the soul, isn’t that so? We all accept the reality of spirits and other invisible beings which exist all around us, and the possibility that there is a world beyond our own, existing in parallel with it, into whose mysteries we desire to be initiated.”
No doubt there are other works that give you a credible idea of what life among the fashionable Decadetns could be like. But I’m grateful for the conjunction of elements here (all almost certainly taken from life).
And what is fascinating is the reminder of how deeply Christian-supernaturalist those years were, and how many tales of the supernatural from the turn-of-the-century decades (“The Turn of the Screw” among them) I read when young in anthologies with titles like Not at Night and A Century of Strange Stories.
Paglia, Camille, “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness; Religious Vision in the American 1960s,” Arion (Winter 2003).
A long, lucid, and detailed survey of the varieties of would-be transcendent experiences, mostly undisciplined, often druggy, in that still influential decade.
Rilke, Rainer Maria, Ahead of All Parting; Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell (1995)
“Perhaps the most beautiful group of poetic translations this century has produced,” “This is, without any doubt, the best English rendering of Rilke,” “Rilke has at last found, in Mr. Mitchell’s version, the ideal poetics and the perfect translator” (from the quotations on the dust-jacket). Opting for rhymes and near-rhymes, and for rhythms like Rilke’s own, Mitchell creates poems that feel like the originals, while being (so far as my own minimal German enables me to tell) remarkably faithful to the more or less literal sense of his words.
Rimbaud, Arthur, Rimbaud Complete. Trans., ed., and introd. Wyatt Mason (2002)
A book to own. In effect, two books—Mason’s excellent translations, which can be read as poems themselves, followed by Oeuvres Complètes.
Sandblom, Philip, Creativity and Disease; How illness affects literature, art and music, 9th ed., rev. and enl. (1996).
Conceptually thin, but a wealth of anecdotes about the at times chronic horrors of the “ordinary” body before the discoveries of twentieth-century medicine. You can see the importance of narcotics.
Taylor, Gordon Rattray, The Angel-Makers; a Study in the Psychological Origins of Historical Change, 1750-1850 (1974).
I see from Google that Taylor was “formerly Chief Science Adviser to BBC Television and the winner of numerous scientific awards.” In The Angel Makers he argues interestingly that “classicism” belongs in the middle of a spectrum, with sentimental romanticism at one end and patriarchal puritanism at the other.
Woodward, Christopher. In Ruins.
A loving study, both learned and personal, of the role of ruins in the romantic imagination. Chapter VI, “Time’s Shipwreck,” on the evolution of the “picturesque” in England, is particularly useful.
3. Leavis and Winters
Leavis, F.R., New Bearings in English Poetry (1932).
A pioneering work that’s so much of its own time and place, and has been so influential, that I’m not sure how fresh it would seem now to someone exploring poetry on their own. Moreover, the centrality accorded in it to the high-textured modernism of Eliot, Pound in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and Hopkins as the most truly adequate to ‘the modern experience’ (not his exact phrase, I think) simply leaves out too much.
But if you want reader-response criticism, you can see how scrupulously he was trying cope with the experiential difficulties of Eliot’s oeuvre, rather than confidently assuming that he knew what Eliot “meant,” particularly in The Waste Land, and proceeding to retrieve his various messages. There are some especially fine pieces of linguistic analysis in the chapter on Hopkins.
Leavis, F.R., Revaluation (1936)
Despite its loose rhetoric, so un-academic-American, this was a major work of dismantling and reconstituting, a refusal to accept standard lit.hist.categories—the kind in which there were successive period things called The Metaphysicals, Classicism, Romanticism, Modernism, each with its own essence, its own benefit-of-clergy privilegings, its own partisans, and, in the more professionalized States, a gentlemen’s agreement that academic specialists wouldn’t trespass on one another’s turfs.
Winters, in his challenges to that diachronic view of things, worked in terms of complete poems and an abundance of titles. Leavis stayed closer to the lecture-room and the major Cambridge teaching procedure (initiated by I.A.Richards) called Practical Criticism, meaning the careful reading of shortish texts, whether verse or prose, complete or excerpts, whose provenance you didn’t know, so that you couldn’t simply import into them, or search for, familiar biographical or history-of-ideas data.
In his analyses in Revaluation, a kind of middle zone emerged, wherein the linguistic procedures at times of a nominally “classical” poet like Pope or “romantic” ones like Keats and Blake had important things in common with each other—and with Shakespeare—, and it was the Shelleys and Miltons who were the eccentrics, to the point of egoistical self-indulgence and bullying.
Though I don’t recall T.E. Hulme ever being mentioned by Leavis, it seems to me that what Leavis accomplished here was in part a continuation of what Hulme had done in “Classicism and Romanticism.”
In the 1990’s, a distinguished American poet who had come to literature through Winters and had never read Leavis, read Revaluation and, in a letter to me, called its author “lovable”—which I took as a disinterested recognition of qualities (an unselfregarding, openness, a generosity of spirit, a deep linguistic sensitivity perhaps?) that don’t customarily figure in descriptions of Leavis.
Leavis was a reader of “texts” before the term became fashionable. He didn’t read poetry as if it were prosaic or prose as if it were poetic, but read all texts, whether a passage from Macbeth, or James, or Wordsworth, or Eliot, or C.P. Snow, or advertisements (see his and Denys Thompson’s Culture and Environment), or a Cambridge colleague’s letter to the TLS, with the same attentiveness, the same alertness to the values informing it, the same mental testing-out of its experiential adequacy to the human world of flesh-and-blood bodies and competing selves.
For me he was at his most original and most lastingly helpful as a reader of prose, especially in the Scrutiny articles on The Rainbow, Women in Love, and “The Captain’s Doll” that later formed the core of D.H. Lawrence, Novelist (1957) and in The Great Tradition (1948), that revolutionary book on the novel whose quotations brought George Eliot glowingly back to life, released Henry James from the carapace of late-James, and made you anxious to read Conrad and prepared to take Dickens seriously.
Leavis, F.R., “Literary Criticism and Philosophy,” The Common Pursuit (1952).
Still a major text that ought to be in every anthology of literary theory.
Taking off (very civilly) from a letter to Scrutiny by René Wellek, who is under the impression that he (Wellek) knows all about Shelley’s poetry (and Romanticism) because he knows all about Shelley’s “thought,” Leavis offers, economically, a major defense of his own mode of reading, and of the differences between reading as a literary critic and as a philosopher or a historian of philosophy.
In so doing, he provides a kind of Declaration of Critical Independence for those of us who likewise feel that you don’t need to know everything about everything in order to be intelligent about something. And that unless you are sensitively intelligent about something—and something— and something, your supposed “expert” universal knowledge may not be worth all that much, because consisting of a tissue of inaccuracies.
In which connection, see also “Literature and Society” and “Sociology and Literature” in the same book.
I myself have been particularly grateful for the following about what the serious reader asks him/herself:What, on testing and re-testing and wider experience, turn out to be my most constant preferences, what the relative permanencies in my response, and what structure begins to assert itself in the field of poetry [but it need not be that alone] with which I am familiar? What map or chart of English poetry as a whole represents my utmost and most inclusive coherence of response?
George Orwell’s magnificent honesty about his own likings, and his readiness to think his way through his reactions to problematic works, are also exemplary, of course, particularly when he is coping with the beyond-the-pale. But Orwell was essentially uninterested in poetry and in the kind of fiction and drama that had some of the resonances of “poetry.”
Leavis, F.R., “Literary Studies,” “T.S. Eliot’s Later Poetry,” and “How to Teach Reading,” Education and the University (1943).
See my Winters, Leavis, and Language on this site.
Leavis, F.R., The Common Pursuit (1952).
For my money, this is Leavis’s best book.
He was never a fluent writer, particularly in comparison with the very bright Q.D. Leavis, the best British critic of fiction. He was always attending to how he was feeling as he read, and to the falsifications possible in the unreflecting use of familiar terms while talking about writing. Like an oyster, he usually needed an irritant, or at least a stimulant, to get started, particularly in the early years.
The essays in The Common Pursuit, on a broad variety of topics—Shakespeare, Milton, literature and society, Hopkins, Forster, and so on—had mostly been review-articles in Scrutiny, where he was obliged, as one reviewer among many, to be clear, focused, and reasonably precise, and was addressing, in part, a general intellectual audience, by no means all whom had “read” English as undergraduates—or even been to university at all.
By and large, all that you need to know, for the purposes of this or that article, is there on the page in front of you. And what he did is still mostly fresh and relevant, since he was tacitly, and in places overtly, thinking his way through a variety of critical-theoretical issues.
Scrutiny, the quarterly review that he co-founded in 1932, survived for twenty-one years, and at its best was the greatest English-language critical journal of the twentieth century. Its judgments have held up remarkably well, and some of the issues that it was dealing with in the 1930s, especially the claims of Marxism, are still with us. Critics who talk about Leavis’s ideas and “positions” without discussing Scrutiny are simply not discussing the whole mind.
Leavis was one of the most important British intellectuals of the century. He was a philosopher of language, he was acutely sensitive to value-system embodied in at times seemingly innocuous texts, and too much of what he was warning against in his later writings has come to pass. If humanities departments in England are now suffering from the crassest kind of so-called “American” emphasis on “product” (the number of “customers” graduated, the quantifiable publications, and so on), they are partly reaping the whirlwind of the earlier mockery by academic swingers of Leavis’s polemics in the Sixties and Seventies against what he called the techno-Benthamite view of civilization.
The best introduction to the Leavises as individuals is The Leavises Recollections and Impressions (1984), Denys Thompson’s collection of reminiscences by a number of persons.
An important part of the Leavis tradition is alive and well in Ian Robinson’s Brynmill/Edgeways enterprise: www.edgewaysbooks.com
Leavis, F.R., “Gerard Manley Hopkins,” The Common Pursuit (1952).
Leavis at his best as a critic of poetry, scrupulously relating works and biographical “facts.”
Leavis, F.R., “‘Thought’ and Emotional Quality,” “Imagery and Movement,” “Reality and Sincerity, ”The Living Principle (1975).
Important thinkings-through of theoretical concerns in relation to specific poems.
Himself the recipient of an excellent classical education in his secondary school, Leavis mostly overrode and dispensed with traditional antitheses like “classical” and “romantic,” “form” and “content,” “thought” and “feeling” (though preserving “poetry” and “verse”).
He also, somewhere or other, said what I recall as, “There is no such thing as modern poetry. There is only poetry.”
Winters, Yvor, “The Brink of Darkness,” Hound and Horn, 5 (1932); Anchor in the Sea; an Anthology of Psychological Fiction, ed. Alan Swallow (1947).
Fiction? Factual? In any event, a beautifully written, and in some of its details unforgettable, evocation of an episode of insidious disquiet (Winters himself called it a ghost story) during a snowbound winter in one of those States where the temperature can drop at times to 60 below zero and dogs have horrible encounters with porcupines—a far cry from the Nature of the English Romantics.
Winters, Yvor, In Defense of Reason (1948).
Three books in one—Primitivism and Decadence, Maule’s Curse, and The Anatomy of Nonsense.
Primitivism and Decadence (1937) isn’t the place to begin reading him, important though some of it is. Better to start with the parts of Forms of Discovery that I’ve named, where, as the old pop number has it, he’s accentuating the positive.
Anatomy of Nonsense (1943), is the history of ideas at its finest, and clarifies the relatively brief strictures on Romanticism (American and British) in Forms of Discovery. Winters was concerned with deeply internalized energies. His conservatism was emphatically not that of what Leavis called “the stiff suit of style that stands up, empty.”
And he argues scrupulously, not talking in general terms about this or that theorist’s “thought,” or speculating about what he might or might not have meant, but taking at face value what the writer said in various substantial passages, and testing out its validity.
His discussion in Maule’s Curse (1938) of the American hunger for allegory and “signs” as defined by Hawthorne and Melville, particularly in the obsessed figure of Ahab, is also of major importance.
Winters, Yvor, “The Significance of The Bridge by Hart Crane, or What Are We to Think of Professor X?”, In Defense of Reason (1948).
A major essay demonstrating how ideas may indeed matter much more than merely cerebrally in a gifted writer’s life—and how dumb the “traditional” academic establishment could be.
Winters, Yvor, Forms of Discovery; Critical and Historical Essays on the Form of the Short Poem in English (1967).
Magnificent! Thom Gunn said in a review, “I know of no other prose work from which one can learn so much about poetry, how it actually works, what makes it valuable.” I closed my own review of it (“Winters’ Summa”) by saying that we had here, to borrow some Winters words about Fulke Greville, “a great mind in a book which is compact, profound, and comprehensive.”
It deserves to be read from the beginning, as Winters requests in the introduction. But if you have to be selective, I recommend the introduction, the long and rich first chapter (“Aspects of the Short Poem in the English Renaissance”), and chapter 5 (“The Post-Symbolist Methods.”
Winters, Yvor, “The Audible Reading of Poetry,” The Function of Criticism (1956).
Hard going in places (spondees and so on) but very important. Winters observes early in it, speaking of prose, but it applies also to poetry,
[T]he readers are numerous who hear nothing when they read silently and who are helpless in their efforts to read aloud: some of them have defective sensibilities; some have merely never been trained; some have been trained by one or another of our psychological educationalists to read in this fashion in order that they may read more rapidly. That they can read more rapidly without hearing, I believe there is no doubt, especially if the matter with which they are dealing is trivial. The trouble is that the activity cannot properly be called reading. Such readers are barbarians; literature is closed to them, in spite of the fact that they may think otherwise. The scholar who appears to have read everything has commonly understood very little, and his failure to hear is one of the reasons.
Winters also remarks that in a certain kind of good poem,
the rhythm of the poem permeates the entire poem as pervasively as blood permeates the human body: remove it and you have a corpse. It is for this reason that the audible reading of poetry is quite as important as the philosophical understanding of poetry; without audible reading, and adequate audible reading, you simply do not have poetry.
Winters, Yvor, Uncollected Essays and Reviews (1973).
Valuable not only for the still interesting critical comments, but as a demonstration of how someone’s opinions can change over the years (as Winters’ demonstrably did) but with a steady integrity in the thinking, a willingness to go on learning, and an enviable clarity of exposition.
Winters, Yvor, Selected Letters, ed. R.L. Barth (2000).
A moving and beautiful book, displaying Winters dealing always candidly, but civilly, with a variety of correspondents, speaking always ad rem and not ad hominem.
We’re given the passionate enthusiasms of a young free-verse modernist trying to cope with the flood-tide of novelty in the 1920’s and encourage other young writers with whom he felt kinship; and the vigorously argued disputes about matters of poetic principle after he shifted into regular forms around 1930; and the mellow and at times moving kindness and wisdom about other individuals in the later years.
(How can you not love the writer of the letters in the 1950-59 section, the best place to start? Those to young Hisaye Yamomoto are an especial delight.)
For a frank and unegotistical account of his earlier years, see his 1934 letter to R.P. Blackmur on p.240. For the at times cliff-hanging perils of his later academic career, see the 1956 letter to Malcolm Cowley on p. 347 and the one to Hayden Carruth on p.285. The latter is also a persuasive apologia for his activities as a scholar-teacher in relation to student-poets. It is characteristically substantial in its delineation of character, and noteworthy for the unaffected decency of his communication with someone whom he had (ah, that wicked word!) “attacked” in print.
In a cliché recital of complaints about Winters in a 2003 issue of the New Criterion (have the editors ever seriously read Winters themselves, I wonder?), Adam Kirsch, who doesn’t appear to have done more than look at Stanley Edgar Hyman lambasting Winters fifty years ago (Stanley Edgar Hyman, for God’s sake!) and riffle through some of Winters’ pages noting statements that annoyed him, sneers at Winters for his provincialism out in California, and away, presumably, from all those scintillating exchanges in Harvard Yard and along the powerhouse corridors of the Partisan Review.
But it’s evident that Winters, who didn’t, you know, have to depend on the Pony Express for transcontinental communication, and had been an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and read voraciously (yes, they had books and even periodicals out in California), and was at home in three or four languages, and conducted a large correspondence with bright people elsewhere, Alan Tate and Hart Crane among them, came to know pretty well what he himself was up to.
In a charming letter in 1954 to Thom Gunn, who had just landed on the East Coast en route to Stanford, he instructed him how to find his way to a particular point on a map of America (in Nebraska?) and then draw a vertical line down from it that just happens to run just east of the Rockies. ”On the left of that line,” he comments deadpan, “is everything that matters. On the right are the provinces.”
Three years later, he writes to that veteran East Coast man-of-leftish-letters Malcolm Cowley, his elder by a couple of years,
I know that you all regard me as an eccentric. But you are the eccentrics, or rather the provincials. As I have said before, you don’t know enough. You know damned little except each other’s opinions and the prejudices of your generation and the preceding generation.
So much more than mere “knowledge” was involved, too.
The letters are one of the finest demonstration of what a truly educated, humane, and, in the best sense of the word civilized, “native” American consciousness can look like. In contrast to Pound, Eliot, Tate, and others, Winters never crossed the Atlantic in search of culture. The natural splendours of the American Western landscape took the place of cathedrals for him, I suspect, and he had a lifelong interest in the poetry of the Native Peoples.
He was valiant. The occasional glimpses of the ravages of cancer during his final couple of years, while he was working on Forms and Quest, are painful reading, but there is no self-pity. Back in the Eighties I had the privilege of reading photocopies of a number of his typewritten letters, not all of them in Barth’s selection, that Professor Michael Beatty had brought back from a visit to the Stanford archives. To the end, there was no faltering in spelling, syntax, or punctuation.
And he enjoyed and respected “nature”—great Airedales, great goats, great descriptions of natural phenomena.
And he was interested in and an acute observer of people, and kind in his concern for the personal and financial well-being of his graduate students, and shrewdly aware of and amused by their different temperaments and their competitiveness (on which see the delightful letter to Charles Gullans on p.338).
As to what he was up to, out in California.
He was doing, it seems to me, what Ezra Pound, that one-man University of the Mind, had done, including a practical-minded concern for financially needy writers and artists, but with a much deeper and more methodical grounding in languages and in scholarly-critical argumentation. He was creating his own center of enlightenment, like Leavis embedded (provincially) in Cambridge and foregoing the intellectual joys of Langham Place and the Fitzroy Tavern.
And he was putting a hell of a lot of work as a teacher at all levels into eliciting focused reading and clear, substantial, cogent writing, and the thinking that went with it.
How else to explain the backbreaking task of theme-and-exam setting and marking that he took on, as described in the letter to Donald Davie on page 311. In one ten-week class alone, by which time he was a full professor in his fifties, he read and marked about fifty-five mid-terms and final exams, plus two-hundred-and-twenty papers totaling (by my count) over four-hundred-thousand words!
In the same letter he takes Davie to task for sneering at American higher education in comparison with the supposed superiority of Oxbridge, and provides a detailed, moving, and persuasive account of the merits of the American system.
I myself got a free ride at the University of Minnesota in the Fifties with respect to Ph. D. course requirements. People simply didn’t know how much you could come out of Oxford not knowing.
I am describing something very different here from the megalomaniacal certitude of Northrop Frye and his Dark Twin Marshal McLuhan that they knew the inner secrets of the linguistic universe and that all they needed to do was prestigiously impart them to the grateful multitude.
I think that all that Winters really knew was that the life of the mind was difficult and dangerous, and that living it with ultimate concern (to use Kierkegaard’s term) was bloody hard work, and that areas of order could only be established and maintained by a constant watchfulness, and that scrupulous argumentation involved attending carefully to the arguments of adversaries, and that personal vanity was a luxury that you should indulge in very sparingly.
In a letter of July 31, 1957, to Malcolm Cowley, he remarks charmingly:For years I have been teaching a graduate seminar in American criticism, devoted mainly to modern criticism. My students come in convinced that I am Yvor Winters and therefore wrong. They go out completely bewildered by the utter incoherence of our most eminent men, and I let them demonstrate most of it in their papers.
W.H. Auden once spoke of trying to imagine Henry James confronted by the spectacle of a drum majorette. I wonder what Winters would have made of the apotheosis of Harold Bloom and Stanley Fish.
Yvor Winters. “Yvor Winters Reading at Stanford” (1984).
Two LP’s of four sessions of public readings of poetry in the 1950s. The most interesting of the four is the 1953 one called “A Reading for His Students,” in which he reads and comments on a variety of poems. He is especially good with those by Pound, Williams, and Stevens, as if he could allow himself an expressiveness there that he mostly held back from while reading, in the other sessions, his own poems. His illustrative reading of how Hopkins “No Worst, There is None” should go metrically is exemplary, and charged with feeling.
Winters, Yvor and Kenneth Fields, Quest for Reality; an Anthology of Short Poems in English (1969).
A supplement to Winters’ Forms of Discovery, containing probably a higher proportion of distinguished poems than any other anthology in the language, though not the last Moses-from-the-mountain-top word in anthology-making.
In a letter back in 1919, Winters says of a three-line Amerindian poem, “People may say it is not ‘big,’ but it is as big as its form—i.e. the specific density is very high…” This interesting analogy helps explain, though not necessarily justify, some of the inclusions in Quest.
Yvor Winters Issue, Southern Review, 17 (October 1981).
An excellent collection of reminiscences, critical articles, and poems by (in the order of the tale of contents) Thom Gunn, Turner Cassity, Donald E. Stanford, Albert Guerard, Donald Davoe, Ashley Brown, Howard Baker, Raymond Oliver, Dick Davis, David Levin, Grosvenor Powell, John Baxter, Terry Comito, John Finlay, Thomas D’Evelyn, Douglas Peterson, Kenneth Fields, Clive Wilmer, Steven Shankman, and Helen Pinkerton.
In this connection see also Grosvenor Powell, Yvor Winters; An Annotated Bibliography 1919-1982 (1983)
4. J.F. Some relevant items
“Northrop Frye and Evaluation,” Cambridge Quarterly (1967; reprinted in The Name of Action, 1985).
A take-no-prisoners polemic.
“Winters’ Summa,” Southern Review, VII 1969).
A (dare I say it?) major review-article on Forms of Discovery.
“Yvor Winters; The Perils of Mind,” Centennial Review (1970; reprinted in The Name of Action, 1985)
One of my best articles.
“Leavis and Winters: Professional Manners,” Cambridge Quarterly (1970)
The longest and best of these comparings and definings.
“Evaluation and English Studies,” College English, 35 (1971).
I still like the last section. The authoritarianism that I was attacking is presumably less common now. But you can still hear it in the talk about getting back to so-called basics and making sure that the kids know things. And ten years ago I was taken aback when an excellent Ph.D. student, a refugee from the prestigious department of Fish and others at Duke, told me after the conclusion of my poetry seminar, that it had been refreshing to learn that it was OK to be judgmental about poems.
It’s occurred to me, too, that the kind of sea-lawyer graduate student who (in defense of his or her own “freedom”) takes Fish’s line about academic arguments being simply power struggles between competing positions is likely to become authoritarian him- or herself as a teacher.
If you haven’t learned what scrupulous argumentation is like, you’re not going to be able to cope with the demands of your own students to be free of its supposed trammels.
“Stretches and Languages; a Contribution to Critical Theory, College English, 32 (1971).
A long article.
My use of the term “languages” in it appears to me more complex than Bakhtin’s. That great and beautiful critic was not yet glowing on the North American radar screen, and I had never heard his name.
“Leavis and Winters: A Question of Reputation,” Western Humanities Review (1972).
“Leavis, Winters, and Tradition,” Southern Review (1971)
“Leavis, Winters, and Poetry,” Southern Review (Adelaide), V (1972).
Finds the two of them, when you read attentively, much closer, for the most part, than it’s natural to suppose.
“Leavis, Winters, and ‘Concreteness’,” Far-Western Forum, I (1974).
Goes on from the previous article, and works at fleshing-out a major concept.
“Heroic Order in the Poetry of J.V. Cunningham,” Southern Review, 23 (1987)
Brings out how the same mind, as embodied in the variety of “languages” in his poems, can accommodate what Cunningham called “the trivial, vulgar, and exalted.”
“Nihilism, Modernism, and Value” (1990/2000).
These, revised and improved, are three of my four unpublished 1990 Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto.
Handouts about reading various more or less problematic texts. Lively on the question of “referentiality” in poetry.