“Poetry is the language of a state of crisis.
Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s remembrance of his first day in class with a professor who—if his stubborn presence in the work of several generations of students and now even the students of those students is any measure—must have been one of the great teachers of the past century, runs as follows:
I will tell you something: I will tell you
What this course is about. Some-
time in the middle
Of the Eighteenth Century, along
with the rise
Of capitalism and scientific
method, the logical
Foundations of Western thought
decayed and fell apart.
When they fell apart, poets were left
With emotions and experiences,
and with no way
To examine them. At this time,
poets and men
Of genius began to go mad. Gray
went mad. Collins
Went mad. Kit Smart was mad.
William Blake surely Was a madman.
Coleridge was a
drug addict, with severe
Depression. My friend Hart Crane
died mad. My friend
Ezra Pound is mad. But you will
not go mad; you will grow up
To become happy, sentimental old
Because they were men of genius,
Are not; and the ideas which were vital
to them are mere amusements to you. I will not
Go mad, because I have under-
stood those ideas . . .
Yvor (rhymes with “diver”) Winters (1900-1968) taught at Stanford for 40 years, during a time well before the teaching of poetry writing in universities became such an industry that, if we can project its exponential growth rate into the future, every man, woman, and child in America will possess a degree in creative writing by 2100. But for much of Winters’ career, his Stanford poetry seminar was not just the only game in town but the only class in the craft of poetry in the western half of the country, with perhaps the sole exception of Iowa City.
By the fruits we know the tree: Pinsky, Robert Hass (another laureate), Philip Levine, Donald Hall, Thom Gunn, Robert Mezey, Donald Stanford, Charles Gullans, and three poets under discussion here—J.V. Cunningham, Turner Cassity, and Edgar Bowers—represent only a fraction of the host shaped by Winters, many of whom still betray his influence (and this is not to mention his estimable wife Janet Lewis, who survived him by 30 years). And the memoirs of his students’ experiences have been equally revealing: Gunn, just arrived from England and short on hinds, is immediately housed in Winters’ backyard writing shack, a building that had 30 years earlier housed a destitute J.V. Cunningham; Hall, sensing that too much exposure to Prof Svengali might leave him forever enthralled, decides to bail out after one year, literally screaming “Geronimo!” as he leaves Palo Alto in his dust. Cassity lands Winters’ “granite integrity” and his genius for “response to the immediate.” Bowers puts the lie to Winters-as-tyrant myths, speaking of the egalitarian spirit that ruled his classroom and stressing, in a letter to me. Winters’ ability to excite younger poets to engage in a shared endeavor that does not fit the usual stereotype of poetic influence. Even Levine, whose working-class affectations have ranged far from his mentor’s stance, adopts his voice for a typical aphorism: “Philip, we must never lie, / or we shall lose our souls.”
Winters’ personal influence as a teacher has remained strong, but his reputation as a crihc and poet has not weathered the academic storms of recent years. The intellectual dominance of the New Critics, with whom he was usually (and more erroneously than not) connected, has waned in times when deconstruction and raceclassgender bean-counting have dominated academic approaches to poetry; nevertheless, Winters’ self-chosen position as an outsider makes him a still provocative advocate of poetry. His rejection of most aspects of modernism, his distrust of the romantic mode, his insistence on the “audible” sense of English meters, and his championing (which to mc seems largely ill advised) of obscure figures like Fulke Greville, Jones Very, or Elizabeth Daryush set him apart as a fierce original. He had the foresight to appreciate Hart Crane’s doomed attempts at creating an American poetry of epic scale, and he delighted in skewering the reputations of Poe, Whitman, and Frost, to name only three. His curious notion of poetry as a “moral evaluation” ran counter to the poem-as-object biases of the New Critics; on the other hand, his definition of “moral” embraced neither the shoddy dogmatism of 1930’s Marxists nor the preachiness of the Victorians. Poetic morality, for Winters, meant the establishment of a balance between conceptual thought and the demands of the emotions, a sort of golden mean of poetical conduct that stressed character over personality (a strange notion indeed in our self-obsessed era). As he once noted:
The basis of evil is emotion; Good rests in the power of rational selection in action, as a preliminary to which the emotion in any situation must be as far as possible eliminated, and, in so far as it cannot be eliminated, understood.
It should come as no surprise that one of his key works is titled In Defense of Reason or that he unreservedly saw himself as a classicist.
What, then, of Winters’ own poetry? R.L. Earth’s edition of The Selected Poems of Yvor Winters, with a helpful introduction by Helen Pinkerton Trimpi, supersedes several earlier attempts to collect his work (my own copy of the Collected Poems of 1960 is a much slimmer volume than the present one) and arranges the poetry chronologically. Oddly enough. Winters began as a late-blooming Imagist, repeating some of the Poundian experiments of the first decade of the century. “The Precincts of February” sounds like vintage H.D.:
Floating the jay.
Heavy and ironblack.
Alone in the sun,
Threading the grass. . . .
Winters eventually came to regard this bare-bones technique as a dead end and turned to the metrical style, rhymed more often than not, that is characteristic of his mature work. In many ways, it is not an easy poetry to like, with many dry takes on mythical subjects and many more poems bearing the mustiness of the English department lounge. Winters’ poetry is not devoid of sentiment, but it is remarkably free of the gestures toward an audience that both humanize and occasionally coarsen the work of his most successful contemporary, Robert Frost. Set something like Frost’s blank-verse closet drama “Home Burial” beside Winters’ epigrammatic “A Leave-Taking”:
I, who never kissed your head.
Lay these ashes in their bed;
That which I could do have done.
Now farewell, my newborn son.
The third line here strikes me as pure Winters; its power is built on understatement and a couple of small turns of rhetoric, and, unlike most modernist poetry, there is not an image in sight.
If Winters is not a modernist in manner, he is paradoxically among the most modern of poets in his subject matter. Years before Auden and company were exhorting poets to “get the gasworks in,” Winters was writing poems about air bases, military rifles, airport terminals, the wrecks of dirigibles, and the landscape of suburban California. “In Praise of California Wines,” “John Sutter,” and the memorable “Before Disaster” capture in poetry for the first time the multiple essences of a region that, through movies and television, most Americans now find at least as familiar as their own home turf The last of these, written in 1932, captures one California innovation decades before it became ubiquitous: the modern freeway.
Evening traffic homeward burns,
Swift and even on the turns,
Drifting weight in triple rows.
Fixed relation and repose.
This one edges out and by.
Inch by inch with steady eye.
But should error be increased,
Mass and moment are released;
Matter loosens, flooding blind,
Levels drivers to its kind.
Winters knew the future when he saw it and knew the futility of romantic resistance to it; the poem concludes, “Treading change with savage heel, / We must live or the by steel.”
In the early 17th century, Ben Jonson’s influence on the younger poets who imbibed both his tavern stories and his classicism was such that Herrick, Suckling, Carew, and company proudly styled themselves “the tribe of Ben.” Winters, who used to gather his students in his home for beer and the Friday Night Fights, exercised a comparable effect upon J.V. Cunningham (1911-1985), a sometime colleague at Stanford, and upon Edgar Bowers (who died as this essay was being completed) and Turner Cassity, who now reigns as the éminence grise of his literary line.
The Poems of J.V. Cunningham, scrupulously edited and annotated by Timothy Steele, a respected poet and metricist, collects the work of one of the century’s finest miniaturists, a Martial to counterpoint Winters’ Horace. Steele corrects a couple of generally accepted myths about the relationship of the two poets: Cunningham, who came to Stanford as a student at Winters’ behest, never took a class from the older poet, and their relationship, while on the whole friendly, endured many strong differences of opinion. At his best. Winters is a poet who begins with strong specifics; his better poems draw on both geographical and historical locales before moving to the general plane. Cunningham, on the other hand, writes almost exclusively on the level of generalization. Winters once observed, “Cunningham is seldom perceptive of the physical universe around him; he does not know what to do with it”; still, Cunningham is one of the wittiest of all modern poets on sexual subjects, a realm that Winters barely acknowledges. Even though Winters identified himself as an anti-romantic, Cunningham felt that his own classicism, inclining toward plain statement and logical development, was of a much purer type than that of the older poet.
In the case of Cunningham’s epigrams, one is simply tempted to quote them and let the matter rest. Here are two samples. The first is called “Original Sin”:
The trouble with my ex-
Was mostly sex.
The trouble with my new
Is the to-do.
The trouble with them all
Was Adam’s fall.
Here lies my wife. Eternal peace
Be to us both with her decease.
Our squeamish contemporary taste may find these a bit misogynistic, but if Cunningham has any true peer it is probably Thurber, whom he resembles in many ways. True, a steady diet of this sort of thing is probably not conducive to good health, but stopping after two is like limiting oneself to a like number of peanuts. Cunningham’s most famous poem is, I think, the great manifesto of a poet who takes pride in his minor status:
How time reverses
The proud in heart!
I now make verses
Who aimed at art.
But I sleep well.
Whose big lines swell
With spiritual noise,
Despise me not.
And be not queasy
To praise somewhat:
Verse is not easy.
But rage who will.
Time that procured me
Good sense and skill
Of madness cured me.
Edgar Bowers (1924-2000) and Turner Cassity (b. 1929) represent two aspects of Winters’ legacy, and I regret that I lack the space to do them full honors here. Bowers, who won the Bollingen prize in 1989, is a strong narrative poet who usually works in a blank verse line of pure authority. I say this as one who has carried several of his poems’ openings in memory for the better part of 40 years: “I come to tell you that my son is dead. / Americans have shot him as a spy” (“The Prince”). His instincts are elegiac and pastoral, and he is at his best evoking the Georgia landscapes of his youth (in “Elegy: Walking the Line”) and in summoning up the Europe of the end of World War II and the immediate postwar era, when he served in occupied Bavaria. Two of the book’s new poems are set in Bavaria: “Clear-seeing,” an encounter with a clairvoyant and her Wehrmacht major-general husband, and “Clothes,” which describes the suicide of a German woman who succumbs to terror after she admits, on a routine visa questionnaire, that she served as a clerk for the Gestapo. As Bowers inspects the corpse, he has an unexpected reaction:
Bent over as if taken by a cramp,
I sobbed out loud and, on my uni-
Vomited up my lunch—over the
The polished buttons and insignia.
The little strips of color and the
Eisenhower jacket with its Eagle
The taut pants in a crease, the glis-
Vomiting and still sobbing, like a
Awakened in the night, and sick.
Wegner and Hans
Held me, murmuring, “Ach, dear
sir, the war
Is over and not over, such things
Is over and not over. For this poet, who speaks so well for the war-time experiences of his generation, I doubt if it ever shall be.
Cassity, who has described himself as one of Winters’ “wilder” students, is a quirky satirist whose subjects range from “The New Dolores Leather Bar” (“The leather creaks; studs shine; the chain mail jingles. / Shoulders act as other forms of bangles / In a taste where push has come to shove”) to the wooden-legged Sarah Bernhardt impersonating Napoleon to an elegy for the last Ziegfeld girl.
Cassity, who has obviously traveled widely both in books and out of them (he was for years a librarian at Emory University), has an eye for the outrageous and an appetite for the bizarre. I am tempted to agree with Dana Gioia’s assessment that he is “the most brilliantly eccentric poet in America,” but I would hope that the obvious attractions of his Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not approach to poetry do not completely overshadow the rare (and often toxic) beauties his poetry can reveal. He is at his best in “Berlin-to-Baghdad,” an account of a German diver going down in the waters off Seraglio Point in the Constantinople of 1876. What he finds discarded in the depths becomes a metaphor for what “all his crewmen, and the sultanate / Of all the world have each in his own way / Numbered, bagged, and tossed.” It is an underwater garden of discarded members of the harem:
In front of him,
As if enormous tulips sprouted
A score of women, sewn-up to the
In weighted canvas bags, and with
Threading the current as it stead-
From side to side like Humpty-
I still recall first encountering this poem in the Sewanee Review over a decade ago. By the time I reached the end, my jaw was literally hanging open.
With the current renewal of interest in formalist poetry, it may well be that Winters’ legacy will prove more congenial to the present century than to the one just past. If readers of the next decades begin to see much of modernism as yet one more mistake fostered by a century of blood and error, then the clarity and balance that became dogma for this poet and text for his followers may ultimately be seen as less a detour from the main highway of literary history than as an inviting alternate route.
[The Selected Poems of Yvor Winters, by Yvor Winters, Edited by R.L. Barth (Athens: Ohio University Press) 129 pp., $14.95]
[The Poems of J.V. Cunningham, by J.V. Cunningham, Edited by Timothy Steele (Athens: Ohio University Press) 215pp., $16.95]
[Collected Poems, by Edgar Bowers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 168 pp., $15.00]
[The Destructive Element: New and Selected Poems, by Turner Cassity (Athens: Ohio University Press) 246 pp., $15.95]