Winters's Curse

Article excerpt

"A critic may even be specifically wrong yet theoretically right. Paul Elmer More, for instance, damns all modern literature with one irritated and uncomprehending gesture; he is academic and insensitive. The tragedy of it is, that most modern writers could learn a great deal from him if they did not find his irritation so irritating."

When he wrote these lines, in 1930, Yvor Winters was a young instructor at Stanford University, and a poet well regarded in avant-garde circles; his first book of criticism was still seven years in the future. Yet in describing More, a sage of the neo-Humanist movement, Winters gave an oddly precise verdict on his own career as a critic of poetry. Of all the eminent poet-critics of his generation--John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, R. F. Blackmur--none is more often "irritating" "insensitive" and "specifically wrong" than Winters. These qualities made him a figure first of controversy, then of mockery. But it is also true that, thirty-five years after his death, poets and readers of poetry have important things to learn from Winters--as long as we are prepared to be irritated.

For to read Winters with profit means reading him with suspicion, even resistance. His personality on the page is unpleasant--arrogant, sarcastic, brutal in controversy--and his views are not argued but promulgated, like papal bulls. Indeed, Winters presents himself as poetry's anti-Pope, relentless in his heresies about the nature and history of the art. Any poet conventionally regarded as major Winters treats as a buffoon or worse: Wordsworth, for instance, is "notable mainly for a handful of fine lines and short passages and for his infinitely tedious pomposity and foolishness." Poets the educated reader has never heard of, however, are precariously elevated: Jones Very and F. G. Tuckerman replace Emerson and Whitman as the nineteenth-century American masters. Whole centuries are put under interdict:

   If I were to say that there was little or no
   English poetry of real distinction between
   Chaucer and Wyatt, few people would be
   surprised: the text-books tell us the same
   thing. I am telling my reader now that the
   eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were low
   periods in the history of English poetry; the
   text-books will convey this message to my
   reader's grandchildren.

Winters wrote as if he were separating the saved from the damned, and he demanded total adherence to his creed. Over his long teaching career, he assembled a coterie of true believers, for whom he propagandized vigorously. Of these, Edgar Bowers, J. V. Cunningham, and Thom Gunn went on to win wider acclaim, but most of the others are remembered, if at all, only for their association with Winters. Sometimes--as in the pages of Quest for Reality, the anthology Winters co-edited--this makes his canon seem like a toy kingdom, a Monaco of poetry existing in placid unrelation to the empire all around it.

Rather than submit so completely to Winters, any sensible reader would choose to join the distinguished ranks of his opponents, which included Stanley Edgar Hyman ("We find Yvor Winters ... an excessively irritating and bad critic") and Delmore Schwartz ("Mr. Winters ... displays prejudices which are wholly arbitrary"). But in the history of criticism there has not been so much intelligence that we can afford to ignore any of it, even when it is buried as deeply as Winters sometimes buried it. He deserves to be read sympathetically, with attention not just to his outrageous conclusions but to his serious and still compelling motives.

To understand how Winters ended up at his peculiar critical terminus, it is crucial to see where started out. Born in 1900, the son of a stockbroker, he was raised in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Chicago, where he enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1917. But his studies were immediately derailed by tuberculosis, which sent him to a New Mexico sanatorium for nearly three years. …