Academic journal article Chicago Review

Caging the Demon: James McMichael and the Poetics of Restraint

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Caging the Demon: James McMichael and the Poetics of Restraint

Article excerpt

"Who's a better poet, Robert Frost or Edward Arlington Robinson?"


"I don't think you understood the question."

It was a spring day in 1966 in Palo Alto when that exchange took place. The twenty-six-year-old James McMichael was defending his doctoral thesis at Stanford and Yvor Winters, the director of his thesis committee, was asking what should have been an easy question. Any good student of Winters's idiosyncratic view of American poetry knew the right answer was Robinson. Frost, for Winters, was the worst sort of poet, one who failed to provide a proper context for his dark emotions. Poets like Frost, Winters maintained, took us too close to madness, to a paranoid sense of the world as irrationally malevolent. It wasn't that Winters avoided emotional darkness--far from it--but it was his conviction that poetic emotions must be justified by a clear context, and that the poet who failed to provide such a justification was not merely misguided, but a danger to himself and others. A poem, Winters famously said, was "a statement in words," and it was imperative that a poet should not just present emotions or experiences: he should provide, in clear metrical language, a statement about the meaning, value, and sources of those emotions and experiences. These beliefs were at the very core of Winters's well-defined personal poetics, and formed the basis of his neo-classical outlook. By way of contrast, Winters saw Frost as a "spiritual drifter," a poet who was irresponsible and self-indulgent even when writing on matters of great importance. For Winters the self was something to be monitored and contained within a carefully considered understanding of the objective world.

McMichael certainly knew what the old man was looking for. In fact, he'd all but provided the answer in the dissertation he was defending, Rhetoric and the Skeptic's Void. The dissertation consisted of a well-articulated restatement of Winters's division of theories of language into warring realist and nominalist camps. The realists, Winters had maintained in The Anatomy of Nonsense, held that language was stable, paraphrasable, and meaningful. This view, said Winters, informed the sane and stable world of Augustan writing. The nominalists, by contrast, were skeptical about language, doubting its ability to connect to the world it purported to depict or to any enduring and stable ideas. Nominalism was, for Winters, the chief vice of Romanticism and of the kind of modernism with which he'd had an early flirtation. In his dissertation McMichael had applied Winters's realist/nominalist dichotomy to Ezra Pound, Theodore Roethke, and the profoundly nominalist Hart Crane.

McMichael was a favorite of Winters's during his grad-school years at Stanford. He had arrived there with a B.A. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, whose English department had been colonized by Winters's former students, including McMichael's mentors Edgar Bowers and Alan Stephens. While Winters left his stamp on many younger poets--including Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, John Matthias, and John Peck--McMichael was among his truest disciples. Winters and McMichael shared a great deal, including roots in southern California and many assumptions about literature. But most importantly they shared a certain wariness of emotional extremes, a disposition that lent itself to similar styles of formal restraint. While McMichael was to rebel against Winters by taking up the Surrealism-inflected poetics popular in the early 1970s, the rebellion would would eventually reverse itself to some extent.

In 1967, only a year after defending his dissertation, McMichael published his first book, The Style of the Short Poem, which aimed to popularize Winters's ideas about poetry for an undergraduate audience. While McMichael notes at the outset of this book that he wishes only to "provide a brief but accurate vocabulary for discussing the style of the short poem," the book is subtle yet relentless in its allegiance to Winters's principles. …

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