Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment

By Mark Schorer; Gordon McKenzie et al. | Go to book overview

Even if this interpretation of The Echoing Green were wrong (and such bold guesses at obliquity are likely to please oneself better than others), the principle illustrated is not thereby invalidated. Those who reject this instance may find a better and agree that directness and obliquity must vary widely from poem to poem and that to judge an oblique poem as if it were direct, and the other way round, can only lead to disaster.


YVOR WINTERS:
The Experimental School in American Poetry*

AN ANALYTICAL SURVEY OF ITS STRUCTURAL METHODS, EXCLUSIVE OF METER

DURING the second and third decades of the twentieth century, the chief poetic talent of the United States took certain new directions, directions that appear to me in the main regrettable. The writers between Robinson and Frost, on the one hand, and Allen Tate and Howard Baker on the other, who remained relatively traditional in manner were with few exceptions minor or negligible; the more interesting writers, as I shall endeavor to show in these pages, were misguided, and in discussing them I shall have little to say of their talents, their ineliminable virtues, but shall rather take these for granted.

In order that I may evaluate the new structural methods, I shall have first to describe at least briefly the old. Inasmuch as a wider range of construction is possible in the short poem than in any of the longer literary forms, I shall deal with principles that are fundamental to all literary composition, and shall here and there have recourse to illustrations drawn from the novel or perhaps from the drama. The virtues of the traditional modes of construction will be indicated chiefly in connection with my discussion of the defects of the recent experimental modes.


TYPE I: THE METHOD OF REPETITION

Kenneth Burke has named and described this method without evaluating it.1 It is the simplest and most primitive method possible, and is still in common use; if limited to a short lyrical form, it may still be highly effective. It consists in a restatement in successive stanzas of a single theme, the terms, or images, being altered in each restatement. Two of the finest poems in the form are Nashe poem on the plague ( Adieu! Farewell earth's bliss) and Raleigh poem entitled The Lie. In such a poem there is no rational necessity for any order of sequence, the order being determined wholly by the author's feeling about the graduation of importance or intensity. Nevertheless, such a poem rests on a formulable logic, however simple; that is, the theme can be paraphrased in general terms. Such a paraphrase, of course, is not the equivalent of a poem: a poem is more than its paraphrasable content. But, as we shall eventually see, many poems cannot be paraphrased and are therefore defective.

The method of repetition is essentially the same today as it has always been, if we confine our attention to the short poem. Of recent

____________________
*
Yvor Winters (b. 1900) is the author of Primitivism and Decadence: A Study of American Experimental Poetry ( 1937), Maule Curse: Seven Studies in the History of American Obscurantism ( 1938), and The Anatomy of Nonsense ( 1943), all of which have been republished in In Defense of Reason ( 1947). "The Experimental School in American Poetry," elements of which were scattered through various book reviews in the late nineteenth-twenties and early thirties, is reprinted from Primitivism and Decadence in In Defense of Reason, by Yvor Winters, copyright, 1937, by Yvor Winters , and copyright, 1938, 1913, by New Directions, by permission of William Morrow and Company, Inc.
1
In Counterstatement. Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1932.

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