True to his Word
Cantankerous in the classroom and contrarian as a critic, Yvor Winters proved a peerless mentor for some of America's best-known poets and writers.
Courtesy Kenneth Fields
By Kenneth Fields
Yvor Winters cut a giant's figure: he stood out from the crowd and was often viewed with awe--or, occasionally, near-loathing. Whatever the reaction, seemingly no one whom Winters touched as a poet, critic, colleague or teacher could remain indifferent to his passionate convictions about poetry. And in a working life that spanned half a century of American letters and four decades in Stanford's English department, he touched many people. Some of them are among those celebrating his centenary in a public symposium in mid-November (see sidebar, page 87). English professor Kenneth Fields, PhD '67, who studied with him and later became his collaborator, reflects on the Winters legacy.
Yvor Winters wrote with such decisive genius that his reputation nearly coincides with his first publications. In the March 1922 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, the most important poetry journal of the day, a correspondent complained, "Everybody is sentimental, even Mr. Yvor Winters." He was referring to an essay published the previous month, in which Winters, still a very young man, praised writers who had not yet become part of our canon--Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore--and made a characteristic, brilliant remark about Emily Dickinson, "one of the greatest poets of our language." She was, he wrote admiringly, "a terrible woman, who annihilated God as if he were her neighbor, and her neighbor as if he were God."
The letter writer, Baker Brownell, objected with some justice to what appeared to be Winters's aesthetic of fragmentation, that is, his habit of isolating individual lines and passages. As if to correct him, Brownell maintained that the two most distinguished poets of the day were Carl Sandburg and Rabindranath Tagore.
Winters, fully at home in the spirit of modernism, asserted in his essay that the greatest poets alive were Edwin Arlington Robinson and Wallace Stevens. It is worth noting that Stevens at that time had published no book--only poems in magazines--and Winters, writing from New Mexico, where he had gone to recuperate from tuberculosis, was just a few months past his 21st birthday.
Within five years, Winters had published poems and essays in every important literary magazine in the country. When he arrived at Stanford in 1927, where he remained until his retirement in 1966, he was already famous.
When I came to Stanford in 1963 as a graduate student, he was the grand old man of poetry, by turns gruff, kind and shy, given to peremptory pronouncements, usually delivered with a sidelong smile. He presented an intimidating mixture of qualities. I was his student and his gardener and, later, his collaborator, and I became less intimidated as I knew him better. I can recall him on several occasions approaching the ladder where I was pruning one of his orchard trees, a volume held behind his back.
"Ever read Tristan Corbière?"
Then he'd produce the book, his finger marking the page, and I'd try my best to translate the French on the spot. On good days the book he was reading from would be in English, Mina Loy's Lunar Baedeker, for example. It was a great, if nerve-wracking, way to learn.
Winters's critical books are notorious classics, pointed by sharp readings of a wide variety of texts. His work lays out theories about the transition from the 18th and 19th centuries to the modern period and, especially, offers an understanding of a complex of American cultural ideas. But Winters was first and foremost a poet, and he himself believed that his poetry had the likelier chance of survival.
Moreover, he taught poets. Edgar Bowers, J.V. Cunningham and Thom Gunn, great poets as different from each other as from Winters, came to Stanford to study with him—and if, as in the case of Wesley Trimpi and Cunningham, they became great scholars and critics, Winters's interest was still poetry. Others included Helen Pinkerton, Philip Levine, Margaret Peterson, Donald Hall, Catherine Davis, Turner Cassity, Donald Justice, Alan Stephens, N. Scott Momaday, Robert Pinsky and James McMichael.
Robert Lowell, reviewing the Collected Poems in 1961, declared: "Dim-wits have called him a conservative. He was the kind of conservative who was so original and radical that his poems were never reprinted in the anthologies for almost twenty years." Lowell recalls hearing recordings of Winters reading aloud: "His voice and measures still ring in my ears. They pass [poet A.E.] Housman's test for true poetry: if I remembered them while shaving, I would cut myself."
As a critic and teacher, Winters knew where the exemplary poems were, and he had a genius for isolating remarkable passages in poetry and fiction. At times he discussed a poem in detail, but for the most part he taught by fiat, declaring that George Herbert's "Church Monuments" or William Carlos Williams's "To a Dead Journalist" were great poems, sometimes singling out particular lines for praise.
The method, of course, had its drawbacks. You might simply reject his pronouncements out of hand. Or simply parrot them unthinkingly, as if Emily Dickinson had actually only written a dozen poems of value. Parody, too, was a natural consequence of these sweeping proclamations. I believe it was David Thorburn, as a graduate student, who spoke of "the third-best second line of any sonnet written between 1839 and 1870." I am certain that at various times I have responded in all these ways.
But there was another kind of response, inescapable if you took Winters seriously, that led you to the heart of his convictions about the power of the short poem and its connections with forms of meditation—"forms of discovery," Winters called them. Paul Valéry, the 20th-century French poet Winters may have loved above all other poets, called his collection of poems Charmes, a word associated with poetry even before Catullus. Valéry advised reading a poem over and over, not being careful, at first, about its meaning, until in time the poem began to take shape. By Valéry's own account, he had written one of his best poems by a similar method, hearing its rhythms in his mind as he walked, night after night, until words began to appear, and sentences, born from the interplay of line and syntax, and then the poem.
If you assume that you've got all the time there is, you can conceive of a lifetime of recalling, of actually embodying, poems from your memory by saying them to yourself (and to others, if you're lucky enough to be a teacher) until you see things in them you hadn't seen before. To paraphrase the great jazz vocalist Carmen Macrae: "You sing a song fifty or sixty times, and you start hearing things."
Winters noticed such things, too, as when he found in the line masse de calme, et visible réserve from Valéry's "Le Cimetière Marin", the visible embodiment of potency and actuality, crucial concepts in the poem. In three lines from Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning," he sees the kernel of the entire poem. For a woman enjoying coffee and oranges, the brightness of a leisurely morning is darkened by the thought of death and spiritual obligation: She dreams a little and she feels the dark/ Encroachment of that old catastrophe,/ As a calm darkens among water lights. Winters, I think, was the only reader to understand the specificity and function of that image. "If one has ever seen a calm darken among water lights on a large bay or lake, the image is unforgettable," he wrote. And he returned to the image at the conclusion of the poem: "In the first water-image, death encroached as a calm darkens among water lights; then the day was like water; then infinite space is water--bright, beautiful, inscrutable, the home of life and death--and earth is a floating island."
Winters's way with a poem was not to exhaust it, if such a thing were possible, but to point the way toward other perceptions. In his own poem, "The Slow Pacific Swell," the sea holds the reflection of the moon and at the same time is held in the moon's gravitational sway in the line, "Heaving and wrinkled in the moon, and blind."
I have a small instance of one of these discoveries. Near the end of Winters's life, I assembled manuscripts of his favorite poems, and week after week we pored over them, deciding which poems to include in the anthology, Quest for Reality. I still have a box of the ones that nearly made it into the book. One was a tiny poem by William Carlos Williams, "The Nightingales," that Winters had often included in references to Williams. We did include "To a Dead Journalist," a poem that is rarely anthologized. But one day when I came out to retrieve the latest installments, he handed "The Nightingales" back. "They're going to hate this book, anyway," he grinned, referring to the anonymous mass of critics he imagined. "This one would just drive them crazy."
A different, perhaps better, student might have asked for an account of the poem, whose force and direction, as I recontruct that scene, were not entirely clear to me. But after a few years of reading and teaching Williams, coming back to that poem, here's what I saw. With Williams, it's important to ask what kind of poem this is. He has written some of the best love poems of the century, and if we assume that this is a love poem, perhaps a very small one, the poem takes a certain shape.
My shoes as I lean
stand out upon
flat worsted flowers.
Nimbly the shadows
of my fingers play
over shoes and flowers.
The poem is from the wonderful collection Sour Grapes, and in 1921 it would be less easy to take one's shoes off than it is now. The poet is recommending himself as a lover. The pastoral scene is indoors, and the flowers are a design on the rug. Nightingales are an Old World bird, not found in New Jersey. Our closest counterpart in California is the mockingbird, who sings his inventive courtship on warm spring nights, irritating all except lovers who are already awake. The nightingales in Williams's poem are not the fingers of the speaker but, marvelously, the shadows of his fingers. What sort of lover is he presenting? Well, he's nimble, in a hurry to unlace his surely high-topped shoes. He's adept, witty and full of play. He notices things. He's a charming lover.
Anyone wanting to see how this method works might want to spend a leisurely evening comparing Williams's "The Nightingales" with Winters's "Song," written before he was 27. Two fine love poems, two different lovers.
Where I walk out
to meet you on the
cloth of burning
leap up about my
feet like angry
quiver like a
heartbeat in the
air and are
Thomas Hardy, in "Afterwards," takes note of various beauties in his world (The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight/ Upon the wind-warped upland thorn), and wonders if anyone will say, "He was a man who used to notice such things."
Yvor Winters was a man who used to notice such things. He was the first of the Stanford poets, and the best.
Kenneth Fields, PhD '67, a professor in the English department, is the author of numerous books of poetry.
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