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In Training with Live Ammo

A former student recounts the casualties and survivors of a Winters poetry workshop

By Richard Elman

The other day in the small north-shore Long Island town where I live, I ran into a former member of Yvor Winters's Stanford poetry workshop. He is now a retired New York City high school teacher, this chunky, gentle, sad, slow-talking New York Jew who has only just gotten back to writing poems again of some beauty and passion after his encounters with Winters in the workshop 37 years ago.

Oddly, Winters invited this fellow to come all the way from Brooklyn College to Stanford on a full poetry fellowship and then proceeded to savage every poem he ever submitted to the workshop with arguments that ranged from close textual criticism to the ad hominem.

It was a brutal spectacle to watch this Coney Island Keatsian subjected to Winters's unrelenting persiflage. Even though Winters was as often accurate as not, Martin flayed was painful to observe. I have somewhere read of a kind of Oriental demon who gained power over one only as one recognized and feared him. So convinced was Winters of the rightness of his prescriptions that by his overbearing manner he seemed to be trying to discourage my friend from wanting to write anything, even a business letter, ever again; and he almost succeeded.

Toward my own poetry, "Arthur," as his wife, Janet Lewis, called him, was alternately condescending, with restrained praise for my earnestness, and critical of my "Brooklyn ear" and general ignorance of the traditions of English and American poetry, and my absence of reading knowledge in foreign languages. And up to a point he was on the money. If I wanted to be Rimbaud, what was I doing in graduate school?

Trying to stay out of the Army, of course. Graduate study gave me a draft deferment. But I also knew I lacked erudition and polish and was often sunk in forlorn reveries. I needed to reach beyond myself through craft and thought and, after reading some of Winters's critical essays and the poems he admired, I believed this powerful and eminent "new critic" could teach me. Winters was not uncharitable: he thought I was probably capable of becoming educated and would make a decent critic, especially whenever I collaborated with him in attacking his pet scapegoats.

It was a small workshop which met in Winters's dingy office, in an atmosphere of fear softened only by his constant production of pipe smoke and methane gas. The walls, as I recall, were empty of decoration except for some old black and white prints, and the atmosphere was gray; Winters wore old gray suits and was heavy, flaccid, sort of grayish. When he was calm, Winters could resemble a large lovable old hound you wished to pet a lot except you knew he sometimes bit.

He was a great admirer of the poetry of plain speech. He despised mere feckless adornments of language or thought. He maintained that a well-argued shorter lyric of under a hundred lines was superior even to Hamlet or King Lear, and certainly most novels, as formal expression. He upheld the expository over the dramatic forms, but was himself a bit of a ham, reading even the poets whose works he claimed to despise with a deep vibrato, a monotone.

The expatriate British poet Thom Gunn was also a member of that class, and the poet Alan Stephens from Arizona, a tall, dry, extremely reasonable man. Winters admired the writings of both, especially Gunn.

Yvor Winters was a moralist. He liked poets whose work illustrated his critical exhortations, and they were entered into his lists of bests and worsts. He always ranked his students among the other poets who were publishing, as though handicapping horses: Don Stanford, Achilles Holt, Ann Stanford--these Wintersian products seemed to have much better bloodlines than my own. It wasn't very long before I began to feel that every impulse that had impelled me to write poems was counterfeit. I had managed to use graduate school to avoid basic military training: Now here I was plop in the mud in the middle of the infiltration course with Winters firing live ammo.

Once Gunn and my wife and I were invited to the Winterses' house in Los Altos for a steak barbecue. There was good food and a lot to drink. Everybody got a little high, and, after the meal, Winters entertained the guests by acting out on his tiptoes some of the great prizefights of recent years: Louis-Schmelling, Sugar Ray Robinson versus la Motta. He toedanced and swung at imaginary opponents as this contender or that and would stop and thoughtfully indicate just what had been the crucial blow to end the fight and where and with what velocity it had landed on the face or body of his opponent.

He also could be generous in rewarding hardworking students if they accepted certain quid pro quos. Just before I volunteered to do my Army service and get it over with, Winters recommended me for the Royal Victor graduate fellowship at Stanford, which was a great honor and quite lucrative, though it meant I would have to take an ordinary PhD in English literature.

Half a year later I wrote Stanford that I wouldn't be coming back. I really didn't want to be one of Winters's epigones. I'd discovered prose and wanted to learn how to write it with vivid efficiency. This was probably a bad error of judgment on my part. If I'd stayed under Winters's protection I might have made a living at some college or university without all the dislocations and stresses I've undergone. But I was always much too frightened of Winters and knew I lacked Gunn's international reputation, which sometimes protected him from the old man's savagery. I didn't think I'd be able to hold my head above the water.

Come back, memory! What did he do or say that was so intimidating? Was it his claim that he'd sparred a couple of rounds with Jack Dempsey? My own father used to boast to me of biting off a man's ear in a street fight.

Winters had lived a solitary existence before coming to Stanford. He'd done exemplary things like teach Navajo schoolchildren, and, apparently, had driven himself quite mad at one point. When in his cups he would blabber about the corrupt East Coast literary establishment and how he would never teach at Harvard even if he was invited.

His patriarchy often seemed lugubrious; he would often have tears in his eyes when elucidating all my failings. He never quite said he was infallible, but I can't recall him disclaiming otherwise. This made me all the more stubbornly ignorant and ornery; I kept looking for exceptions to his pronouncements, flaws in his reasoning, my constant rejoinders to his critical remarks being "Yes, but . . . "—which is how students say, "Go to hell!" politely.

If you constantly disagreed with Winters, he wrote you out of his cabal, his conspiracy against the poetry establishment. You became one of "them." Winters was actually able to make you feel your inept poems were high crimes and misdemeanors, treasonable acts. He would raise his voice in anger and tremble and attack you where he knew you to feel weakest and most insecure.

When he was old and sick, Winters wrote to tell me he thought I was a fool for not having continued in graduate school. I never sent him any of my novels to read because he told me he no longer cared to read novels. He lacked the time. Once I asked him if he admired Dostoyevsky. Winters said he would not read any more translations, so he didn't really know what he thought of such books.

Yvor Winters seemed even more afraid of his emotions than I was, and he wrote himself out of the contemporary canon. This took courage at the start of a career and enabled him to survive as an academic. He seemed to wish the same for any student whom he could influence. He was often intimidating, usually insightful, and occasionally lucid, astute, intuitive, brilliant and imposing. But who was he trying to persuade? Ignoramuses like me? Himself? Others? We were all enlisted in his campaign against the false coinages of modernism and literary madness . . . though I avoid quatrains and still admire what I think of as Dostoyevsky in translation.

Richard Elman attended Stanford from 1955 to 1957. A novelist, journalist and teacher, he was the author of 25 books. He died in 1997. Excerpt from Namedropping: Mostly Literary Memoirs by Richard Elman. Reprinted by permission of the State University of New York Press © 1998. All rights reserved.

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