Yvor the counter-revolutionist

By all accounts, the Stanford-based critic-poet Yvor Winters was prickly. His views on good and bad versions of modernism: usually, the earlier and the more “precise”/imagistic the better. His view on Stevens (the early modernist, detached, comic ironic short stuff of Harmonium was good, the later rhetorically blown-up long-lined essayistic poems, poems made of philosophical propositions, were bad) had a huge effect on a generation of teachers who thought that to teach Stevens one had to teach only “Sunday Morning” or “Ploughing on Sunday.” His view on William Carlos Williams: early short stuff good, late stuff sloppy and imprecise.

Winters could be brutal. As I write this now I'm looking at an unpublished letter from the Poetry Magazine archives — from William Pillin (a poet known as a left-winger in the 1930s) to then-editor Hayden Carruth: ”Dear Mr. Carruth: / Will someone tell Mr. Winters to get off my toes? / His rude designation of my craft as a refuge to ‘fairies and fantasists’ is insulting and untrue.”

Carruth turned to Winters in 1949 and asked Winters to help him revive Poetry, which Carruth felt was falling into an after-modernism-now-what? stupor. Winters was a symbol of some kind of pure pre-1930s modernism, so it made sense for Carruth to turn to him. On April 14, 1949 Winters replied to this request, and here is part of what he wrote to Carruth: “You say that your job is to rehabilitate the reputation and hence the usefulness of Poetry. It is a big job. Poetry has had every advantage save one, for years: it has had money, or at least enough money; it has had circulation and established reputation; but it has lacked editorial brains and has lacked them absolutely. I don't know whether or not you are the answer, but maybe you are.”

He then recalled that he'd tried to get Harriet Monroe (Poetry’s founding editor) to print Hart Crane, “and she wouldn't do it till he was famous in spite of her and past the point where he could write decently.” He'd fought with her for years to get Allen Tate into the magazine. He wanted his protege J.V. Cunningham there; Monroe printed just one JVC poem. “Other people of talent whom I have recommended have been turned down cold, including Howard Baker.”

Howard Baker. I’ve read the poems (and criticism) of Howard Baker (believe it or not). Baker, he ain’t no Williams or Pound. (Of course I don’t mean the Senator from Tennesee, he of “what did he know and when did he know it” fame.)

Winters goes on to recommend that Carruth publish these:

[] Edgar Bowers (“on his way to being a great poet”)
[] Donald Drummond (brilliant although uneven)
[] L. F. Gerlach
[] C.R. Holmes
[] Wesley Trimpi (anothner Stanford guy who went on to a distinguished academic career but not much as a poet)

Okay? Got it?

Now you know what Poetry would have been like if Winters had gotten his way.

In his memoir of 1992 (Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets), Donald Hall describes Winters as poetically conservative but politically a liberal democrat. “On the other hand,” Hall wrote, “if we use political labels seriously, not as in American party politics but as indices of intellect and spirit, Winters was high Tory, with a Tory's respect for personal liberty and reverence for precedent and durability.”

Durability. Well, maybe in the hopeful sense Hall means. But when I think of Winters as standing for durability I also have to think of Winters the Stanford mentor who pushed forward Edgar Bowers because he was a poet who would last.

Hall also wrote that “In my time, graduate students in English at Stanford were either for Winters or against him” (p. 132).

John Felstiner, the great translator and promoter of Paul Celan, joined Stanford English as an Assistant Professor in 1965. He loved Williams' poetry and wanted to teach the stuff to the Stanford freshmen. So he put together a little mimeographed anthology of WCW poems and then went down to the office of his senior colleague, Yvor Winters, to ask the elder what he thought of this collection of WCW's poems. It was Felstiner’s very first interaction with Winters. To find out what happened next, listen to an excerpt from a talk Felstiner gave to Stanford alumni in 2008 (link below).

So while we're on the topic of Yvor Winters’s contribution to the counter-revolution of the word — the rolling back of the messy, rhetorical, post-imagist, political modernism after the '30s (the era in which Winters went poetically to the Right) — ponder the moral of Felstiner's surprisingly angry anecdote. It took him years, he said, to discover that Williams had written a kind of poetry other than what Winters abruptly deemed worthy of the attentions of this junior colleague. You can hear the bitterness in Felstiner's voice about this, even all these years later. Listen to it. It’s there.

Here’s your link to John Felstiner on Yvor Winters on William Carlos Williams.

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Robert Archambeau sent me the following response:

I wanted to pick up on something you mentioned at the end, about Felstiner's anger at not getting to know about the full breadth of Williams’s work.  I felt the same way when I finally got to know the full breadth of Winters’s work.  His legacy has been so dominated by his most doctrinaire former students that they've all-but-erased the younger Winters, the one who published in Broom and transition and championed Hart Crane, not the old crank who thought Bowers was the next Milton.  I think you're right to gesture at that younger Winters as an imagist, but he was also an early enthusiast of Native American poetry, a backer of Marsden Hartley’s art, and other surprising things, given the reputation he and his followers later made for him.

For my money, the best work by the young Winters is the essay “Testament of a Stone” (in the book Uncollected Essays) — this is probably the single most sustained piece of imagist poetics, and it gives a very different perspective on Yvor Winters: not a poet given to the hard, cold precisions you rightly detect in some of the imagist work, but a Dionysian figure, seeing poetry as a “gateway to waking oblivion” and other mystical experiences.  Worth a look, I think.

I’ve found him a fascinating figure for years, since he represents a very unusual position within modernism: the modernist apostate.  I can't think of a comparable figure now: it’d be as if Bob Perelman suddenly became an angrier version of Dana Gioia.

Finally, Danny Snelson wrote:

Robert Archambeau suggested “Testament of the Stone” in his response. You can find that piece published as a single issue of Secession (no. 8, Ivor Winters, “The Testament of a Stone: Notes on the Mechanics of the Poetic Image”) here: http://jacket2.org/reissues/secession-1922-24-dir-gorham-b-munson.