Sunday, July 12, 2015


[No online link available.]

Another of B.’s elegies to passing poets. This one to Ivor Winters. Winters taught at Stanford, had a distinguished career as a critic and poet, though not without making enemies. The chair of the Stanford English Dept. famously commented that Winters’s writing and critical ideas were a disgrace to the department. Winters didn’t like the Romantics, felt Whitman was a slovenly mess, really disliked Emerson, the American Transcendentalist Romantic, and felt that Romanticism’s focus on emotion had led to the disintegration of poetry and poets in general. Rationality had been supplanted and the loss was destructive. He wrote, “A psychological theory which justifies the freeing of emotions and which holds rational understanding in contempt appears to be sufficient to break the minds of a good many men with sufficient talent to take the theory seriously.” Kind of sets my hackles on end, to tell the truth.

Seems odd that B., with all his cringing emotion and narcissistic exhibitionism, would eulogize Ivor Winters, except it’s a pretty ambivalent eulogy. Winters, from what I gather from the poem, died of something like throat cancer—this was in 1968. B. writes of Winters in DS 193, “(He thought the world of the East Coast: enemy.)” and “(Henry set high / that Winters, his own sore // foe, like his cancer.)” So Winters was “set high” by B. but was still “enemy” and “foe,” an enemy and foe to B. like cancer was enemy and foe to Winters. That makes sense, though obviously the reference is to theoretical differences in understanding about literature, art, and the role of emotion therein. Winters was a kind, supportive and friendly teacher, but his critical theories narrowed and hardened in favor of reason and against emotion as he got older. (Makes me sad to hear such a thing.) 

Here’s a poem published in 1922 by Ivor Winters, written while he was a young man and a patient at a tuberculosis sanitarium: 

It’s a lovely experimental poem! It might not be obvious at first, but knowing that this was written by a young man of 21 or 22, seeking a cure in a tuberculosis treatment center, opens it up. There is both a close, sensuous, emotional engagement with nature in the New Mexico landscape, while the speaker is out on convalescent walks, but also the subtle fear of emptiness and death which colors many of these sections. Tuberculosis is never a frivolous diagnosis, and in 1922 you were still more likely than not to die from it. Young men sometimes feel they’re supposed to suppress their emotions, but they’re actually quite emotional. I was. If there is a genuine reason so young to contemplate your death, then why not get emotional about it? Maybe it was simple youth and the permission granted by the presence of disease and the approaching fear of approaching death that granted the otherwise stoic young man permission to write something so evocative, emotional, and unreasoning. Did he try to suppress the subtle emotions associated with death as a way of suppressing that fear of death through the rest of his life? Well, it’s an unfounded and presumptuous question. But I like the poem a lot, and it seems strangely at odds with the critical quote from him that came much later. Some guys just get crotchety is what it probably is. Grumps are grumpy and crotchets are crotchety because they’re afraid they’ve missed out on something they’ll know they’ll never get back.

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