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Voices in the Cave of Being



If this were a print book that you were holding in your hands, and if there were about 400 words to the prose page, the book would be about 350 pages long. As it is, it’s a Web book.

Here are the principal items in it.

There’s a progression in the sequence, but almost all the items are free-standing. This is their first public appearance.

There is more about poetry elsewhere in Jottings, especially in “Saying Simply.” Information about the whole website can be accessed through buttons on the left.


“Poetry and the Headmaster’s Wife” was written during a 1989-90 sabbatical in Ajijic, Mexico, on the northern shore of Lake Chapala. It’s an affectionate revisiting of some of the poetry in my 1930s London childhood, and I’ve been told that it is entertaining.

I read it out in 1993 in the lounge of the Dalhousie University English Department, where it was accompanied by a handout containing the texts that I referred to. I’ve provided them here in “Reservoir.”

I also wrote the first draft of “Among the Monuments” while we were in Ajijic, (pronounced Ah-hee-heek), but didn’t return to it until the end of the decade.


“Powers of Style” is a much-revised version of what was originally the third of my four Nihilism, Modernism, and Value lectures at the University of Toronto in 1990. The core argument of Voices is here, and is extended in “Language and Being.”


A few months ago, I decided to try and figure out which are my own really-and-truly favourite poems—not necessarily ones that I consider the best, but ones that have stayed there in my consciousness, glowing or shimmering, and that, as I hoped, would help to support the argument in “Powers of Style.” The result was “Personals.”

I’d intended adding a few brief notes to clear up linguistic or factual difficulties. But the notes, once started, kept on coming, like the brooms that double and redouble, to Mickey’s confusion, in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice section of Disney’s Fantasia. I found myself recalling things that had simply not been there for me at the outset, some of them not for many years. It was an interesting trip.

I also found it instructive to do my own translating of a few poems.

Some of the poems that didn’t quite make the final cut (for of course a group dynamic developed) are in the Comments.


Back in the early Seventies, Donald E. Stanford and I put together a couple of anthologies of poetry that were much indebted to the work of the (let me risk the adjective) great American poet and critic Yvor Winters. Neither of them found a publisher.

Recently I returned to them, in part because of the impact of Ben Kilpela’s website about Winters (see Bibliography), and decided to make the table of contents of A New Book of Verse available here. By the time I’d finished, I’d added the titles of seventy more poems, plus an introduction. Most of the poems can be found on other sites. A few of them are in “Reservoir.”


“Language and Being,” as I mentioned above, goes on from “Powers of Style.” What I do in it also relates to what I do in “In Defense of Language” and “Saying Simply.”


“Vision and Analogy” is concerned with the role of figurative language in relation to the workings of what can loosely be called the imagination. I’ve called its contents Observations, since it’s not quite a full article.

“Winters, Leavis, and Language” gets more technical about language. I might have called it Jottings, if that hadn’t been the title of the whole site.

“Lagniappe and Leftovers” contains a variety of items for which I couldn’t make room elsewhere in Voices. I find it entertaining, and may add to it.


The annotations of the works in “Bibliography,” like the commentaries in “Personals,” kept on coming. I didn’t try to stop them.

“Aurals” contains some of the poetry recorded over the years by members of my “Traditionalism and Experimentation” seminar.


Some words of gratitude.

During my first undergraduate year, the college tutor to whom I read my weekly essay was the Shakespeare scholar and Scrutiny contributor J.C. Maxwell. He let me run on a very loose rein. I had been reading Ezra Pound, on and off, for two or three years, and was unintimidated by the big names of literature. But Maxwell didn’t rear up in indignation (as did his all-too-“Oxford” successor) when I dissed some of them. And he borrowed my essay on The Tempest to send to a friend of his who, he said, was working on the play, and whom I’ve since assumed to have been Derek Traversi.

Back then there was very little in the way of analyses of complete poems, not even in the writings of Leavis or the bound volumes of Scrutiny in the circular undergraduate reading room in the Radcliff Camera to which—the volumes of Scrutiny, I mean—Maxwell diffidently steered me. And the only university lecturer who talked excitingly about poetry (attendance at lectures was voluntary) was W.W. Robson.

So you could read and write about such poets as were assigned to you as essay topics, and argue about them with your peers, with the feeling that you were engaging intimately with other minds, some of whom you loved—they were speaking for you, like Marvell—or loathed, like the leaden-footed and politically opportunistic Dryden. You were not simply trudging along beaten paths.

It was all very loose and unprofessionalized, since the odds back in those austerity years were that almost all of us who were “reading” English literature—and it was literally all that we did, formally, read— were going to end up in school-teaching or industry anyway. Graduate work, except for a miniscule few, was not on the cards.

Leavis’s students at Downing College, Cambridge, received a far more thorough education, and were better equipped for both teaching and, if the opportunity ever came, research.

But I was able (as a reluctant and incompetent school-teacher myself for a couple of years) to read and reread Leavis on my own, with immense profit, particularly where fiction and culture-and-society were concerned. And I’m glad I went to the university that I did. The looseness suited me, as did the sense (not mine alone) that the faculty really weren’t, you know, all that stunningly bright. It left me with plenty to discover on my own, particularly in fiction, of which we did almost none.

Also, of course, as E.M. Forster acknowledged in Howards End, Oxford was—Oxford. Not that I was eating any plovers’ eggs or drinking at the bar of the Randolph.


In the early Fifties, Norma Zwerin praised Yvor Winters to me, whom she and Mike knew about from their friend Donald Justice. The copy of In Defense of Reason that they had in their house in Forest Hills, on Long Island, next to the tennis courts, was the first text by him that I was able to dip into, while I was their houseguest. (They also had, among their records, a marvelous pirated 10” Billie Holiday LP with “Loveless Love” on it.) It wasn’t, for me, a case of Saul turning into Paul on the road to Damascus, but I went on thinking about Winters and his challenges to British, and especially Leavisian, approaches to poetry.


In 1956, when I was in my second year as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, my advisor William Van O’Connor recommended me to Alex Preminger for the article on 20th-century American and British poetics in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, and Preminger gave me the assignment. He was extraordinarily trusting, and I was extraordinarily lucky, and it was very nice indeed of O’Connor.

Twelve years later, Donald E. Stanford, to whom I was a complete stranger, asked me to review Winters’ Forms of Discovery for the Southern Review, on the basis of a letter that I’d written to the Times Literary Supplement defending it. Another lucky break.


In 1971 I started offering a two-semester graduate seminar of my own devising called “Traditionalism and Experimentation in Poetry, 1880-1920.” I drew heavily on Winters’ work for the texts and problems for consideration.

Twenty years later the structure was pretty much the same (it had worked), but one way or another we were now looking at over four hundred poems—British, French, American—that varied greatly in quality and were drawn from six centuries.

I’d learned a lot along the way from the members of the seminar, among them the bilingual Richard Marchand, later Professor Marchand, who listened politely, but with what must have been mounting astonishment, to my at that time wildly inaccurate account of French metrics, and gently steered me towards enlightenment (see Berthon’s article in the Bibliography).

The new brutalism of Continentalist “Theory,” with its fostering of egotism, one-upmanship, and intellectual slovenliness, made its appearance in the Department after awhile, but didn’t become an epidemic, in part because there were Department members who were already interested, intelligently, in questions of literary principle.

And, given the chance, intelligent students obviously still enjoyed talking in detail about individual poems, and about the experiences being articulated in them, and about formal features as constituters of those experiences.


Through my colleague John Baxter, I heard from time to time about the doings of what I think of as the Compass group, centered around the passionate figure of Christopher Drummond at the University of Alberta. Compass was the excellent Wintersian journal that Baxter and others had co-edited.

On the two or three occasions when Drummond and I were in the same room together, we had nothing to say to each other, beyond the minimal exchange of social decencies. Perhaps we sensed, as I certainly did, that if we were to get into an argument, it would be bruising. But he was obviously a remarkable power for good, to judge from the people who were influenced by and loved him.

There is now a New Compass online (


I am grateful to anthologists like Angel Flores and Edward Engelberg, and to scrutinizers of formal features of poetry like Paul Fussell and Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and to historians of the Symbolist movement like Anna Balakian and A.G. Lehmann.

And to some of the other critics whose names I mention in these pages.

My gratitude, also, to the creators of the technology that has enabled me to do work for this site that would have been impossible back in the days of IBM Selectric typewriters and erase-tape.

And to the Dalhousie English Department (one of the three best in the country for awhile) for the sabbatical during which I drafted the first two articles, and for permitting me over the years to go about my work in my own idiosyncratic fashion.

And to the members of my seminar.

And to John Baxter and Tiree MacGregor and Helen Trimpi, for their devotion to the great tradition of English versification.

And to George Elliott Clarke, creator of Whylah and Beatrice, for his continuing belief that I may still have a few things to say about the art and craft of poetry.

And to my Webmaster, Rob Stevenson, computer wizard, conservator, designer, cabinet-maker extraordinaire, pool shark, gourmet cook, walking encyclopedia, and the erstwhile creator of the best line of donuts east of Montreal, who coded the whole thing, some of it more than once.

And to my designer, artist Barbara Bickle (, saintly in her patient problem-solving.

And to Joyce Stevenson, former art-card-publisher par excellence and so much more, for her proofreading.

And to Findlay Muir and David George for their audio expertise.

My special thanks to Nicholas Poburko, of Arion, for the pleasure of our conversations, and for his careful reading of an earlier draft of this web book.

Voices in the Cave of Being is for him, and for Tiree MacGregor and Michael Beatty.


The material by me in Voices from the Cave of Being is copyrighted (© John Fraser), but if anyone wants to reproduce portions of it for non-commercial purposes, they will have my blessing. Not, I imagine, that I could prevent them anyway where the Web is concerned.




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