A New Book of Verse
“Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui!” (The transparent glacier of unflown flights)
Note: This description of the evolution of A New Book, is relatively long and relatively general about its contents. The more recent Introduction is more specific.
In the early 1970s, Donald E. Stanford and I put together a couple of poetry anthologies, neither of them ever published, that owed a lot to the great American poet and critic Yvor Winters (1900-1968).
Don, fifteen years my senior, was a distinguished scholar (a specialist on Robert Bridges and Edward Taylor, among other things) and was co-editing the prestigious Southern Review, which he and Louis Simpson had revived at Lousiana State University in 1964. Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks were the original editors in the 1930s.
Don had himself been one of Winters’ students back in the Thirties, and Winters had written the foreword to a 1941 book of Don’s poems, and dedicated one of his own poems to Don.
I myself, teaching at Dalhousie in Nova Scotia, had published a handful of articles. None of them was on poetry, but there was one on theory, “Twentieth-Century American and British Poetics,” in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1963), which I had written while a graduate student at the University of Minnesota.
I hadn’t studied under Winters (or under Leavis for that matter; I’d gone to Oxford), but I had been aware of him for some time, going back to when I was staying with Mike and Norma Zwerin out at Forest Hills on Long Island in the early Fifties and browsed in their copy of In Defense of Reason. They knew of Winters through their friendship with Donald Justice, who had been a student of his.
In 1958, five of us at the University of Minnesota produced the first of what proved to be, mirabile dictu, twelve quarterly issues of GSE (The Graduate Student of English), a substantial ‘zine that we subsidized ourselves. The issue contained a review-article of mine, “A Great American Critic,” on Winters’ The Function of Criticism, and a copy of the issue was sent to him.
In his letter of thanks, he said, “As to Mr. Fraser’s article, I was greatly pleased by it. You don’t know how nice it is to be called a great critic instead of a son-of-a-bitch until you have been called the second a few hundred times.” I had called him “perhaps the most important American man of letters since Henry James.”
He took issue with a couple of my points (had I read Henry Adams’ Presidencies of Madison and Jefferson right through? “If not, he doesn’t know what I was talking about, or what he was talking about”). I stood my ground, and he replied briefly but civilly, and that was the extent of my correspondence with him.
We had asked him to write something for us. He declined, saying:
I am getting old, and perpetually tired, and barely have strength enough to keep up with my academic work day by day. I am not a resident poet or departmental ornament of any kind. I am a professor of English. I am on most of the important committees of the department (and they take up a good deal of time), direct doctoral dissertations, and so on.
In 1967, the Times Literary Supplement printed a letter of mine protesting against a comtemptuous review of Winters’ Forms of Discovery (1967; subtitle, Critical and Historical Essays on the Form of the Short Poem in English). It came to Don’s attention, and he asked me to review the book myself for the Southern Review.
Which I did, enthusiastically, after reading a lot among the poets Winters talked about.
I called the review “Winters’ Summa,” and concluded it by saying that he had given us “a great mind in a book which is compact, profound, and comprehensive.” The words were Winters’ own about the Renaissance poet Fulke Greville.
In the summer of 1969, I said to Don,
I still would love sometime to see a fat anthology based on Forms of Discovery that would include some of the poems by people like Crane, Taylor, Burns, Pound, and even Maurine Smith (whom, thanks again to Mrs. Winters, I’ve read at last and liked) that Winters praised.
“For that matter,” I added, “ a sort of Winters Book of Twentieth Century Verse might be extremely interesting.”
I’d been reading the recently published Quest for Reality; an Anthology of Short Poems in English (1969), put together by Winters and his younger colleague Kenneth Fields, himself a poet.
Don immediately suggested that we do the anthologies ourselves, starting with the twentieth-century one.
So I went through all of Winters’ writings that I could lay my hands on in Halifax and noted down all the poems that he had praised. And the following summer Carol and I wound up my first sabbatical with six weeks out in Berkeley, where I did a lot of photocopying in the University library, with a day-trip out to Stanford.
At some point, too, Don let me have copies of a couple of Winters’ reading lists from the Forties and Fifties for his lecture class on American poetry. They were prodigiously long, in part because of his naming of poems by other hands, including British and French ones, to be read in conjunction with those by each individual poet. The comparative method, as Pound had called it.
Don himself was teaching summer school at Hayward, and Edgar Bowers, up from Santa Barbara, was in Berkeley on a Guggenheim. Edgar wrote to us out of the blue when he heard we were coming, and drove us around for a day looking for an apartment.
Later on, he invited us to a party at his own apartment, and there, incredibly, in the flesh were Janet Winters (I went almost literally weak at the knees talking with her), Don and Maryanna Stanford, Helen and Wesley Trimpi, Josephine Miles, Douglas Peterson, and Kenneth and Giselle Fields, plus Edgar and his friend James. It was the most impressive gathering that I’ve ever found myself in. If only J.V. Cunningham could have been there too!
Subsequently we drove down to visit the overwhelmingly good and bright and unpretentious Janet Winters in Palo Alto, where she gave us lunch in the garden described in Winters’ poem “Time and the Garden,” and showed us his studio in the garden with the pictures of Baudelaire, Hardy, and Melville over his desk. I recall the house as being a modest bungalow.
But there were no Airedales, only a hugely friendly and undisciplined bulldog (Roxie?) whom Winters had bought and about whom Mrs. Winters (I could never think of her as Janet) remarked with quiet amusement that that was one instance when Reason had not prevailed.
Don was the most generous-spirited of collaborators, and his tone can be gathered from a letter in 1971:
First of all, about your revised Table of Contents—the chronological arrangement is a good idea and by all means let’s keep it. I go along with you about ninety percent of the way as far as omitted poems are concerned. There are a few exceptions, however. Of the poems you cut, I think we should keep the following [5 titles]. Of the poems you have marked with a question mark, let’s keep [5 titles]. Of the poems you have marked with a question mark, let’s omit the following [16 titles]. If we agree on these suggestions, we will have reduced your Table of Contents even further. Please let me know what you think.
Which I’m sure, judging from the final table of contents, was that I was happy to agree with him.
He also noted that we had approached, or planned to approach, Scribner’s, University of Chicago Press, Stanford Press, Swallow Press, Harper and Row, Doubleday, Houghton Mifflin, Crown, Dutton, Odyssey, and Prentice Hall. By the end, we had written to over forty publishers.
There were fifty-six poets in the book (including Maurine Smith), and two-hundred-and-sixty-eight poems, among them Pound’s “Canto IV” and seven of Adelaide Crapsey’s miniatures.
It got nowhere.
I would guess, now, that it was a non-starter, too specialized for the college market, too odd for the general market, and with over eight thousand dollars’ worth of copyright fees.
So in 1974 we cut our losses and turned to the more general anthology. Don, it emerged, had prepared an anthology himself some years before, also unpublished, so we were able to build on that.
As before, we worked harmoniously, and wound up with a neatly typed manuscript with line numbers and all.
Eighty-three poets. Two-hundred-and-thirty-seven poems, a few of them fairly long, some very short, but no excerpts. Opening, like Quest, with Wyatt, because of language problems with earlier works, and ending, also like Quest, with N. Scott Momaday.
We gave it the working title of An Adult Anthology of Anglo-American Poetry. though I wouldn’t want to risk that adjective now.
It too got nowhere.
What were we up to in it?
I can’t speak for Don, since we didn’t talk theory at all, but I know what I myself was doing.
Working on that review of Forms of Discovery, and going through the works of a number of the poets praised in it, had been an exhilarating experience. As I said in an article in the early Seventies,
There is nothing narrow about a poetic world inhabited by such works as Valéry's “Le Cimitière Marin,” Marvell's “The Garden, “Stevens' “The Snow Man,” Donne's “A Valediction: of my Name in the Window,” Pound's “Canto IV,” Boyd's “Fra bank to bank,” Baudelaire's “Les Petites Vieilles,” Rimbaud's “Larme,” Pope's “The Rape of the Lock,” Rochester's “Absent from thee,” Crane's “Repose of Rivers,” Yeats' “Crazy Jane Grown Old Lookd at the Dancers,” Burns' “Holy Willie's Prayer”, Robinson's “Rembrandt to Rembrandt,” and Corbière's “Cris d'Aveugle."
Reading Quest for Reality, on the other hand, had been a bit disappointing.
I’d opened it, in its handsome red-and-black-on-yellow jacket, in the expectation that this would be the definitive demonstration of that richness. And it did indeed contain a lot of marvelous poems.
But only four of the poems on my list were in it, and there were some odd-looking exclusions, particularly given Fields’ editorial claim that these hundred-and-eighty-five “excellent” poems were, in their opinion, “the most remarkable in the language.”
As Fields himself pointed out, there was nothing here between Charles Churchill’s satirical “Dedication to the Sermons” in the mid-18th century and the poems of F.G. Tuckerman a hundred years later. (What, no Blake-Wordsworth-Coleridge-Byron-Shelley-Keats-Browning-Tennyson-Arnold…?)
And there were some pretty odd-looking twentieth-century inclusions—William Carlos Williams’ “The Great Figure,” six short poems by Adelaide Crapsey, Agnes Lee’s eight-line “The Sweeper,” a few others that I won’t name.
So were we supposed to consider Adelaide Crapsey’s graceful but indubitably minor “Roma Aeterna,”
Is warm to-day
O Romulus, and on
Thine olden Palatine the birds
a more remarkable poem than “Gerontion,” or “Sailing to Byzantium, “ or “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire,” or…or…or…?
It seemed to me that a good many readers, unless they too had read Forms of Discovery sympathetically, would assume that any value system that led to such results must itself be pretty odd.
Back in the Forties, Winters had got tagged as the man who in 1937 called Robert Bridges’ daughter, Elizabeth Daryush (Elizabeth who?) “the finest English poet since T. Sturge Moore”—a double yuck, given the virtual invisibility of Moore outside the eccentric pages of Yeats’ Oxford Book of Modern Verse, where I’d read in our school library a longish poem by him about the preparation of Falernian wine in classical times.
I felt that present-day readers would simply not care to venture into the Great Grimpen Mire, any more than you’d have entangled yourself in the web of pre-Vatican III Catholic apologetics if you didn’t want to find yourself having to eat fish on Fridays and practice the rhythm method.
My own take on the matter now is that Quest had had to be finished fast because of the ravages of Winters’ at times (by his own account in an unself-pitying letter) agonizing cancer of the mouth and throat.
And that Winters, nearing the end, wanted poems, large or small, that he could say over with complete commitment—works with a sinewy strength where he himself could be, in different moods, without blurrings and fumblings and the need to make allowances—works displaying what, years before, he had called “the concentration and precision that one finds in the best poems.”
And that the winnowing was severe
And that no single term (remarkable, interesting, great, distinguished, perfect, important, excellent, estimable, best) could in fact have covered the highly personal result or been helped by the addition of the qualifying phrase “some of the.”
But it is a marvelous anthology all the same, and its table of contents and some of its texts are given in Ben Kilpela’s passionately partisan website about Winters, which sent me back into the past that I have been speaking about.
Well over half the hundred-and-eighty-five poems in it are ones that I myself was ignorant of before I read Forms, among them some of the greatest in the language. I consulted it frequently over the years in connection with the graduate seminar that I began in 1971, called “Traditionalism and Experimentation in Poetry, 1880-1920.” I consult it still from time to time.
But Kilpela is simply, if seemingly unshakably, wrong in his insistence that Winters considered these to be, all of them, the greatest poems in the language, particularly given Winters’ formulation, I cannot now recall where, that a great poet is a poet who has written at least one great poem. Winters himself never made the claim that Kilpela attributes to him, nor did Ken Fields, and it is obvious from his discussions of them in Forms that Winters did not at that point consider poets like Lee, Crapsey, Janet Lewis, Philip Pain, Mina Loy, and Charles Gullans to be great poets.
You really do have to be careful when ascribing absolute “beliefs” about this or that to a writer as complex as Winters.
Winters’ opinions evolved over the years (as late as 1946 he called Wordsworth “a great poet”), and there was never a neatly morticed fit between his theoretical formulations and his responses to particular poems. Or, for that matter, between his Johnsonian sound-bite pronouncements and the actual complexity and sophistication of his doing of theory (about which I say something in “Winters, Leavis, and Language”).
If there were, he wouldn’t have earned the esteem of so many strong- and far from simple- minded poets, among them Hart Crane, J.V. Cunningham, Donald Justice, Theodore Roethke, Robert Pinsky, Edgar Bowers, Allen Tate, Janet Lewis, Helen Pinkerton, Philip Levine, and Thom Gunn. And, more especially, the obvious deep affection of the group that Carol and I met that afternoon in Edgar Bowers’ apartment.
In any event, I felt, as did Don, that there was room for a more conventionally historical anthology, in which we would be doing something about the gaps, sometimes with poems that Winters himself had praised elsewhere, sometimes with ones that we ourselves, together or individually, particularly liked.
I say individually, since I certainly didn’t like all of Don’s strong nominations, nor did he like all of mine. But there was a substantial overlap between our tastes and those of Winters and Fields, not because we had been brainwashed, but because, coming to a number of the poems that Winters had singled out over the years, we genuinely liked them.
In fact we could have picked more of the poems in Quest. But we were trying to avoid duplication where possible.
As a result, two-thirds of our poems were not in Quest, and only half the poems in Quest were in our book. So we weren’t simply looting the till.
Here, then, with numerous additions of my own, is the table of contents of what I have decided to call simply A New Book of Verse.
The fact that the most recent poem in our joint selection, Scott Momaday’s “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion,” dates from forty years ago necessitated some rethinking. So did the fact that the most recent poet in our selection not connected with Stanford University—Louise Bogan—was born a century ago.
One thing has led to another, because of the freedom of the Web, and I have done some revisiting of other parts, particularly in the nineteenth century. When you don’t have to worry about the exigencies of the print page or ingratiating yourself with a publisher, interesting possibilities can open up.
A number of the poems can be accessed on Kilpela’s website and elsewhere. Some are on mine.
Some of the poems here were the only ones by that particular writer that we wanted to include. For other writers, such as Hardy, we could have added several others. But it wasn’t just space that was a consideration.
There was also the question of proportion and balance. Some poems went better together than others, and made for interesting contrasts and patterns that were clearer than in the Norton mega-books.
Don died in 1998 without our having talked any more about the project after we amicably let it drop in the later Seventies.
I have listed almost every poem that we agreed on, though finally jettisoning Wordsworth’s nauseating “Ode to Duty,” which Winters had praised, and a handful of others. I haven’t, so far as I can recall, reinstated any poems about which we disagreed.
I have also refrained from hindsight additions of poems in Quest that I now like more than I did at the time, such as Hardy’s poignant “The Shadow on the Stone” or several others in the impeccable Quest selection from him.
But I’ve chanced my arm and added over two hundred and fifty other poems on my own. Some of them are ones that Winters himself praised, such as Larkin’s “At Grass,” the two satirical poems by Burns, and most of the French ones. Some have been suggested to me by others.
I don’t know, well maybe I do, what Don would have made of a number of the additions. He hadn’t been eager to include even Mark Alexander Boyd’s lovely “Fra bank to bank,” and the single poem by Eliot on our joint list (to which I have now added a later one at Helen Trimpi’s suggestion) obviously constituted some kind of statement by him.
But “my” new poems are almost all well-made and clearly individuated, and the ones by Symons, Dowson, Gray, and Beardsley from the 1890s fill a gap and are much better than the works normally chosen for that period.
In fact, I think that Don, as co-editor of a major quarterly, was enough of a pragmatist to recognize that a more catholic approach would be necessary if one wanted to come up with something that had some chance of publication, not that the present anthology is intended for print.
As it is, my additions prior to the nineteenth century are very much in line with what we agreed on, and I’ve been able to restore a few titles that would have been in our own book of modern verse.
At the end of Forms, Winters comments, tantalizingly, that “Many [emphasis mine] of the best poets now writing are much younger than I am, and the final evaluation of their work will have to be done at a later date and by later men.” He also says, “I have not been able to write a satisfactory account of the minor poetry of this century, nor of the translators.”
He died at the age of sixty-seven, just when he was free at last of the chores and moral obligations of teaching. I have no idea what poets and poems as yet unmentioned by him he had in mind. Robert Barth, who edited the marvelous Selected Letters of Yvor Winters (2000), and who as a small-press publisher has done so much to keep the Wintersian tradition of verse alive, has been unable to shed any light on the matter.
I have looked at a lot of individual volumes from the three or four decades, and at a number of anthologies, including several very recent ones. But the processes that separate out the free-standing from the essentially (if interestingly) “period” and personal, and that have made earlier and still glowingly fresh poems like “Grief of a Girl’s Heart,” “Fra bank to bank” and “The Woodspurge” available to us, take time.
Nevertheless, there are strong poems here from the past four decades, and not only by poets associated with Stanford. When the third and fourth volumes of that magnificent trawling operation American Poetry; The Twentieth Century in the Library of America series appear, I imagine there will be some more.
In any event, it was the poems that I picked, not the poets.
At one point I had a couple of undernourished appendices containing a few titles from before Wyatt, plus several poems in French that Winters had praised.
But recently something went click and I thought the hell with it, this anthology doesn’t exist. I don’t have to justify it to would-be publishers or worry about readers having language problems (though of course there would be accompanying translations). Nor is it merely a contribution to Winters Studies.
So I put several of Winters’ French picks in with the rest of the poems, and added a few that he never mentioned and may have disapproved of (he never, so far as I know, referred to Villon in print), and felt much better for it. Most of the texts can be found in http://poesie.webnet.fr/.
Good and great poems ought to be able to stand side by side, without either condescension or awe, just as the images do in Wendy Beckett’s alphabetically organized 1000 Masterpieces of Western Art (1999). Interesting comparisons can suggest themselves, and it can become harder to claim, defensively, that this or that poet writing in English simply had to feel in such-and-such a way because that was how eveyone felt at that time.
I haven’t gone beyond Aragon. To judge from Paul Auster’s splendid Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry (1982), the strength, the very influential strength, of twentieth-century French poetry has been overwhelmingly in its vers libre.
I have also added a handful of German poems.
Winters, so far as I know, never mentioned any German poet in print. I have no idea why, except that maybe, for him, German poetry had simply not been a presence in English and American poetry the way that French poetry had been. But you can’t talk about the splendours and miseries of high Romanticism without considering their apotheosis in the great and lovely and tragic poetry of Hölderlin. And if you are unacquainted with Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, you will be missing some of the most beautiful poetry in any language.
There are excellent verse translations available—Barbara Gibbs’ and Cecil Day Lewis’s of “Le Cimitière Marin,” Wyatt Mason’s of Rimbaud, Walter Martin’s and Laurence Lerner’s of Baudelaire, Stephen Mitchell’s of Rilke, Christopher Middleton’s of Hölderlin, etc.
Bob Barth has come up with the table of contents of an anthology that Winters was planning to publish in the later 1920s to accompany a projected long critical essay of his in French on modern French poetry. It is a good deal more “modern” than what can be pieced together from his writings after 1930 (even Alfred Jarry is there), and a lot of the titles are unfamiliar to me.
Almost all the poems that Winters praised later on are in Angel Flores’ marvellous Anchor Anthology of French Poetry. A 1932 reference in Winters’ Selected Letters suggests that the two of them may have been acquainted.
It’s been fun kicking up my heels a bit. It’s also made me realize even more than before that Winters’ greatness as a critic did not lie in his constructing a dogma which, once you’d assimilated it, you could apply mechanically and decide who belonged inside the Good Kingdom and who didn’t, and what their rankings inside it were.
He was not a constrictor, he was a liberator, freeing you from an obligatory reverence for a handful of Big Names, introducing you to a much wider variety of interesting works, and sharpening your critical eyes, the way an art critic like Kenneth Clark or Wendy Beckett can help you to see paintings more clearly. He enabled you to read more widely and appreciatively on your own, including, at times, taking a non-campy interest in the badness of bad poems, and to browse with the pleasurable awareness that there might be good poems lurking in among the works of poets that you mostly didn’t care for.
I can see why other poets learned from him. He was the greatest critic of poetry in the language.
You mean, greater even than (gasp!) Harold Bloom??
Who’s he? No I mean greater than any of the important critics you could name.
Thom Gunn is quoted on a dust jacket as calling Forms “packed with brilliant perceptions.… I know of no other prose work from which one can learn so much about poetry, how it actually works, what makes it valuable.” In his fascinating recollections of Winters in Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, Donald Hall reports that, “In eight months I learned more about poetry from Winters than I learned from any other teacher.”
A New Book is still heretical, though not as heretical as Quest.
So what about The Canon? I mean, you know, the canon, the real one, the one that flourished in the good old days, before all the chatter about canon formation, deformation, reformation?
Well, if what’s being talked about is a canon of value, of a postulated enduring excellence (the classics, you know?), there never was one, as I point out in “Northrop Frye and Evaluation.”
There were never any tablets of stone that only Arnold’s Barbarians (don’t know, don’t care) or Philistines (do know, don’t like) could reject, as Leavis and Winters were demonstrating seventy years ago, not to speak of Pound, whose unintimidated pioneering affected both of them.
Just look at the roster of poets whom Samuel Johnson was writing prefaces about in the 1770s for a bookseller’s multi-volume collection, The Works of the English Poets. Wyatt, Sidney, Spenser, Jonson, and Donne, among others, aren’t there. Thomas Yalden, Wentworth Dillon, Gilbert West, George Stepney, and Elijah Fenton, among others, are.
The so-called canon of non-dramatic poetry that prospered for awhile was basically the Big Nine—Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold— with figures like Yeats and Frost added on because of their real or imagined likeness to most of the others—personality poets, autobiographers, creators of dramatic monologues, enunciators of major social or philosophical truths. Along with a shifting roster of so-called minor poets.
It was essentially a later Victorian formation, and was related to emergent imperialist energies, and to ideas of strong but sensitive English manhood and the supposed closeness of the English (I hesitate to say British) to a spiritually nurturing and unregimented Nature.
Plus a fascination with more or less exotic places (present and past) and with the colourful doings of forceful personalities. Plus a tincture of the supernatural, often mysterious and dangerous. Plus a belief in The Poet, the true poet, as a seer, a child of the Imagination.
Plus, with the extension of education to people with no Latin and less Greek, the conviction that the teacher’s task was to enable students to get to know as personalities the poets whose works they were presented with, and internalize their values—their, well all right, English values.
I won’t risk speaking about the comparable American canon.
But you know, I think that in its way our book, like Winters and Fields’, in fact reinforces the idea of tradition, of intelligent continuities, of a chronology of works recognizable as belonging in the same Wittgensteinian family.
And what struck me while doing the reading for “Winters’ Summa” was the richness of the experience that I was having, in more or less conventionally poetic terms. Those four-hundred-odd poems that Winters had spoken favourably of weren’t all about mortality, and the hovering void, and the need for stoical self-discipline, and so forth, though of course those were present.
There was magnificence there too, and variousness, a splendour of language, an enjoyment of the senses, a relishing of festiveness, a loving participation in nature, a deft and at times sportive handling of a variety of forms, including free verse. There was song and ironical social commentary as well as a meditative gravity about philosophical themes.
And the magnificence and the spirituality, for there was that too, weren’t obtained by breaking free from the constraints of “form,” felt as an inhibitor of individuality. They were enabled by it, including the enablings of good free verse.
There was a presence and pressure of individual utterance, the kind you experience when reading a poem aloud and respecting how the words and rhythms actually go, foot by foot, line by line, rather than plastering a generalized theatrical mood over them—Grief, Anger, Remorse, and so on, as in old-style hand-signalling elocution.
And though they rewarded being read more or less chronologically, you could also move around synchronically as well as diachronically, without a sense of receding vistas and “period” pastness, as if looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Or of an incomprehensibly fragmented variety of “modern” modes of consciousness, defined, often, by elliptical juxtapositions and overworked figurative language.
There have been major changes in concerns and styles over the years, of course, and in fact they are easier to discern here than in the conventional big-bore “canonical” anthology.
You can see how a kind of Renaissance plainness (syntactical, rhythmic, semantic) modulated into a greater and more figurative complexity, which shifted in its turn back into a greater “classical” plainness (but not the same as before), and thence to a more visionary and individualistic kind of richness, and so forth.
But you are still largely within common parameters of intelligence and craftsmanship, rather than looking at a host of boundaries created by the supposed deterministic nature of this or that period, or belief system, or individual or collective psychology.
And you aren’t tempted to condescend to manifestations of a less enlightened past, or, conversely, feel inferior to the presumed greater wisdoms of the past.
You can feel, too, that for the most part, the authors of these poems, if they had read some of the ones from other times, would not have been baffled and uncomprehending about what was going on in them.
And (why not?) I will even suggest that a lot of the poems in fact display, figuratively-speaking, that old touchstone, organic form. Any changes in them would be for the worse.
Should the present compilation more properly be called A Wintersian Book of English Verse? I don’t think so, and not merely for tactical reasons or because of divergences from his own judgments.
In a letter to Charles Gullans in 1954, Winters wrote,
This Great Man business gives me a pain in a place which I won’t mention. There are two views of the principles which I have taught you kids; (1) they are correct, in which case they are not my property but are universals and are in the public domain for anybody to use who has the talents to use them; (2) they are wrong, in which case it is up to you to work out something better.
If the poems here are good, and if their interrelationships are important, it is in and for themselves and not because of how they came to be assembled.
Winters’ voice didn’t come down from on high. Numerous poems that he praised are not here, and at times when he was particularly drawn to a poem by its matter, such as “Ode to Duty,” or by an over-all tonality, as with Sturge Moore, he could turn a blind eye to faults of expression which in other poems he would have anathematized.
But he was more right about more things that count than any other writer on poetry in the language, and it is a melancholy sign of the times that his great and impeccably edited Selected Letters have apparently sold fewer than three-hundred copies in four years. So is his memory-hole exclusion, along with Janet Lewis, Edgar Bowers, Helen Pinkerton, and others, from Dana Gioia, David Mason, and Meg Schoerke’s thousand-page Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2004) and Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy’s two-thousand-page Norton Anthology of Poetry, fifth edition (2004).
A New Book of Verse is dedicated to his memory, and to the memory of Donald E. Stanford.
Not everyone will like everything that’s here, or like everything to the same degree. How could they? I don’t myself.
But if you care about poetry as expressive form and not just versified autobiography or philosophy or social commentary,
—and have had reservations of your own about the conventional canon and the blooming buzzing confusions of our current chief Romantic prophet,
—and feel oppressed by the carnival-barker atmosphere of some anthologies (a journalist, reproved by his editor for insufficient enthusiasm, once began his next news story with, “Two hundred of Canada’s greatest living poets ... ”),
—and aren’t sufficiently nourished by come-one-come-all free-versifying;
—and if you want to read or reread some of the best poetry from seven centuries as living language, the shapely utterance of living, breathing, thinking selves whom (as experienced in the poems) you can for the most part empathize with,
—and escape for awhile from the crudity of the conventional classical/romantic antithesis;
—and if you like coming upon titles that have rarely or never made it into the majors,
—and appreciate the high specific gravity possible to small poems, and the dexterity of lighter ones,
—and welcome opportunities for creative comparisons, whether of different treatments of the “same” subject (such as “Nature”) or of poems in different languages,
—and are intrigued by contiguities of birth-years (Hopkins/Mallarmé, etc.),
—well, you could do a lot worse than take A New Book of Verse into the post-apocalyptic wilderness with you.
Or even just to the summer cottage.
My thanks to Nicholas Poburko for his help with the map of recent American poetry, and for bringing to ny attention Stevens’ “The Irish Cliffs of Moher,” Dryden’s “Can Life Be a Blessing?” and Barth’s ”A Letter to My Infant Son.” And to Eric Ormsby for his splendid article in the May 2004 New Criterion that brought Herbert Morris, and particularly “House of Words,” to my attention. And to Louis Simpson for his translations in the November 1995 number of the same journal of four poems by Marceline Desbordes-Valmore. I had spotted “Les Roses de Saadi” myself, but not “Les Séparés.” And to Roger Lonsdale for his anthology Eighteenth-Century Women Poets (1990), and to Philip Dacy and David Jauss, Angel Flores, Annie Finch, and Robert Richman for the anthologies described in the Voices bibliography
And to John Baxter for reminding me of my earlier fondness for Herbert’s “Affliction,” surely his finest poem next to “Church Monuments,” and for suggesting Fulke Greville’s “The earth with thunder torn” and “In night when colours all to black are cast,” Ben Jonson’s “On Lucy, Countess of Bedford” and “A Nymph’s Passion,” and Kenneth Fields’ “Come: the Sirens.” And to Tiree MacGregor for sending me back to Jonson’s “My Picture Left in Scotland.” And to Catherine Addison for making up my mind for me about Ransom’s “Piazza Piece” and making me think about Wilmot’s “The Imperfect Enjoyment.” And to Robert Barth for his pondered answers to my questions.
And to Helen Trimpi for replying with characteristic generosity to my request and suggesting, with reasons, adding Chaucer’s “Gentilesse,” Donne’s “Good Friday: Riding Westward,” Hopkins’ “No worst, there is none,” Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” Pound’s “Doria” (transliterated from the Greek), Winters’ “A Testament,” Bowers’ “An Elegy,” and Davis’s “After a Time,” all of which are now in there.
And to Gordon Harvey for the correspondence that has resulted, directly or indirectly, in my adding Frost’s “Directive,” Yeats’ “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” the anonymous “Whanne mine eyen misten,” Stevens’ “The House Was Quiet,” Lawrence’s “Snake,” Williams’ “Queen Anne’s Lace” and “The Yachts,” Van Doren’s, “Man,” Lewis’s “Baby Goat,” Pitter’s “The Estuary,” Stanley Kunitz’s “The Summing-Up,” Roethke’s “The Heron,” “Plaint,” and “Meditation in Hydrotherapy,” Larkin’s “The Explosion,” Gunn’s “Vox Humana,” and Fields’ “Aubade” and “Come:the Sirens.”
And to Timothy Steele for suggestions that have resulted in my including poems by Siegfried Sassoon, Sterling Brown, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wilbur, Henri Coulette, Charles Gullans, X.J. Kennedy, Wendy Cope, R.S.Gwynn, Catherine Tufariello, and Joshua Mehigan.
And to Clive Wilmer, ditto, for poems by Mary Herbert, Chidiock Tichborne, John Peck, and Robert Wells, and “In a valley of this restles mynde.”
And to Benoit Tadié for a remark or two that caused me to make a broader selection from Apollinaire.
Rob Stevenson is the coder and webmaster. Voices in the Cave of Being would have been impossible without his expertise and commitment.
July 2003 [revised November 2004 and August 2007]