Sunday, April 18, 2010

2 Poems from Yvor Winters

It's interesting, isn't it? how few people -- adult, or better say middle-aged, middle-class people anyway -- will say of themselves that they don't read books at all, even now, when there would seem to be little stigma still attached to the abandonment of literacy. Most, if pressed, will talk of never having time to read, of wishing they did, etc., etc. Gives me hope, that embarrassment. It suggests that they know better, doesn't it?

One of the reasons I've heard most often from people who say they don't or can't read poetry is that poetry requires some special knowledge; that to enjoy poetry, one has to understand the forms, to have been educated about things like mythology, to know the names of flowers and plants, to know what and who to read. Poetry, the reading of it if not the writing, in the popular imagination nowadays, is such a specialized hobby that even people who read prose in great variety and even depth, have somehow been made to feel that there is more effort required than satisfaction to be found in poetry.

I know that I was taught badly and that it wasn't until I was well away from school that I found teachers, friends, in books and elsewhere, to tell me that none of that is so. I grew up in a place where books were not read much, were discussed not at all, and where reading, though a part of daily life, in newspapers and letters and in practical ways, was left largely to old women. So If we must concede that there are, always have been and always will be, people for whom books mean less than books mean to those of us who cannot, who refuse to imagine life without them, that there are people in fact for whom books mean nothing, I can accept that. Makes me sad, but I know it's true. What I have trouble with is the acceptance, even among my friends in the book business, or who work in libraries, or publishing, of this embarrassingly widespread mistake that poetry is nothing much to do with them, that it survives independent of their reluctance to read it, and that those somehow better suited to it might be left to see to it themselves. To my mind, selling or lending computer manuals or books of wedding etiquette requires of the bookseller or the librarian nothing more than sufficient shelf-space. To sell or lend poetry, it seems, for most of us, comes to the same thing, but that isn't true.

Just as I had to learn that poetry was not all dull classroom kerfuffle: forced adolescent mumbling, ill-educated chalk charts and "AABBAA," so I think those of us at least who sell the stuff might sample our wares with less reluctance if we understood that when we address a customer, a customer either eager or reluctant to buy a book of poetry, it is not enough to admit our ignorance, and that our embarrassment doesn't quite cover the sin. That we ought to know better is not enough, because we have the books right there, whole shelves of them, and unlike, say, a manual of carpentry, which besides being deadly dull to me would also be incomprehensible, the subject of poetry is the same as the books we do read. The subject of poetry, all poetry, is no less accessible for not being in prose. And the way of poetry is not nearly so thorny and rough as we've foolishly been led to believe. Honestly, it ain't.

Here then, a case in point. I came to read Yvor Winters because his selected poems appeared in the American Poets Project series, from The Library of America. I've enjoyed this series, and I've mentioned it often here. The books are uniformly attractive, well edited, well made, and neither intimidating nor difficult to come by. The volume of Winters' poems was selected and edited by Thom Gunn, a poet I already loved, himself one of Winters' many pupils. Yvor Winters received his doctorate from, and then taught at Stanford University for many years. Among his more famous students, besides Gunn, were Donald Hall, N. Scott Momaday, Robert Pinsky, John Matthias, and Robert Hass. They would all seem to have liked and respected the man, both as a teacher and as a poet. That's impressive. Winters actually wrote comparatively little in his 68 years, but the little he did produce is uniformly recognized by knowledgeable critics as having been among the best of his time. I trust a writer for whom infrequent composition and publication was less a matter of reluctance or insecurity than perfectionism; I may confidently read whatever I find. Finally, Gunn's brief introduction to the little American Poets Project volume was enough to reassure me that despite a fair discussion of such things as Augustan style and the rejection of modernism in favor of traditional forms, that in the poems themselves I might as easily read without knowing any of that as otherwise. It was helpful, learning something of why and how Winters wrote as he did, and that he trained and loved Airdales, but, as Gunn says:

"What should be emphasized about Winters' poetry is that the leash and the training were never more important than the animal itself. Far from conservative politically, he knew that good poetry is more than a matter of simple good manners. The life of poetry is not just contained but is defined by its form."

So how does that last statement support my argument that anyone can and should read Yvor Winters' poems? Because that is the secret of reading good poetry, I've found, that it is in the reading that the form is made clear, that it is in reading a good poem that one's curiosity about not just the poem itself, its subject and its music are first and best explained, but that it is from that satisfaction comes the curiosity to read more, to read other poems, other poets, like and unlike the poem already pleasing, and that from reading poetry comes the curiosity to understand the way in which it was written and why, and not the other way 'round.

The two poems I've read here, in their very different ways, are not only representative of Yvor Winters, but also of what poetry can do that prose either can't or would take much longer in the doing. The first is a perfect example of why even a title dependent on at least a passing acquaintance with classical mythology need be no barrier to the enjoyment of a poem. Don't know the story of "Apollo and Daphne"? Well, look that up later, in Bulfinch, or Graves, or if you must, just Google it. For now though, just listen to the way Winters, even in my less than happy reading of his sinuous long lines, moves the fire and traps it in "Time's slow agony," how, in those last two stately lines, he captures the whole mystery, and tragedy, of the supernatural. In the title of the second poem, "On Rereading a Passage from John Muir," Winters tells at least those of us as bookish as we are appreciative of nature, all we need to know about what's happening in the poem, and we can sense the poet talking to us much more conversationally about something we might have thought ourselves, once or twice, on a walk outside. But listen how simply and beautifully, and with what economy and dignity, Yvor Winters says in this poem what it would have taken me even longer to say than it has to introduce the poet here!

In going on this way rather than just posting these two short poems as I read them aloud last night and tonight, my idea was not just to share the poems themselves, or to encourage others to read them for themselves, or to read them better aloud than I've done, but also to address directly my friends, fellow booksellers, and committee members, my coworkers, and my fellow prose readers, and give us all an excuse, during National Poetry Month, to try something that may be new to most of us: to pick up one of those poetry books that we sell, to go sit in some comfortable chair for a night or two, for an hour or two, and just read a poem out loud. Read something familiar or not. Read aloud, and listen, and worry about metre and myths and history and voice -- yours and the poet's -- later. Go on, get past that reluctance that is really just, for most of us, the remembered embarrassment of stumbling through a reading of Romeo and Juliet in a freshman English class all those years ago.

If you read, you ought to read what is good, at least now and then, and poetry is the best of what can be done with words. And if, like me, you earn your living selling books, and you sell so much as a single slim volume of poems, you really haven't any excuse for not knowing better. You do know better. It's National Poetry Month, for heaven's sake, so don't just print up a little sign and make a short stack of Mary Oliver on the counter! Be brave. Read a poem! Read Yvor Winters!

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