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A Critique of Experimental Poetry

ISSUE:  Summer 1937

Primitivism and Decadence: A Study of American Experimental Poetry. By Yvor Winters. New York: Arrow Editions. $2.50.

In the five essays which compose “Primitivism and Decadence,” Mr. Yvor Winters has given us the fruits of a study begun in 1920 and continued at intervals to the present time. During these years his original purpose to furnish “a sympathetic elucidation of the methods of the Experimental poets . . . developed of necessity into an elucidation of their short-comings.” The poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Hart Crane, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, “H. D”, W. C. Williams, and Marianne Moore is subjected to acute and often accurate criticism and, together with the product of the entire tribe of free versifiers—a tribe to which Mr. Winters once belonged—is condemned with varying degrees of severity, Dr. Williams, Miss Moore, and Wallace Stevens emerging with laurels least blasted. Mr. Winters classifies poets into four general groups: “. . . the second-rate, those whose gift for language is inadequate to their task, poets such as Byron, D. H. Lawrence, or Poe, and regardless of their other virtues or failings; the major, those who possess all of the virtues, both of form and of range; the primitive, those who utilize all of the means necessary to the most vigorous form, but whose range of material is limited [this class includes those poets usually called “minor” in the best sense of the epithet]; and the decadent, those who display a fine sensitivity to language and who may have a very wide scope, but whose work is incomplete formally . . . or is somewhat but not too seriously weakened by a vice of feeling . . .” The contemporary poets I have listed sin by being either primitive or—more usually—decadent, or both. As countervailing examples of excellence, demonstrating the superiority of “traditional” over “experimental” poetry, and a fortiori over “pseudo-traditional or ‘literary’ ” poetry (Swinburne, A. E. Housman) and “pseudo-experimental” poetry (E. E. Cummings), Mr. Winters acclaims Robert Bridges—”a finer poet and a saner man” than Pound or Eliot; T. Sturge Moore (was it Max Beerbohm who once referred to him as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”?); and finally, Bridges’ daughter, Mrs. Elizabeth Daryush, who “is one of the few great poets living.” Although Mr. Winters nowhere explicitly says so, I fancy these poets for him best represent, or most nearly represent, contemporary major poetry in English.

This book deserves a careful reading from those disposed to dissent from the judgments I have recorded, as well as from those who may be gratified by them. Mr. Winters’ style is lucid; his ratiocination is sustained and self-consis-tent; and his analyses of poetic phenomena are illuminating. In particular, by adding to a terminology in part derived with due credit from Kenneth Burke’s “Counterstatement” he has developed a useful classification of poetry according to the method by which the thinking of the poet proceeds: repetitive, or logical, or narrative, or pseudo-referential (in which syntax and diction suggest the presence of a more intellectual logic than the passage contains), or qualitative (in which logic vanishes in whole or part from syntax and diction, as well as from subject-matter), and so on. He also develops in the long final essay an interesting scansion of free-verse rhythms: he believes that in good free verse, half or more of the lines will contain the same number of free verse feet, the foot being defined as “one heavily accented syllable, an unlimited number of unaccented syllables, and an unlimited number of syllables of secondary accent.” Although I cannot always agree with his indicated reading of either his own or others’ free-verse lines, his scheme does enable the reader to detect more regularity in the free verse of, say, “H. D.” or Dr. Williams, than the reader probably had detected previously. Finally, Mr. Winters seems to me not only acute but just in the greater part of his comments on the poetry of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, save for the precursors of Romanticism. The nineteenth century he mostly passes by in silence.

But why is it that such cogent generalizations and so equable a judgment of older poetry should produce such strange aberrations in estimating the poetry of today—aberrations which a reading of the examples Mr. Winters gives us of the poetry of Bridges, Mr. Moore, and Mrs. Daryush serves only to italicize? Mainly because Mr. Winters, like others who are fond of employing the word “morality,” has become unduly suspicious of his own experience and the experience of others. He is another victim of Irving Babbitt’s “will to refrain.” He says unexceptionably that “the creation of a form is nothing more nor less than the act of evaluating and shaping (that is, controlling) a given experience”; and—though here the word “spiritual” is a bridge to sterility—that “the spiritual control in a poem, then, is simply a manifestation of the spiritual control within the poet.” Granting these statements of principle, does it follow that “in Collins’ ‘Ode to Evening’ we find a melancholy which at moments, as in the description of the bat, verges on disorder, and which at all times is far too profound to arise from an evening landscape alone”? How does Mr. Winters know that the emotion in Collins’ poem is “too profound to arise from an evening landscape alone”? To me, “As musing slow, I hail Thy genial loved return” seems eminently “a manifestation of the spiritual control within the poet.” Here, though difference of opinion is possible, debate is not; for there is no common ground, and therefore there is nothing to debate. What Mr. Winters conceives to be facts are not for me facts at all. We must fall back simply on an estimate of each other’s system of values. To me, his system of values seems timid. To him, my system of values will seem barbaric—if it seems to be a system at all. And that’s that. Moreover, from this difference in the organization of our lives will naturally flow strong differences in our estimate of contemporary art— that art which is most completely entangled with the circumstances that mold our lives, and between which and ourselves the intervening experience of several generations has not yet established stabilizing patterns of connection. Consequently, extreme differences in valuation are possible to two people, both of whom might be willing—as I would be willing—to use most of the machinery for analysis which Mr. Winters provides.

It is from this primary flaw that the subsidiary errors I seem to perceive in Mr. Winters’ criticism proceed. For one thing, following a procedure made fashionable by Mr. Eliot in some of his strictures on Shelley, Mr. Winters obliges himself to fail to comprehend quite plain passages in the work of poets of whom he disapproves; his analysis of a passage from Hart Crane’s “Faustus and Helen” on page 28 of his book is a case in point. Again, his notion of poetic form seems to me too unreservedly cubist. He restricts poetic form too much to conjunctions of lines and stanzas into blocks, cemented by the order and interplay of their rhythms and rhymes, and fails to allow sufficiently for the order attained by patterns of images or feelings or ideas. For example, in analysing a poem by Dr. Williams on page 67 of this book, Mr. Winters finds the core of the poem in a block of eight lines near the center, with a preceding and succeeding block of lines in which the language is of less intensity. To me, the pattern of the poem is best symbolized by a line perpendicular to three horizontal planes, representing a descent from the sky in the opening lines, through the stiff tracery of vegetation resisting the re-birth of early spring in the middle lines, to the subterranean plane of the final few lines, in which this vertical line of perception finds its root and base in the words “profound change.” And, finally, in his comments on the qualitative progression employed, for example, by Mr. Pound — comments, incidentally, involving a strange use of the words “connotative” and “denotative”—Mr. Winters seems to overlook the fact that logic, or what he might call denotative statement, is, so to speak, an army of occupation ever pushing out into territory which it could not enter, had not trails been previously blazed by the language of metaphor and simile. That language in its moment of inception must often—if not always—have seemed to exhibit a purely qualitative progression—the language of connotation, in Mr. Winters’ parlance.

To seem cogent, these objections require an expansion and exemplification which cannot here be given them. Suffice it to say that the history of literature, as Matthew Ax-nold pointed out, has frequently manifested an alternating rhythm of periods of expansion and periods of concentration. In the latter periods, the resources of rationality are used to define and illuminate poetry, but at the same time they imprison it. Complementary expansive experiment is needed to release and invigorate it. There are two forms of annihilation which perennially threaten art: the annihilation of evaporation—formlessness; and the annihilation of petrifaction — conventionality. It is because Mr. Winters seems to me likely to land those poets who heed him in the latter predicament that, while saluting his integrity, I cannot applaud his preferences in the poetry of today.


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