About Yvor Winters
Yvor Winters (b. 1900) was notorious in his lifetime for his recalcitrant literary criticism which rejected modernism in favour of reason in poetry. His own poetry, after a youthful dalliance with imagism, similarly stands outside the mainstream of poetic developments in the twentieth century with its rigorous formalism and emphasis on morality and the rational.
Winters was born in Chicago but grew up in Eagle Rock, California. In 1917 he became a founding member of the University of Chicago Poetry Club where he mixed with a number of writers, including his future wife and poet, Janet Lewis. However, his undergraduate studies were interrupted when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. This led to a spell in St. Vincent’s Sanatorium in Sante Fe where he wrote his first two books of poetry, both of which were influenced by imagism. After his recovery, Winters stayed south for the sake of his health, teaching in schools in the coal-mining camp towns of Madrid and Cerillo, New Mexico. The terrible conditions suffered by the workers in these communities, and the consequent lawlessness affected him considerably. In 1925 he resumed his studies in the United States, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Romance Languages and Latin at the University of Colorado. Around 1930 his creative work underwent a complete volte face, as he repudiated his early influences, turning instead to a severe formalism partly influenced by his reading of those Renaissance poets quoted in his poem ‘Time and the Garden’: Gascoigne, Ben Jonson, Greville, Raleigh and Donne. The change in his poetic style can be seen in subsequent collections and it remained his poetic course for the rest of his life. Winters spent two years teaching at the University of Idaho in Moscow before entering Stanford University, first as a graduate student, receiving his PhD in 1934, and then as a member of the English department. Among his students at Stanford were an extraordinary group of younger poets, including Thom Gunn, Robert Pinsky, Philip Levine, Donald Hall and Robert Hass, many of whom disagreed with his theories on poetry, but who were challenged and invigorated by his passionate teaching style. In his lifetime he was just as well known for his books of criticism as his poetry, including Primitivism and Decadence: A Study of American Experimental Poetry (1937) and the tellingly entitled In Defense of Reason (1947) which collected together three earlier volumes of criticism. While dividing opinion, Winters was also recognised with a number of awards including a Bollingen Prize for his Collected Poems and awards from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Other more famous poets have praised his poetry, including Robert Lowell, who described him as “an immortal poet, a poet of great kindness and stamina.” He continued to teach at Stanford until 1966, dying two years later from throat cancer.
Winters was a man whose mind was “assertively made up” (Denis Donoghue) and he certainly never shied away from controversy, publicly attacking Romanticism in literature, and taking on such American literary icons as T. S. Eliot and Emerson. Some of his judgements still seem perverse, his preference for Robert Bridges to Eliot for instance, or Charles Churchill to Alexander Pope, but his belief in the importance of poetry as “a statement in words about a human experience” is a useful corrective to self-indulgent emotionalism. In one essay Winters says, “The basis of evil is in emotion; good rests in the power of rational selection in action,” the antithesis of the dominant cultural concept of art as a form of self-expression
The poems you can listen to here put these beliefs into artistic practice in their formal balance and their considered unfolding of a central theme. His predominant concern is the struggle between man’s rational mind and the sensual world which can overwhelm it. In ‘The Journey’ and ‘John Sutter’ men are undone by the desires of the flesh and greed for gold respectively. In both, the pristine qualities of the American landscape stand in contrast to the activities of men. ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ reinterprets the bare narrative of the medieval original as a conflict between the rational soul and the sensory soul. Given these preoccupations, it’s not surprising that his reading style is unhurried and magisterial; offering no explanations or anecdotes, he prefers to let the poems speak for themselves. In Winters’ version, what saves Gawain from temptation is his “ancient stubbornness,” forged “by practice and conviction”. It’s a description that seems particularly fitting for Winters himself, both as poet and critic.
His recording was made on 2 July 1945 at Stanford University, Stanford, California.
Poems by Yvor Winters
Books by Yvor Winters
Diadems and Fagots
The Giant Weapon
Collected Poems (revised 1960)
Yvor Winters: Selected Poems
Ohio University Press, 2002