A byline was omitted in the July 3 Book World section. The Poet's Choice column was written by Robert Pinsky. (Published 07/06/05).
Literary criticism doesn't last very long. A professor is hailed as a giant by students and young followers, and 20 years later they have written books to obliterate his, straining for eminence themselves only to be obliterated in their turn by the next generation.
Poets, in contrast, love to salute their elders, predecessors and mentors. Not long before he died, Thom Gunn edited for the Library of America the selected poems of his teacher -- and mine -- Yvor Winters (1900-1968).
Winters was known in his lifetime as a fierce, judgmental critic. His essays on Wallace Stevens as a hedonist, Robert Frost as a "spiritual drifter" and Hart Crane as a saint of the wrong religion offended many at the time and remain worth reading. As a young man, Winters hailed Stevens and William Carlos Williams as great poets long before they were familiar names in academic writing or in journalism. But it may be for his own graceful, sweet poems that he is best remembered.
One of my favorites is "A Summer Commentary," with its lush final stanza.
A Summer Commentary
When I was young, with sharper sense,
The farthest insect cry I heard
Could stay me; through the trees, intense,
I watched the hunter and the bird.
Where is the meaning that I found?
Or was it but a state of mind,
Some old penumbra of the ground,
In which to be but not to find?
Now summer grasses, brown with heat,
Have crowded sweetness through the air;
The very roadside dust is sweet;
Even the unshadowed earth is fair.
The soft voice of the nesting dove,
And the dove in soft erratic flight
Like a rapid hand within a glove,
Caress the silence and the light.
Amid the rubble, the fallen fruit,
Fermenting in its rich decay,
Smears brandy on the trampling boot
And sends it sweeter on its way.
The poem is a compact spiritual autobiography, calling up a life where sharp sensory attention was countered and questioned by another, analytic kind of attention.
About his own work, Winters once wrote in a poem, "What I did was small but good." In his introduction, Gunn, whose fellow students in Winters's classes included Donald Hall and Philip Levine, calls Winters "a maverick's maverick." He also writes, "I can attest to his being the most exciting teacher I ever had; even to disagree with him was exciting. Yet both his criticism and his teaching were derived from his practice as a poet, which was all-important." (Yvor Winters's poem "A Summer Commentary" can be found in "Yvor Winters: Selected Poems," edited by Thom Gunn. Library of America. Copyright © 1927, 1930, 1931, 1934, 1937, 1940, 1943, 1950, 1952, 1960, 1966 by Ivor Winters; copyright © 1999 by Janet Lewis Winters.)