Yvor Winters Essay - Critical Essays


The change in poetic forms from experimental to traditional—from Imagistic free verse to formalist poetry using the traditional plain style or post-Symbolist imagery—which Yvor Winters’s poetry exhibits after 1930 is so dramatic that it is easy to overlook the continuity of certain stylistic features and thematic preoccupations throughout his career. From the very beginning of his poetic life, he abhorred an indulgent rhetoric in excess of subject matter; always he attempted an exact adjustment of feeling to intellectual content. He paid strict attention to the value of each word as an amalgam of denotative, connotative, rhythmic, and aural properties; to the integrity of the poetic line and the perfect placing of each word within it; and to the clarity and economy of a style that avoids cliché. A poem was for him a means of contemplating human experience in such a way that the meaning of that experience and the feelings appropriate to the meaning are precisely rendered.

The Immobile Wind

Thematic continuity exists also. His first volume of poems, The Immobile Wind, whatever immaturities of style it may exhibit, contains themes that he worked and reworked in all his poems thereafter. As a collection, it speaks of humans alone in an empty universe; their end is death and their choices are existence or creation. They live and observe. If this is all, life remains an unrealized potential, the experience of which may be beautiful or terror-ridden but will lack the possibility of meaning that artists may be able to create. To do this, artists must choose their reality, must will it; to create their own world, they must give over the things of this one, for this world is merely phenomenal, the raw material of vision, a means at best, not an end: “And all these things would take/ My life from me.” The end for all is death, and in addition for artists, the possibility of awareness. Religion offers no solace. The subject of the book is the poet, his growth and mission and death. The images in The Immobile Wind are sharp and self-contained and their meanings elusive; as one reads through these poems, however, the subjects and images repeat themselves, interweaving, and patterns of meaning begin to emerge.

In its continual allusiveness to itself and to its own images and in its occasional obscurities, The Immobile Wind is an irritating book, but it is not impenetrable. More accessible is The Magpie’s Shadow, which consists of a series of six-syllable poems (a few stretch to seven) grouped according to the season of the year. Each is intended to convey a sharp sense impression; each as an evocation of a season is evocative also of the passage of time and hence of change and death. “The Aspen’s Song,” from the summer section, is characteristic: “The summer holds me here.” That is the poem. The aspen tree is celebrating its moment of being alive, a moment that creates an illusion of permanence and immobility, an illusion because the summer is transient and the motion of change is there in the tree at every moment. The motion/stasis paradox of this image—present also in the oxymoronic title The Immobile Wind—recurs through Winters’s poetry. No doubt inspired by translations of American Indian and Japanese originals, it also may be seen as an early manifestation of what he later came to call the post-Symbolist method: the sharp sensory image of metaphysical import.

The Bare Hills

The Bare Hills is Winters’s last and most successful book devoted entirely to experimental forms. It is divided into three sections. The first, called “Upper River Country: Rio Grande,” consists of twelve poems, each describing a month of the year; together, they are emblematic of the poet’s progress through life, the poet growing more sensitive to the beauty and brutality around him and more aware of the meaninglessness of life and the inevitability of death. The second, called “The Bare Hills,” consists of seven groups of three, four, or five poems each; it tells of the poet surrounded by death and cruelty but trying to learn, feeling inadequate to his task of creation, lacking an audience: He has but “this cold eye for the fact; that keeps me/ quiet, walking toward a/ stinging end: I am alone. . . .” The third section, called “The Passing Night,” consists of two prose poems describing a bleak landscape of endless cold, a minimal level of existence, almost void of hope; the poet waits and remembers and observes, and that is all.

In many of these poems, Winters is continuing to experiment with the evocative image. For example, here is the third of four stanzas from one of the finest poems in this collection, “The Upper Meadows”:


(The entire section is 1987 words.)