A Match Made in Poetry: Yvor Winters vs. Hart Crane
In his review of Hart Crane's first book of poems, White Buildings (1926), Yvor Winters called Crane "one of the small group of contemporary masters," a poet whose progress he had watched over the last eight years "with mingled feelings of admiration, bewilderment, and jealousy." But even as he found much to praise in Crane's work, Winters also worried over what he perceived to be its two "faults," namely "an occasional tendency to slip into rather vague rhetoric" and "an attempt to construct poems of a series of perceptions so minute and so thoroughly insulated from each other that little unifying force or outline results." In other words, Winters found Crane's poems at times thematically unclear, haphazard and hard to follow; like the frenetic jazz club in "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen," Crane's poems were characteristically "striated with nuances, nervosities":
O, I have known metallic paradises
Where cuckoos clucked to finches
Above the deft catastrophes of drums.
While titters hailed the groans of death
Beneath gyrating awnings I have seen
The incunablula of the divine grotesque.
This music has a reassuring way.
With their dazzling imagery and diction and frequent "use of the oblique or psychological presentation," Winters admitted to finding it at times "extremely easy to slide off the surface [of the poems] without having had the slightest idea of what one has been on." Nonetheless, he would conclude the review by declaring himself "convinced that [Crane] deserves the careful attention which a comprehension of his work requires."
By the time Winters wrote the review (it appeared in Poetry in early 1927), he and Crane had been communicating by mail for a few months, a correspondence that began when Winters wrote to Crane following the publication of a debate in letters between Crane and Harriet Monroe, Poetry's founding editor. This infamous exchange was provoked by Monroe's response to Crane's "At Melville's Tomb," a poem whose "rhythms and ideas" interested the editor, but whose obliquity challenged her confidence: "I am wondering by what process of reasoning you would justify this succession of champion mixed metaphors," she wrote. "The packed line should pack its phrases in orderly relation…in a manner tending to clear confusion instead of making it worse confounded." In his defense, Crane responded (in part):
[A]s a poet I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness…than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations at the cost of limiting my subject matter and perceptions involved in the poem.
This may sound as though I merely fancied juggling words and images until I found something novel, something esoteric; but the process is much more predetermined and objectified than that. The nuances of feeling and observation in a poem may well call for certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority, and that to deny it is to limit the scope of the medium so considerably as to outlaw some of the richest genius of the past.1
In the end, Monroe accepted Crane's theory (and his poem), but maintained that he carried this mode of writing's logic to a "remote and exaggerated extreme."
Winters, however, was impressed with Crane's spirited defense and would remain an enthusiastic, vociferous supporter of his poetry for many months to come. In letters from the period, Winters repeatedly singles out Crane as one of the best poets of their generation, "a great poet," "the greatest thing on the horizon right now." In July 1928, Winters's advocacy of Crane's work would compel him to send Monroe a crisp letter of reproof in which he painstakingly parsed "Moment Fugue," another poem of Crane's which the editor had found simply too impenetrable to publish. But despite such shows of solidarity, Winters's trouble with the "faults" in Crane's work seems never to have disappeared; rather, it was merely overshadowed (albeit temporarily) by admiration for his fellow poet's undeniable talent and vitality. No doubt Winters expected his friend to temper his ecstasy over time, to forsake the "anti-intellectual tendencies" in his work and settle into a mode of composition founded more on common reason than imaginative association.
The Bridge would end their friendship. During its composition, Crane had been sending Winters sections of the long poem, and Winters apparently thought highly enough of what he had seen ("seven or eight sections") to tell Allen Tate in a letter that
There is an element of decadence [in it], a tendency to worn phrases and movements here and there of which I can't wholly approve, but they are twigs in a spring torrent. The thing is on a grand scale…and on the whole is new, tremendous. As far as I can visualize the complete poem from what I have here, I can't see any earthly reason why it shouldn't be just as great as Marlowe.2
But in the years intervening between this letter (dated March 19, 1927) and the publication of The Bridge (1930), Winters had become disenchanted with his friend's work, not to mention his personal habits. (Although Crane appears to have been on his best behavior the few times the two met in 1927, Winters had been apprised of Crane's alcoholism and history of consorting with disreputable persons. Winters would claim not to have known of Crane's homosexuality until after his death.) Having burned through his experimental phase, Winters now championed the exercise of moral discipline and reason over emotion and sensation in poetry, a position he would articulate in Primitivism and Decadence: A Study of American Experimental Poetry (1937):
Poetry…should increase the intelligence and strengthen the moral temper; these effects should naturally be carried out over into action, if, through constant discipline, they are made permanent acquisitions. If the poetic discipline is to have steadiness and direction, it requires an antecedent discipline of ethical thinking and of at least some ethical feeling, which may be in whole or in part the gift or religion or of a social tradition, or which may be largely the result of individual acquisition by way of study.3
The mind that would later insist so doggedly upon the moral import of poetry had little use for the intoxicating and promiscuous accomplishments of The Bridge. In his review of the book (again for Poetry), an exasperated Winters reported that "the flaws in Mr. Crane's genius are, I believe, so great as to partake, if they persist, almost of the nature of public catastrophe." What he had referred to earlier as "oblique or psychological presentation" he now diagnosed "a form of hysteria." Not content to lambaste Crane alone, he turned to James Joyce and William Carlos Williams as well, charging them with "blind faith in [their] moment-to-moment inspiration."
Crane had reason to be shocked by the review, but certainly he had known all along that he and his friend entertained fundamentally different conceptions of poetry.4 Indeed, Crane was just as wary of Winters's writing as Winters was of Crane's, and in a letter to Winters (dated February 6, 1927), Crane wrote:
At times you betray a kind of moral zeal-a preoccupation with the gauntness and bareness of things which sometimes gets in my way in trying to discover the particular properties of certain poems. It is so evident as to be distracting at times, and I cannot help feeling it to be a fault-at least it hinders the reader from accepting your poem on its pure aesthetic merits-and isolates or tends to isolate the poem from a spontaneous reception into the reader's sensibility…Laying life bare is all very well, but I think the Lady best approached with a less obvious or deliberate signal than an upraised ax, if you get what I mean. It might be better in some cases to swim around with her a little while.5
Crane might have known that he and his friend would never see eye to eye, but he never expected such scandalously harsh and puritanical upbraiding from a friend, least of all in a public forum. Devastated, he responded to the review with a letter in which he asserted that Winters's "vision" was now "transcending the province of poetry altogether, in favor of a pseudo-philosophical or behavioristic field of speculation." This was the end of their correspondence.
In one corner we have Crane, a devotee of the imagination and its "delirium of jewels," a seeker of "new thresholds, new anatomies," a Modern Romantic who strove to refresh the poet's kinship to the shaman and the seer. In the other corner, Winters, a decrier of unreason, a skeptic of poetic ecstasy and rapture, a moralist who dismissed visionary individualism as potentially dangerous fakery. Poets today probably know who they would have rooted for.
Or do they? Certainly Crane is the more widely admired figure now, in part because the difficulty that his work posed to its first audience has been softened by decades of celebration and study. Yet many of those who would like to imagine themselves cheering valiantly for Cleveland's Whitmanian rebel regularly accuse their contemporaries of the very deficiencies and extravagances Winters derided in Crane. Winters still has his advocates, of course, including many who don't realize that that's what they are.6
Ladies and gentlemen, those among you who demand that the poem be immediately or even ultimately graspable in its entirety by the faculties of reason please stand behind Winters. All those who reject Wittgenstein's notion that the poem uses the language of information but is not itself used in the language-game of giving information please stand behind Winters. All those who use words like quackery, charlatanry, or folderol in lieu of more scrupulous and responsible explanations for their resistance to innovative and experimental poetries please stand behind Winters. Even those who insist that poetry must always heed an ethical imperative-you know where to go.
Ladies and gentlemen, where do you stand?
1Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber, eds., O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997. 278-79.
2R. L. Barth, ed., Selected Letters of Yvor Winters. Athens: Swallow Press, 2000. 109.
3Yvor Winters, Primitivism and Decadence: A Study of American Experimental Poetry. New York: Haskell House, 1937. 13-14.
4Some modernists felt that the perennial tension between those who, like Crane, appreciated an[d] "apparent illogic" in poetry and cultivated it in their own work and those who, like Winters, resisted it and sought to eliminate it from their work was a characteristically modern tension. In an editorial in the February, 1924 issue of The Fugitive, John Crowe Ransom wrote: "But we moderns are impatient and destructive. We forget entirely the enormous technical difficulty of the poetic art, and we examine the meanings of poems with a more and more microscopic analysis; we examine them in fact just as strictly as we examine the meanings of a prose which was composed without any handicap of metrical distractions; and we do not obtain so readily as our fathers the ecstasy which is the total effect of poetry, the sense of miracle before the union of inner meaning and objective form. Our souls are not, in fact, in the enjoyment of full good health. For no art and no religion is possible until we make allowances, until we manage to keep quiet the enfant terrible of logic that plays havoc with the other faculties."
5Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber, eds. 320
6As anyone familiar with his prose will attest, Winters articulated his positions with clarity, vigor, and a tremendous sense of purpose—if you aren't exasperated by his venom and narrowness of vision, you'll be kindled by his candor and focus. By all accounts he was a brilliant teacher too. In his introduction to the American Poets Project edition of Winters's poems, Thom Gunn writes: "I can attest to his having been the most exciting teacher I have ever had; even to disagree with him was exciting." As a critic, Winters left much to disagree with, and he disagreed with much. (Another of his students, Robert Hass, has called Winters's criticism of the thirties and forties "a frontal assault on romanticism, American transcendentalism and modernism.") But why not maintain a kind of gratitude for those who articulate their views as passionately and definitively as Winters did, even if we disagree with them wholeheartedly? Another perspective should deepen our perception. A challenge should stiffen our resolve.