The crime of sentimentalism . . .

More from Yvor Winters . . .

This association-of-ideas idea — promoted by 18th-century philosophers Hobbes and Locke and fingered by Winters — seems to absolve the thinker of a need for coherence and unity, leaving him with nothing but emphasis — lots or less of it depending on the weather. In other words, your ideas are great, kid, even if they don’t hold water. They’re yours, aren’t they? And who am I to say you’re wrong? Etc.

Romantic poets — one of whom coined or made memorable the phrase “blithe spirit” — followed Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney and looked in their hearts and wrote. (And there’s something to be said for that.) Winters, however, favored “a logical, plain-spoken poetic,” as reviewer-commentator David Yezzi put it in the June 1997 New Criterion. This meant he vastly preferred the far less known and honored Barnabe Googe to Sidney, both 16th-century fellows, which is like preferring Truman to Roosevelt in political-style terms, or whole wheat to raisin walnut in Prairie Bread Kitchen terms.

In his poem “Of Money,” Googe says he’d rather have money than friends because with the first he’d always have the second but not vice versa, which is an arresting consideration: “Fair face show friends, when riches do abound;/ Come time of proof, fare well they must away.” The appeal of this to Winters lay in its restraint of feeling and rhetoric “to the minimum required by the subject,” as opposed to “rhetoric for its own sake” as practiced by other Elizabethans.

Another of Winters’ favorites, Fulke Greville, a good friend of Sidney, said his own “creeping genius” was “more fixed upon the images of life, than the images of wit” and thus wrote for “those that are weather-beaten in the sea of this world.” An earthier sort, in other words, and not sentimentalistic by any stretch.

— more more more —

“When I Consider How My Light Is Spent” by John Milton

The blind poet asked God what he could do for Him. The answer:

“God doth not need
   Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best
   Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
   And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
   They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Seems that would go for the rest of us, physically blind or not. A reminder to hang loose while doing the best we can.

The source of our problems . . .

You’ve heard of blaming it all on television, especially when Elvis danced on the Ed Sullivan show. Or on Prohibition or the Reformation or the Edict of Constantine, or Milan (for its allying of Christianity with the ruling powers and thus allegedly weakening its prophetic function).

Well I have found one who blames it on the 18th-century philosopher Shaftesbury, a well-known apostle of sentimentalism — you feel and therefore you know — the state of mind that makes one unable to understand a news story without “human interest” thrown in.

Sentimentalism is only half the problem, however. The other half is association-of-ideas, a philosophical doctrine embraced by Hobbes and Locke: One idea leads to another? Pay attention: the two may be logically connected and you should take that very seriously, even as a guide in your pursuit of what’s true. Just go for it. It’s how we learn things.

The pin-pointer of these presumed seminal ailments is Yvor Winters (1900-68), a U.S. literary poet and critic who shook up his Stanford students from the ’30s on with his anti-Romanticism and would be strung up by students or other teachers if he tried it in today’s climate of gut-thinking.

Winters’ problem would have been the primacy he assigns to reason — in poetry but one suspects therefore in all of life — over emotion. For him emotion is a deep pit, “the brink of darkness,” as he called his only short story, published in 1932, the year his friend the poet Hart Crane jumped ship in the Gulf of Mexico without a life jacket.

Crane, a tortured soul by any measure, ordered (and apparently ate) a big breakfast before taking the final leap of despair, a victim of what Winters identified as rampant emotionalism.

What do you expect? Winters asked about Crane and any number of other mad poets, the 18th century’s William Blake among them, who bought the primacy of feeling and in his view scorned reason.

This notion was one “to break the minds of . . . men with sufficient talent to take the theory seriously,” Winters wrote. One is reminded of other performers, he said, tragic spirits who gave their all for chaos, saints “of the wrong religion,” as said of Hart Crane.

(to be continued)

Now you see the struggling writer, now you don’t . . .

Do not assume that I am rushing to beat a short deadline, I wrote in late ’90s, though in the scheme of things we all labor under a short one. Neither day nor hour has been announced to me. I await the thief in the night like the rest of you.

Still, the uncovered manhole is out there. Ditto drive-by machine-gunning by drug-crazed hippies — the usual assortment of Sudden Happenings. Eternity lurks at every corner. Or as Hector says in Chapman’s Homer, in his goodbye to his mother Hecuba before the final battle, “the solid heape of night.”

Well, when the solid heap of night o’ertakes me, will people bemoan my getting few or no assignments? Or will they happily recall the nonsense here displayed under guise of art and journalism, to name just two of many possible cover stories for all this?

The Shadow knows, but who else?

The death question . . .

A friend concerned about the noncommercial aspects of Blithe Spirit (my spare-time mixtum-gatherum newsletter of the late ’90s, early 2000s) asked if I had gotten any work from it, meaning corporate work, which pays more than work for publication in most cases.

(You should read Ben Jonson’s correspondence with his lordly patrons. “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” he told Celia, but he still had to live.)

No work from it, I said, and my friend wondered what people will say when they bury me, implying they would not say much if I’d gotten no assignments from it.

Actually, it will little affect me one way or the other at that point, which he surely realizes, but like most people insufficiently. Indeed, even if by slip of lip, it’s strange to speak of point-of-death achievement in terms of work for hire. I love work for hire, but Blithe Spirit (my newsletter) is the sort of thing you squeeze in before you die.

The night cometh, after all, when no man stirs, which I just made up. No woman either.

What friends are for . . .

Keats wrote poetry after social outings, flushed with the joy of them, as in “On leaving some friends at an early hour“: “What a height my spirit is contending!/ ‘Tis not content so soon to be alone.”

Or leaving his friend Leigh Hunt’s cottage, walking five miles at night to his own lodgings: “I have many miles on foot to fare./ Yet feel I little of the cool, bleak air.”

Or in “To my brothers,” where Keats and his brother Tom, 17, sit at night in their lodgings, one composing, the other studying: “And while for rhymes I search around the poles,/ Your eyes are fixed, as in poetic sleep,/ Upon the lore so voluble and deep. . . . Many such eves of gently whispering noise/ May we together pass and calmly try/ What are this world’s true joys . . .”

Hear, hear.

Death of the Author? Pregnant notion

I find myself attracted by the (even randomly discovered) pregnant phrase, such as “the philosophical notion of the Death of the Author,” encountered this very day it in a capsule review of a French novel, Amélie Nothomb’s Pétronille in Times Literary Supplement 5/20/14.

Forthwith (right away, ok?) I looked it up and found “Death of the Author” at the Oxford Reference site, from which I quote two segments that explain the phrase briefly.


… [It’s] the idea associated with French critic Roland Barthes that a text should be regarded as self-standing, a field for the interplay of signs. The idea is not that things like Pride and Prejudice grow on trees, but that information or speculation about the author and the author’s intentions is irrelevant to reading them. . . .

And this:

… the title of an essay by Roland Barthes , ‘La mort de l’auteur’ ( 1968 ), translated as ‘The Death of the Author’ ( 1977 ), [a] phrase . . . widely regarded in academia and the media as emblematic of both post-structuralism and postmodernism in that its purpose is to signal the absolute relativity of the text and the correspondingly enhanced status of the critic. Put simply, Barthes’s basic point is that the author’s life (the intricate details of [his or her] biography, in other words) is not part of the literary object. . . .

Me? I see text as self-explanatory except when it isn’t. (Meaning in it usually is for my purposes.) Then I either go to another book or look up to see what critics say. (Much more likely the former.) Then I want a critic to tell me all about the text, drawing on relevant sources. Cannot dismiss author’s intentions as irrelevant.

Can’t in other words, go with this absolute relativity of text — let the reader decide, letting the devil take the hindmost — but allow that author’s bio might shed light on text which nonetheless has to stand alone in view of circumstances of its generation — time, gestalt, spirit of the age, etc.

As my pixie-ish Latin teacher said long ago, is any of that clear?


Reporting as an art form: W.H. Auden on Henry James



W.H. Auden said it took imagination “of a very high order” to “extract importance” from events while remaining faithful to them, “free only to select and never to modify or add.”

He was introducing a 1946 edition of Henry James’s The American Scene, a travel book that Auden considered more than that. Travel he called the “easiest subject for the journalist” who requires only “a flair for being on the spot where interesting events happen.”

For the artist, on the other hand, it’s that “high order” performance.

However, I’ve known journalists who like James as Auden described him, or at least somewhat like him, picked what mattered, extracting importance without modifying or adding to it.

It’s been a goal worth striving for, even on deadline.

Happy thanksgiving

Mixed bag . . .

Blithe Spirit

Over the sidewalk and through the doors . . . to McDonald’s on Clark, a few blocks from the house, 11:30 or so yesterday. Place hopping, full of families, 50-ish cronies and others, chatting, laughing.

Beggar by the door, inside where it’s warm, quiet,  reaching into bin as people dump trays on way out. Inspects items, in case something worth while.

I’d refused him a buck a day or so ago, we both then seated at counter near the door. Irish-looking guy, red-faced and roughly dressed but warmly enough and not tattered. 50-ish, bloodshot eyes. Not here, I’d said. On the street another matter.

Happy thanksgiving.

Overhead Silent Night . . . ’round young virgin . . . sleep in heavenly peace.

Beggar man looks over at counter, where Mexican women, mamas the lot of them, work. As if called over. Returns shortly, holding something in hand, heads for door…

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