I have spent my entire life in the remote west, where men are civilized but never get within gunshot of each other.
— Yvor Winters
IT'S USUAL to think of Yvor Winters as a Chicago poet who came west and spent most of his life in California — at Stanford, where he received his PhD and taught until his retirement. This is true enough, but his actual journey is more complicated and is reflected in some of his best poems. In some ways everywhere he lived before he got to Stanford was wild — even Stanford, but that’s another story.
Winters was born in Chicago ("Hog Butcher for the World") in 1900 when it was still considered the West (and may still be by those living along the right coast). R. L. Barth’s introduction to The Selected Letters is a good source of chronology, and the letters themselves marvelous reading. When he was four years old, Winters’s family moved to Eagle Rock, California, where his grandmother taught him to read, using the Bible, Byron, and Macaulay. Here’s Winters’s description:
My father built the 6th house in Eagle Rock (his uncle had built the 2nd about 20 years before). This was in 1906, and I was born in 1900. My father owned what is now North Highland Ave. in Eagle Rock, on both sides, and beyond that to the ridge of the foothills. It was all apricots except for our house. Glendale, in those days, was a short main street with a couple of grocery stores and two blacksmith shops; we used to take the two hour drive over about once in six weeks to have our horse shod. Later, one of these shops became a garage. I used to climb over the hills when I was about ten and wander around in La Cañada, which was uncontaminated live-oak forest, not a house in miles and almost knee-deep in leaf-mould.
Winters’s spot in the hills above Los Angeles was the prospect for his poems “On a View of Pasadena from the Hills” and “The Slow Pacific Swell.” This bucolic scene will be the starting point for these poems later on.
After two years in Seattle and another year in Eagle Rock, Winters returned to Chicago at 14, and at 17 enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he completed four quarters before being diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease then a worldwide epidemic. His move to a sanatorium in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with only one year of college, marked the beginning of his literary career.
Before antibiotics, the prevailing treatment for tuberculosis was bed rest, often in a sanatorium at high altitudes. Winters was first in St. Vincent’s and then Sunmount sanatoria in Santa Fe from 1919 to 1921. Winters and his friends admired the poems of Adelaide Crapsey, who died of tuberculosis. He described his own case to account for the hallucinated hypersensitivity of her poems: “[T]he only known cure, and this was known to only a few physicians, was absolute rest, often immobilized rest. The disease filled the body with a fatigue so heavy that it was an acute pain, pervasive and poisonous.” His preoccupation with death and his sense of isolation in those years need to be understood in this light. A line from “Death Goes before Me” gets it: “I am that strange thing that each strange eye sees.” He once remarked that the only thing wrong with his early poems is that they were “just so damned lonely.”
Nevertheless Winters continued to work, writing to his friends in the Poetry Club he helped start at the university, including Janet Lewis, later his wife, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Maureen Smith, and Glenway Wescott, who joined Winters in New Mexico. Roberts said Winters and Wescott, writing from Santa Fe, had more influence on the English students than any of the faculty. Winters wrote essays for Poetry: A Magazine of Verse — at 18 or 19 he believed that Wallace Stevens was the greatest poet in America, and this was several years before the publication of Harmonium, Stevens’s first book. In the next few years Winters published poems in all of the major literary magazines.
After he got out of the sanatorium, he taught elementary school nearby in Madrid, a small coal-mining town, and, after a year, he taught high school in Los Cerrillos, a railhead whose chief industries were liquor and prostitution. These were tough little towns.
During this time he published three small books of poems. He had described them as vacillating between solipsism and pantheism, which may be thought of as psychologically the same. These poems show the influence of Imagist poetry and of translations of American Indian songs — songs that were important to him the rest of his life. He approached the dramatic landscapes of New Mexico with what he called a semi-mystical intensity, and he was drawn to the subtle implicative intensity of the Indian songs. This Ojibway war song, for instance:
As my eyes search the prairie
I feel the summer in the spring.
Or this Yuma healing song: “The water-bug is drawing the shadows of evening toward him across the water.”
Winters’s little book, The Magpie’s Shadow (1922), shows the influence of the Indian songs. He told me once, “I was trying to beat the haiku poets at their own game.” The poems, each consisting of a title and six syllables, are beauties of innuendo. Consider the entirety of “God of Roads”:
I, peregrine of noon.
The god of roads is Hermes, and noon is a hypothetical moment that moves down the road, rather all roads, now, now, and now simultaneously. Roughly, I wander around in the moment of noon, at the speed of light. A falcon, “I, peregrine of noon.” Here’s another: “Sunrise”:
Pale bees! — Oh, whither now?
The sun and the swarm of bees are of the same substance in Winters’s early atomistic world, and both equally transitory.
Another of these figures appears in the middle of a later poem, “The Upper Meadows” (1925). The title and phrase would be, “Apricots”: “The clustered fur of bees.” Individual fruit and bees, furry and rounded and yellow; collectively, a tree full of fruit, a swarm of bees feeding on the fruit, both emblems of transitoriness — this little moment is a miracle of complexity. And the perception of beauty is embodied, a good example of the way Winters carried his poetic discoveries forward. “The Upper Meadows” combines falling, the fall of leaves, and rising, the trees growing upward, and sound and flame. “The hunter deep in summer,” one of the most evocative lines in all of Winters, places the hunter — let’s say the poet — still deep in fullness of summer with the ripe apricots, while autumn burns the world:
The harvest falls
Throughout the valleys
With a sound of
Fire in leaves—
The harsh trees
Heavy with light
Beneath the flame, and aging,
Have risen high and higher—
Fur of bees
Above the gray rocks of the uplands;
The hunter deep in summer;
Grass laid low by what comes,
Feet or air—
But motion, aging.
To rephrase a famous sentence of Camus's: In the depth of autumn, I found there was in me an invincible summer.
Written about the same time, and in a similar mode, “José’s Country” is haunting in its dissociation of sight from sound. The pale horse is death, beautifully imagined — there are no ferns in this country, just pale earth rising in the distance. The distant fern is imaginary:
A pale horse,
Mane of flowery dust,
Runs too far
For a sound
To cross the river.
Swept by far hooves
Like slow fruit
In the haze
Of pondered vision.
It is nothing.
Beyond a child’s thought,
Where a falling stone
Would raise pale earth,
A fern ascending.
At this point in Winters’s career, he was writing more varied kinds of free verse than any of his predecessors — some of it lyrical, as the two poems above, some of it violent and isolated — and he was recovering from tuberculosis. He enrolled in the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he completed his BA and his MA in Romance languages. He published The Bare Hills, his first significant book of poems, and one that deserves a place on the shelves of New Mexico literature.
Boulder then was a very different place than it is now. The Ku Klux Klan controlled the Colorado legislature, with many politicians who were active members, as was Clarence Morley, the governor from 1925 to 1927,. The university had a great man as president, George Norlin, a classicist who edited Isocrates and later wrote books on the dangers of fascism and anti-Semitism. When the state legislature demanded that the university fire all Catholic and Jewish teachers, Norlin refused, and the university’s budget was cut to zero until 1926 when the Klan’s political influence waned. J. V. Cunningham, later to be Winters’s student and friend, remembered crosses burned in front of his house nearby in Denver because his father was a steam shovel operator for the railroad and a union organizer and a Catholic. I am both pleased and disheartened that young people are surprised to learn these things. My young nephew, who graduated from Colorado a few years ago, told me that he spent many hours in the Norlin library, and no one ever told him about any of the local history.
Winters described Boulder as “in a lovely place, although a stupid enough village,” even if one with a streetcar line. When he received his MA he moved to Moscow, Idaho, to teach French and Spanish for two years at the University of Idaho, only a little less grim than its namesake. He remarked that Moscow did not even have a streetcar. His poem, “The Journey: Snake River Country,” and his only short story, “The Brink of Darkness,” give something of the horrors of those years.
Winters married Janet Lewis in 1926, and the next year he came to Stanford as a graduate student and lecturer, receiving his PhD in 1935. Lest you think that everything was bucolic then (as it is now), I want to show you his “See Los Angeles First,” a sport among Winters’s poems. There’s nothing else like it.
“See Los Angeles First,” published in 1927, is by any standard obscure. In Winters’s terms it may be all connotation with little denotation; or rather, it may simply denote things that are now the province of scholarship, which is to say, the realm of chance. When Winters was putting together his Collected Early Poems, he brought this one out to the garden with a smile on his face. I was his gardener for four years while I was a graduate student at Stanford. I liked the mockingbird, but out of timidity did not ask him about the rest. I think too that he preferred me to find out for myself. Fifty years later, here’s what I’ve found; some of it’s conjecture. The poem’s a romp. Don’t worry. We’ll spend some time with it:
See Los Angeles First
burst from burning
rock red plaster hollyhocks
spit crackling mamas
yawn into the dewy dawn
dark wettish plushy lawn
The Temple glittergates
Ask God He Knows
O pyramid of Sunoil Dates
The mockingbird is singing
eighty languages a minute
swinging by his toes from
jagged geometric currents
roar along aluminum gashed
out of gulleys rending
night to one blind
halo for your cold
concrete Egyptian nakedness
O watertower of cleanliness
The population of Los Angeles went from 100,000 in 1900 to more than five times that in 1920, on the way to over a million residents by 1930. Tourism became big business, and the title of the poem sounds like, and may be, an actual slogan. The poem opens with mock-heroic rosy-fingered dawn and an ironic allusion to Keats’s prospect poem “I Stood Tip-toe Upon a Little Hill.” The cocklehouses may refer to housing developments like Hollywoodland, or Pasadena’s bungalows, or the nursery rhyme, “Mary, Mary quite contrary, How does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockleshells, And pretty maids all in a row.” Or Lloyd Wright’s shells for the Hollywood Bowl. The cockleshell was an emblem of religious pilgrimage — Proust’s madeleine was an incarnation of it. As for the hollyhocks, Frank Lloyd Wright had designed the Hollyhock House in East Hollywood for the oil heiress Aline Barnsdall. The style was sometimes called Mayan Revival because of the flat-topped pyramid design also used in Wright’s Ennis and Storer houses of this period. Wright’s houses tended to let aesthetics trump practicality; like James’s appraisal of Howell’s women, they are “of the best — except, indeed, in the sense of being the best to live with.” Winters’s mother, perhaps one of the mamas tickled pink by this prospect, was a spiritualist in the vein of Aimee Semple McPherson, whose Angelus Temple had just been constructed. McPherson was a national phenomenon, as popular, according to some accounts, as Rudolph Valentino and Jack Dempsey. She grew rich as an evangelist, specializing in faith healings (“rending night to one blind”) and glossolalia, speaking in tongues (perhaps the mockingbird singing "eighty languages a minute”); and in promoting her megachurch, as we’d call it today, she used all the resources of entertainment and advertising, broadcasting sermons over the radio. A photograph of the Echo Park Temple shows it flanked by radio towers. The enormous dome was coated with crushed abalone shells — “The Temple glittergates” and perhaps again the cockleshell houses. Mizpah is a Biblical word meaning watchtower. A cigarette ad, later used in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” shows a man happily smoking, with the caption, “Ask Dad, he knows.” In the poem this becomes, “Ask God He Knows.” “Halo for your cold” is likely an ad for a menthol cigarette featuring a smoke ring. This satirical poem has a simple theme: the materialized destruction of spiritual values, the replacement of spiritual with commercial values, and it contrasts with the poem Winters followed it with, “To the Painter Polelonema,” which begins, “You wring life/from rock.” Like my commentary, the poem is a hodgepodge, which may complement his theme; or, more charitably, it’s kaleidoscopic.
Four years later the country had plunged into the Great Depression, and Winters had undergone major stylistic changes. People were losing their fortunes, including Winters’s father, who had made his money in real estate and as a scalper on the Chicago Board of Trade. Winters saw him as a kind man who was ruined by the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself. He said his poem “Midas” was about Hart Crane, who sought the pure symbol, and his father, who sought pure wealth. In 1931, his father’s health is failing; he is near death:
On a View of Pasadena from the Hills
From the high terrace porch I watch the dawn.
No light appears, though dark has mostly gone,
Sunk from the cold and monstrous stone. The hills
Lie naked but not light. The darkness spills
Down the remoter gulleys; pooled, will stay
Too low to melt, not yet alive with day.
Below the windows, the lawn, matted deep
Under its close-cropped tips with dewy sleep,
Gives off a faint hush, all its plushy swarm
Alive with coolness reaching to be warm.
Gray windows at my back, the massy frame
Dull with the blackness that has not a name;
But down below, the garden is still young,
Of five years’ growth, perhaps, and terrace-hung,
Drop by slow drop of seeping concrete walls.
Such are the bastions of our pastorals!
Here are no palms! They once lined country ways,
Where old white houses glared down dusty days,
With small round towers, blunt-headed through small trees.
Those towers are now the hiving place of bees.
The palms were coarse; their leaves hung thick with dust;
The roads were muffled deep. But now deep rust
Has fastened on the wheels that labored then.
Peace to all such, and to all sleeping men!
I lived my childhood there, a passive dream
In the expanse of that recessive scheme.
Slow air, slow fire! O deep delay of Time!
That summer crater smoked like slaking lime,
The hills so dry, so dense the underbrush,
That where I pushed my way the giant hush
Was changed to soft explosion as the sage
Broke down to powdered ash, the sift of age,
And fell along my path, a shadowy rift.
On these rocks now no burning ashes drift;
Mowed lawn has crept along the granite bench;
The yellow blossoms of acacia drench
The dawn with pollen; and, with waxen green,
The long leaves of the eucalypti screen
The closer hills from view—lithe, tall, and fine,
And nobly clad with youth, they bend and shine.
The small dark pool, jutting with living rock,
Trembles at every atmospheric shock,
Blurred to its depth with the cold living ooze.
From cloudy caves, heavy with summer dews,
The shyest and most tremulous beings stir,
The pulsing of their fins a lucent blur,
That, like illusion, glances off the view.
The pulsing mouths, like metronomes, are true,
This is my father’s house, no homestead here
That I shall live in, but a shining sphere
Of glass and glassy moments, frail surprise,
My father’s phantasy of Paradise;
Which melts upon his death, which he attained
With loss of heart for every step he gained.
Too firmly gentle to displace the great,
He crystallized this vision somewhat late;
Forbidden now to climb the garden stair,
He views the terrace from a window chair.
His friends, hard shaken by some twenty years,
Tremble with palsy and with senile fears,
In their late middle age gone cold and gray.
Fine men, now broken. That the vision stay,
They spend astutely their depleted breath,
With tired ironic faces wait for death.
Below the garden the hills fold away.
Deep in the valley, a mist fine as spray,
Ready to shatter into spinning light,
Conceals the city at the edge of night.
The city, on the tremendous valley floor,
Draws its dream deeper for an instant more,
Superb on solid loam, and breathing deep,
Poised for a moment at the edge of sleep.
Cement roads mark the hills, wide, bending free
Of cliff and headland. Dropping toward the sea,
Through suburb after suburb, vast ravines
Swell to the summer drone of fine machines.
The driver, melting down the distance here,
May cast in flight the faint hoof of a deer
Or pass the faint head set perplexedly.
And man-made stone outgrows the living tree,
And at its rising, air is shaken, men
Are shattered, and the tremor swells again,
Extending to the naked salty shore,
Rank with the sea, which crumbles evermore.
The prospect from which the poem is written is close to the childhood scene of the letter at the beginning of this essay, close in fact to that of “See Los Angeles First,” but with a world of difference. The poem is written in iambic pentameter couplets, but with the rhythms of blank verse; that is, the sentences and clauses run across the couplets with great variety. In this poem he superimposes two landscapes — one past, one present.
A few details of special interest: The delicacy of the scene is finely rendered, set against the “blackness that has not a name,” the dissolution that awaits everything. The rust on the wheels of labor underscores the effects of the depression. The pools that record every atmospheric shock chime with the tremors near the end of the poem and the trembling of his father and his friends — and remind us that we are in earthquake country. Although there is tragedy in the environmental theme that “man-made stone outgrows the living tree,” the entire elegiac scene, including the wonderfully perplexed deer, has a quality of magnificence.
The line in which Winters’s father and his friends “spend astutely their depleted breath” is one of several that do thematic double duty.
I want to conclude with another scene and two short poems. I am sure the scene of “A Summer Commentary” is Winters’s own garden, though I think of his early childhood house surrounded by apricots and of “Apricots,/ The clustered/ Fur of bees” in New Mexico, the hunter deep in summer. Winters’s love of his garden is clear in this passage from a letter:
The frost finished my fig crop, but ripened my persimmons and pineapple guavas. The last of my Valencia oranges were picked recently, but we are still eating them (they ripen in May). My tangerines will ripen around Christmas. My strawberry guava crop has just come to an end, after about two months of heavy production. My pomegranates are ripe. Most of my olives are picked (a big cast-iron washtub full) and I am now engaged in putting them in rock-salt (for Greek olives) and in the lye-and-brine cure. In May my loquats will ripen (loquats are one of the finest fruits I know, but they deteriorate rapidly after picking and so are never marketed) and I shall have loquats for two months. In early June my cherries, nectarines, apricots and early peaches, and in mid-June my early figs (white) and my first crop of black mission figs. In July my late peaches and the end of the loquats. The black figs should continue through half of July and start their second crop late in August, at which time my late white figs and grapes will be starting. In addition to this we have quinces, limequats, and Meyer lemons. The lemons and limequats bear fruit straight through the year.
I have picked and tended and eaten all of these fruits, and after Janet Lewis’s death (Winters had been dead a long time) I went out to look at his place for the last time. The bulldozer had done its work, the house and study were gone, as were all the shrubs and trees. I watched the large empty lot soaking in a light rain, preparing to be crowded with new buildings. I have not gone back. When I hear, as I sometimes do, that Winters hated nature, I say as a kind of talisman, one of his favorite words: Bushwa.
His poem, “A Summer Commentary,” is for me a deeply moving elegy. If you set it beside another great poem, “To Earthward,” by Robert Frost, you see similarities of theme and treatment. If you are familiar with the inaccurate commonplaces about each of the poets, that one was sweet as maple syrup, the other darkly disillusioned, you may be in for a surprise. Both poems contrast then and now. Here’s “To Earthward”:
Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air
That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of - was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Down hill at dusk?
I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they're gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.
I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.
Now no joy but lacks salt
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain
Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.
When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,
The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.
As delicate sensations diminish with age, Frost craves stronger and more painful feeling until, at the end of the poem, he wishes for death; Winters does not. Winters contrasts his youth with middle age — always earlier in those days than it is for us. (I’m counting on all those 146-year-old men to keep me middle-aged.) With the loss of sharpness of sense comes something else, especially for a writer who looks for meaning. In his youth he was a spectator — he said once that free verse was a state of mind. With age, he is a participant. His point comes home through a kind of synesthesia, a blending of the senses — the dove makes two different sounds, one in its cry, the other in flight. The repetition of soft and sweet sets the tone of the poem, as does the oxymoron “rich decay.” Winters said the brandy of the fallen fruit was no metaphor. “You could almost get drunk on the smell”:
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.
— And sends it sweeter on its way!
This seems to me, among other things, a great statement about the development of a man and of a style. It reminds me of Wynton Marsalis describing the late playing of Louis Armstrong: “The last refinement of form is simplicity.” Let’s leave it at that.
From a talk given at Claremont McKenna College.
April 17, 2013
Kenneth Fields teaches literature and poetry writing at Stanford; his latest book is Classic Rough News.