365 Selections from the Writings of Yvor Winters

with Commentary by Ben Kilpela













Go back to: The YVOR WINTERS Home Page

INTRODUCTION to A Year with Yvor Winters

Yvor Winters is a poet, literary critic, and thinker well worth knowing. Unfortunately and unjustly, Winters, fairly well known but seldom discussed in the leading literary circles during his life, has grown extremely obscure since his death in 1968, even in the halls of American academia. Yet his learned, thoughtful, controversial, and challenging writings put him among the greatest thinkers on literature of his time and in the history of the English language. Winters was also one of our greatest poets, and he wrote criticism mostly to explain his unusual approach to writing and reading poetry and all serious or "high" literature. I have selected and commented upon 365 passages from Winter's writings, both major and minor, to introduce him to those who wish to get a taste of his work in criticism and poetry and to provide food for thought for those few who have already studied his writings and life.

My purpose is not only to encourage you to read Winters, but to foster discussion on his ideas, which are the only ways his work will become better known. So please write me with your reactions to, reflections on, and disagreements with my comments. In some fashion and in due time, I will be posting comments as they come in on this site.

I chose the essays and sections from which to select almost at random, though once I chose an area from which to make a selection, I picked whatever comments drew my interest or seemed important to my conception of Winters's general theories of literature, history, and philosophy. For example, I started at 1/1 with a passage on Edgar Allen Poe not because that was the most appropriate subject to begin with, but because I randomly chose that area of Winters's book "In Defense of Reason" and then selected a passage that I found enlightening on his ideas and critical practices. Every succeeding passage was chosen in the same fashion. This, it might be noted, is a rather un-Wintersian way of going about such a project, since Winters was a deeply systematic literary thinker in both literature and philosophy. Still, many of the most piquant and significant (one can hardly call them famous) ideas and opinions in Winters's writings will make an appearance during this Year with Winters -- though certainly not all. Suggestions are welcome for revisions and additions.

This compilation will explore Winters thoughts on poetry, metrics, literature in general, fiction, individual writers and poets, literary movements, philosophy, history, and the history of ideas. My purpose, again, is to interest you in reading Winters, not to present an orderly and full picture of Winters's thought in all these areas. Thus, some of the selections on individual writers, of which there are of necessity many, might seem puzzling at first, taken out of context as they are. Nonetheless, my hope is that these clippings and my comments will inspire you to delve much more deeply into Winters, rather than to try to get a complete view of him here.

In general, you will find that my comments show that I am in agreement with many of Winters's judgements about life, the literary arts, and history. But I have no desire to become slavishly uncritical of his work. He is a powerful, almost domineering writer and thinker, and it would not be easy to stand up to him in print or face-to-face if he were still alive. Still, I disagree with him about a number of his judgments, ideas, and concepts, despite my unbounded respect for all he wrote as a poet and critic and my general agreement with his theories and practices. For this reason, I have sometimes offered in my comments my differences in judgement from Yvor's to show that not everything he said and wrote should be considered somehow "scriptural" and perfectly authoritative. There is much to be learned from this great thinker and writer, but he was not perfect, in my humble view. Nonetheless, without hesitation, I would call him the greatest critic and one of the greatest poets ever to have lived.

Finally, we shall also encounter a few passages from Winters's poetry and a few poems he considered among the greatest ever written. Again, in regard to his poetry, my purpose is solely to get you interested in reading his work, much of which remains in print or can be easily found in major libraries or used bookstores on-line. Much of this material is under copyright to his publisher or his children. Though I might be offering pieces of mutilated art by partially quoting from his poems, I stand by the practice of looking at certain passages in isolation, with the understanding that they form an even greater poetic achievement when placed within the poems as wholes. I have covered the criticism of Winters most thoroughly in this year-long selection, but he thought himself primarily a poet, as indeed it will become clear to you that he was.

(Note: Herein Winters's italicized comments are capitalized and foreign terms and phrases are in double quotation marks. Also, I have not marked paragraph breaks on occasion when they seemed unneeded to follow the thought.)