Week 383: On Teaching The Young, by Yvor Winters

I think it is possible to admire a poem for its clarity and eloquence while remaining sceptical of its assertions. This is certainly the case for me with this week’s offering by the American poet and critic Yvor Winters (1900-1968). ‘The poet’s only bliss/Is in cold certitude’ – now I would have thought that may be true of mathematicians, but that poets, like physicists and historians, have to rub along taking what satisfaction they can from the partial view and the provisional truth. And the tone jars a bit… Winters taught English at American universities and there is always the danger in that profession that a laudable desire to maintain standards will edge over into a joyless puritanical exclusiveness. At Cambridge I chose not to read English as a formal subject; if I had done so it would have been under the tutelage of the critic F.R.Leavis, then holding court at Downing College. Leavis was a man of considerable critical gifts, and his pronouncements were certainly worth attention as far as they went, but I don’t know, somehow he didn’t seem to have much fun. I have never felt qualified to teach anyone anything, but if I did I would say ‘There it is before you, the great ocean of world literature, just plunge in like a dolphin and follow your delight…’

On Teaching The Young

The young are quick of speech.
Grown middle-aged, I teach
Corrosion and distrust,
Exacting what I must.

A poem is what stands
When imperceptive hands,
Feeling, have gone astray.
It is what one should say.

Few minds will come to this.
The poet’s only bliss
Is in cold certitude –
Laurel, archaic, rude.

Yvor Winters


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