Leo Robson, “John Williams and the Canon that Might Have Been,” and making sense of a class from the past

Screen Shot 2019-03-25 at 6.47.46 PMIn “John Williams and the Canon that Might Have Been” (at The New Yorker), Leo Robson writes about the novels of John Williams, who co-won (if that’s a word)  the National Book Award in 1973 for his novel Augustus, along with John Barth’s Chimera.  Williams is best known today for the academic novel Stoner (1965), which has undergone a huge resurgence since Williams’s death in 1994.

As Robson says, Williams represented something at odds with the expansiveness of a Saul Bellow, but what? Robson: “Williams had been spellbound by [Yvor] Winters’s authoritative tone and by a set of absolutist convictions relating not just to Anglophone poetry but to literature as a whole. Modish, persona-heavy metafiction or fealty to a more austere and straight-backed standard: this was not a difference that could be split.” [emphasis added]

Robson goes on to explain the theory underlying Williams’s practice:

Winters thought that the high point of literary expression had come and gone during the Renaissance, when “the tougher poets” like Fulke Greville wrote with a sense of rational order in the “plain style.” In the early eighteenth century, a decisive break had occurred—the start of what Winters branded Romanticism, defined as the misbegotten idea that “literature is mainly or even purely an emotional experience.” In the fullest statement of Winters’s views, “In Defense of Reason” (1947), a compendium of his earlier critical books, he railed against what he called “the fallacy of imitative form”—the tendency to express disintegration or uncertainty through language that itself exhibits those qualities. The “sound” alternative, Winters wrote, was to make a lucid statement “regarding the condition of uncertainty.” The “conscious author” and the pursuit of “formal perfection” emerged as desirable alternatives to “the fragmentary and unguided thought of the character, as he walks down the street, or sits in a bar, or dreams at night.”

Robson ultimately asks “What if cool analysis and formalist precision had gained greater purchase at the time?”

But there was one place where it did gain purchase, if only for a semester: a course on the short poem in English that I took as an undergraduate.

We worshiped the plain style.

Fulke Greville was it. 

We were taught to have have little use for the Renaissance fancy guys like Sir Philip Sidney, because they were good but not plain. Literary quality was adherence to the plain style–tough, unemotional, understated.

Our principal text was John Williams’s English Renaissance Poetry. I didn’t know until Robson’s piece that this was (a) a transgressive and original anthology and (b) a book that seriously irritated Yvor Winters, who said “that Williams (‘the little bastard’) would make “a good deal of money out of me.”

Screen Shot 2019-03-25 at 6.47.00 PMOur other main text was Yvor Winters’s Quest for Reality,  a holy touchstone. (The cover I recall is a black and yellow one, but I may have conflated it with Forms of Discovery.)  Wallace Stevens made the cut, too, as did J. V. Cunningham.

Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, and the rest of the Romantics, on the other hand, were infra dig–definitely not plain, and far too emotional to be real poetry, which had to constrained and contained.

The shock of recognition (TM Edmund Wilson) that I had on reading Robson’s piece was that I hadn’t realized back then that I was being taught school of literary criticism, much less one that had somehow gone underground and surfaced in an undergraduate class.  I was being taught poetry, full stop, and accepted those standards as given.

In addition to being interesting in its own terms and in reintroducing readers to John Williams, then, Robson’s essay is a reminder of how seriously students (well, one naive student, anyway) take in what they’re told and the ways in which canonicity can shape young minds–even if it’s a minor or uncanonical canon.

 

 

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