Forty years of Winters, and his legacy

Yvor Winters was already famous by the time he arrived at Stanford in 1927. The poet and literary critic, born in Chicago in 1900, grew up in California and Washington before returning to his birth city for a year of university. Tuberculosis sent him to New Mexico for convalescence for three years, and he stayed two more to teach at an elementary school.

Winters received undergraduate and graduate degrees in Romance Languages from the University of Colorado, spent a brief time teaching languages in Idaho, and then set his sights on Stanford, where he began graduate studies in 1927, became an instructor in 1928, received his PhD in 1934, and became a full professor in 1949.

His poems began appearing in periodicals when he was 19, and by 27, they had been printed in the pages of all the most prestigious American literary magazines. After a brief stint as a modernist whose writings appeared alongside those of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce in the early years of his career, he developed a more formal style of writing beginning in the 1930s.

Winters published several collections of poems throughout his career, edited additional collections as well as the journals Gyroscope and Hound and Horn, and wrote critical and historical essays. His volumes In Defense of Reason (1947) and Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English (1967) are considered classics. His Collected Poems won the 1961 Bollingen Prize for Poetry.

But he was also an extraordinary teacher. “It is a tribute to his extraordinary energy and generosity to recognize that during the years that he was writing his poems and his criticism,” read his memorial resolution in 1968, “the number of Ph.D. dissertations he directed was among the largest in the university, that in the classroom he was for years the most painstaking and effective lecturer, and that some of the most distinguished poets and literary scholars writing today were among his students.” These include: Thom Gunn, Donald Hall, Jim McMichael, N. Scott Momaday, Robert Pinsky, John Matthias, Moore Moran, Roger Dickinson-Brown and Robert Hass and the critic Gerald Graff.

One of his students late in his career – he retired in 1966 and died in 1968 – was the poet and future Stanford professor Kenneth Fields. “When I came to Stanford in 1963 as a graduate student, Fields wrote, Winters “was the grand old man of poetry, by turns gruff, kind and shy, given to peremptory pronouncements, usually delivered with a sidelong smile.”

Fields received his PhD four years later and has been teaching in the English department and Creative Writing Program ever since.

A Stanford Daily article from January 2012 reads: “Fields’s image of himself as a writer has never been clear-cut, he said, and his encounters and relationships with a wide variety of individuals during his long tenure at Stanford have affected his perspective.

“Lots of different people have come and gone,” Fields said. “Just being around other writers, the combination of younger writers coming in as fellows and my colleagues, has had a big effect on how I think of myself as a writer.”

His poetry collections include: The Other Walker, Sunbelly, Smoke, The Odysseus Manuscripts, and Anemographia: A Treatise on the Wind. Classic Rough News and Music from Another Room are forthcoming. He is currently working on a novel titled Father of Mercies as well as a collection of essays on writers, including Yvor Winters, with whom he studied as a doctoral candidate and later collaborated on the anthology Quest for Reality: An Anthology of Short Poems in English (1969).