The Anne Winters Challenge

Should a Marxist poet be stylistically ornate?

Anne Winters is one of the scarcest talents in American poetry. Winters is the author of two books of poems, The Key to the City and the new The Displaced of Capital, published 18 years apart. The books themselves are slim, even by the standards of poetry books. Her reputation comes to rest on perhaps a dozen poems written over the course of 30 or so years. All of these poems take New York City as their primary subject, and all of them are written from an inveterately leftist, even Marxist, point of view. There are good and expert and delightful things throughout all of Winters’ poems, but these dozen or so poems about New York are her best, and a few of these are so good that they do what R.P. Blackmur says great art does: They “enlarge the stock of available reality.”

To get the flavor of a Winters poem, you need to put two very unlike, even incompatible, things together: a stern-faced and rather old-fashioned Marxism and a poetic style seemingly exempt, self-exempted, from her own Marxist critique. The Marxism governs her choice of subjects: In her New York, there are two types of people—the type that lives in Connecticut and the type that lives in squalor. When she writes a poem about seeing Tosca at the Met, it’s four lines about Puccini and 10 lines about the guy who works in the sewers under the building. She sees the world in terms of economics and sees economics as a force as willful and vengeful as a Greek god. The boy at the green-grocer’s village was razed, his country “de-developed” because of its debt to the First World. People end up in crudely partitioned apartments under the bridge and not because they spun a roulette wheel and came up bust; they live that way because people like you and me have an interest in keeping them poor. There is indignation in this stance and a strong suspicion that art is one of the surpluses created by other people’s labor.

But why should Winters’ Marxism stop at the door of her own art? A writer with her politics a priori would normally adopt a gritty populism of style, whereas Winters writes in brocades and appliqués and faux-finishes. Her poems sound nothing like “Socialist” writing (I’m thinking of Orwell’s essay “How the Poor Die” and poems by William Carlos Williams and George Oppen)—in fact, they sound more like writers of the American haute-bourgeoisie: Henry James, James Merrill. Here is the conclusion to a poem about work and New York called “The Mill-Race,” a poem that moves forward according to a set of alternating, explicitly Marxist descriptions of labor:

It’s not a water-mill, really, labor. It’s like the
Paper-mill pulverizing, crushing each fiber of rag
into atoms,
Or the workhouse tread-mill, smooth-lipped, that wore
down a London of
            doxies and sharps,
or the flour mill, faerique, that raised the
cathedrals and wore our hosts of dust-demons,
but its mostly the miller’s curse-gift, forgotten of
God yet still grinding, the salt-mill,
            that makes the sea, salt.

These are strange, rather majestic lines—they make a bigger presence in the mind than other poets’ whole books or whole careers. Part of their inventiveness is their breech of idiomatic decorum: You don’t expect a book with the word “Capital” in the title to include the word “faerique.” Not a single one of the worn-out workers doing their hard labor for little money here would know what the word “faerique” meant, nor care; nor could it conceivably matter to those oppressed souls whether the poet representing them arrived, by serial self-revision, at the precise metaphor for their plight: “water-mill”? “paper-mill”? “flour mill”? “Salt-mill”?

What to do about this “faerique in the flour mill” issue—the frisson between subject matter and poetic language? Poems with titles like “An Immigrant Woman” unfold in shapely Miltonic blank verse. In that poem, a little girl is crushed by a ceiling beam shaken loose by the vibrations from the bridge above her tenement. Nothing about this subject says “Do it in pentameter!” In fact, nothing about it says “Do it in a lyric poem.” It’s a savage fact that seems wrong for art, whose very principle is—isn’t it?—to give pleasure. Wouldn’t Winters’ time be better served petitioning City Hall or learning carpentry than getting the cadences of her poem right?

But when you start bringing these kinds of objections up—when they start interfering with your enjoyment of works of art—you realize what an impoverished discussion we’ve all been having, these past years, about art and its connection to experience. We’ve come to imagine that there needs to be a traceable, obvious connection between “style” in art and subject matter. An art of the people better have lots of swear-words and spitting in it. And honking horns. An art of the intellect should be about Big Ideas. An art of theoretical density has got to be unintelligible. An art of great beauty should mention snow fields and sunsets. Art by Southerners should be full of dirt-roads and hounds. If this sounds parodic, read around in contemporary literature with my inventory in mind. Contemporary literature is parodic.

The desire to assign proportional representation in poetry—to make poetry resemble, and therefore be palatable to, its subjects—has resulted in some pretty weak art, from Carl Sandburg forward. The fact of the matter is, in poetry the score is always 200-0 in favor of the poet. The poet always has the ball. The poet designed the ball, and invented the game, and can change the rules. You always lose when you’re the subject matter of poetry. Attempts to make the subject a worthy competitor feel condescending, like when your tennis coach serves leftie to build up your self-esteem.

What’s wonderful about Anne Winters is that she’s a poet of complexly staged compassion but, at the same time, she’s full of artistic ego. In this respect she’s an heir to the great New York poets she sounds so different from: Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara, Robert Lowell. These poets never leave their subjects breathing room: They bring the impress of their formidable imaginations to bear on the world. Look at Whitman, shoehorning his suicides and contraltos and brides and Indians into proliferating, beautiful catalogs, no single case given any more or less room than the 30 that come before and the 30 that come after.

Winters’ great New York poems—Miltonic, Marxist, ornate, and indignant all at the same time—remind us that subject matter should be extrapolated from style, but never the other way around. Her real subject is finally how the loveliness of craft measures experience at its most brute and awful, and how experience ruptures even the loveliest craft. Now, if someone can find the word “faerique” in their dictionary, I’d be obliged …