Yvor Winters was born in Chicago in 1900 and died Palo Alto, California in 1968. He was studying at the University of Chicago when he was diagnosed as tubercular and had to relocate to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for his health. His early experimental poems, the striking one-line works in the imagist mode as well as the formalist works of his first two books, published in 1921 and 1922, were all written at a tuberculosis sanitarium. In 1923-24 he taught in the grade school and high school in the coal-mining camp towns of Madrid, and Cerillo, New Mexico. About that experience he remarked, in an introduction to his early poems, in 1966: "Accidents, many fatal, were common in the mines, from which union organizers were vigorously excluded and sometimes removed; drunken violence was a daily and nightly occurrence in both towns; mayhem and murder were discussed with amusement." Winters’s 15-part Fire Sequence, published in American Caravan in 1927, was a Williams-like exploration in free verse of aspects of this devastated community. The sequence caught the attention of, among others, Hart Crane and Allen Tate.
In 1925, Winters enrolled at the University of Colorado (Boulder) where he obtained a B.A. and an M .A. in Romance languages. He married the poet and novelist Janet Lewis in 1926. His taught at University of Idaho in Moscow for two years, then entered Stanford University as a graduate student in 1927.
In the 1930s for literary scholars to attempt to criticize the work of their contemporaries was looked upon as bizarre and strange, and possibly even irresponsible and subversive. English departments were dominated by philologists and grammarians who saw their goal as instructing students in ways to write properly and by scholars whose life work often resulted in the production of an annotated edition. Like his distinguished contemporary in England, F. R. Leavis (whose professional future at Cambridge was severely damaged by his 1930 book on Eliot, Pound and Hopkins), Winters’s career did not proceed smoothly as a result of his interest in contemporary experimental poetry. The chair of the English Department at Stanford, in a notorious confrontation, denounced Winters for having written works that were a "disgrace to the department."
Ironically, the studies that proved so disruptive to philologists, grammarians and scholars of the British tradition – Primitivism and Decadence (1937), Maule’s Curse (1938) and The Anatomy of Nonsense (1943) – were themselves harsh in their appraisal of both the poets of the 1920s and the 1930s and the texts that have now become American "classics." Winters developed a criticism that morally engaged with authors. For him, formal balance was the product of an ethical stability. From that perspective, both the free verse by Williams ("By the Road") and the blank verse by Crane ("The Dance") could fall under suspicion, inadvertantly displaying a variety of flaws that pointed beyond the text to a culture that inadequately transmitted proper moral guidance. Winters could be disarmingly blunt and remarkably judgmental. His harsh review of The Bridge in Poetry devastated Hart Crane (though not enough to discourage Crane from writing a dazzling reply). Winters agreed with D. H. Lawrence’s assessment of much of American literature, which he saw as heavily burdened with a self-indulgent romanticism. And yet even as Winters’s readings condemned these works, his energetic presentations paradoxically made them remarkably engaging. It was not simply that Winters was a useful critic with whom to disagree: rather, he himself seemed to be always on the edge of converting himself as he displayed such interest in what he termed aberrant. His expanded review of The Bridge, appended to a collection of his first three books of criticism in 1947 in In Defense of Reason, ends with an astonishing reversal in which he embraces the vitality and courage of a poet whose work he has just spent the last 20 pages denouncing. As Winters aged, however, his focus hardened, and in his final books he was adamant in his insistence on the aptness of only a handful of works, many by figures others deemed marginal.
Though Winters’s own interest in writing poetry dwindled as he grew older, his role as a remarkable teacher of young poets expanded. Stanford had, in the 1950s, one of the few programs that openly encouraged young poets to write within a scholarly program. Iowa, Washington and Utah had similar programs, but Stanford was where the MFAs from these programs went for further study. A number of poets emerged from the Stanford program, some with admiration for Winters, others with dislike of what they perceived as his autocracy: Thom Gunn, Philip Levine, Robert Pinsky are among the most well-known
This is the terminal: the light
Gives perfect vision, false and hard;
I, one who never speaks,
Listened days in summer trees,
Each day a rustling leaf.
Where am I now? And what
Am I to say portends?
Death is but death, and not
The most obtuse of ends.