David Wagoner Wagoner, David - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

David Wagoner 1926–-

(Full name David Russell Wagoner) American poet and novelist.

Acclaimed as a first-rate American poet of the second half of the twentieth century, Wagoner, also a highly esteemed novelist, teacher and editor, often assumes, in his poetry, the function of a priest-poet charged with guiding and shaping his readers' encounters with the mysteries of nature. Using the landscape and lore of the American Pacific Northwest, the agency of a man living inside that landscape, and a language of sensory experience distilled from common speech, Wagoner writes poetry primarily dedicated to reflecting and transcending the encounter of the self with itself. Through encounters with nature, an individual is able to thus define the human identity, and, by doing so, liberates both poet and reader from it.

Biographical Information

Wagoner was born in Ohio, June 5, 1926, and grew up in Indiana where his father, who had graduated from Washington and Jefferson College magna cum laude with a degree in classical languages, worked in a steel mill. In 1947 Wagoner was awarded a bachelor's degree in English from Pennsylvania University, where he studied with Theodore Roethke. He earned a master's degree from Indiana University in 1949, and began his career as an English teacher at DePauw University that fall. A defining event in Wagoner's life came when he accepted a teaching appointment Roethke secured for him at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1954. He left the denatured, flat, industrial cities of the Midwest, and entered the green world of an unspoiled Pacific Northwest. Of particular importance to him, as a person, and as a poet, was his first hike into a rainforest. In getting lost, he found both himself and a recurrent theme of his poetry: survival in nature, not as nature's master, but as nature's consciousness. In addition to teaching at the University of Washington, Wagoner has been a visiting professor at a number of other universities. He has served as editor of the Princeton University Press' Contemporary Poetry Series, as poetry editor for the University of Missouri Press, and as editor of Poetry Northwest. He has been the Guggenheim recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, and served, succeeding Robert Lowell, as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Major Works

Wagoner's poetic achievement is characterized by a continuous output of scrupulously crafted, first-rate work, rather than by a number of outstanding masterworks. In much of his poetry, as in the volumes Staying Alive or Sleeping in the Woods, Wagoner employs his encounter with nature as a metaphorical foundation for the process of encountering self, which, his poetry indicates, is the defining and inevitable human challenge. This theme recurs throughout his poems, even when they are not set within the green world, as in his ballad to the gangster John Dillinger, and his elegy “To My Friend Whose Parachute Did Not Open.”

Critical Reception

Although he was recognized early by Roethke, and is regarded as a major American poet, included in Richard Howard's canon-making Alone with America, Wagoner has not attained the status of poet celebrity, perhaps because of his solid, steady and serious, although not flamboyant, output. He is regarded as a superb lyricist, a skilled, even classical craftsman, and an incisive observer of nature and character. His books have been steadily and well reviewed, but his work, as Ron McFarland in his 1997 book-length study has noted, has not yet received the amount of intensive scholarly or critical analysis it warrants.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Dry Sun, Dry Wind 1953

A Place to Stand 1958

The Nesting Ground 1963

Staying Alive 1966

New and Selected Poems 1969

Working Against Time 1970

Riverbed 1972

Sleeping in the Woods 1974

A Guide to Dungeness Spit 1975

Collected Poems, 1956–1976 1976

Traveling Light 1976

Who Shall Be the Sun? Poems Based on the Lore, Legends, and Myths of Northwest Coast and Plateau Indians 1978

In Broken Country 1979

Landfall 1981

First Light 1983

Through the Forest: New and Selected Poems 1987

Walt Whitman Bathing 1996

Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems 1999

The Man in the Middle 1954

Money, Money, Money 1955

Rock 1958

Baby, Come On Inside 1968

Where is My Wandering Boy Tonight? 1970

The Road to Many a Wonder 1974

Tracker 1975

The Escape Artist 1976

Whole Hog 1976

The Hanging Garden 1982

Richard Howard (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “David Wagoner,” in Alone in America: The Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950, Thames and Hudson, 1970, pp. 533–51.

[In the following essay, Howard surveys and praises Wagoner's works, emphasizing in the development in his novels and poetry a poetic intelligence that wrests a sense of positive identity from a vision of negation.]

David Wagoner, in his forties and a professor of English, is as well the only writer his age I can think of in America today who is, by the difficult criteria which hold the noun together with the adjective in solution, en gelée even, both a successful poet and a successful novelist. What I mean, of course, is that he is not entirely—not merely—a Success, not a success like Allen Ginsberg, say, or Norman Mailer. If you manage to be a success like that—and in America today, management appears, surely, to be the best way to do it—you don’t need to be a successful anything; in fact there isn’t time to be a successful anything, you’re too busy just being a Success. Indeed, ever since the curious example of Cocteau, that expert manager,1 there has been a noticeable uncertainty as to genre in the productions of our certified successes, and the mass media have intensified the hesitation into a compulsion neurosis: Ginsberg's texts, his platform performances and his diaries become interchangeable and, I suspect, indistinguishable to himself; Mailer turns his fictions into Chautauquas or drame-à-thèse, offers whatever happens to interest him in straggling bundles, “advertisements for myself” quite properly ticketed. As these gentlemen have discovered, we are interested not in the poems of Allen Ginsberg or the novels of Norman Mailer, but in Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer. We are interested in the Success, that protean phenomenon whose perpetuation depends, most likely, on an evasion of the responsibility of form; we are less interested in the successful poet or the successful novelist—less still in the successful poem or the successful novel, which of course can dispense with the Success-figure altogether, just as that figure is actually threatened by the pre-eminence (if we grant it) of the work of art.

Which accounts, I contend, for the relative occultation of David Wagoner in the current literary firmament. Though his eight books, as I mean to show, have nourished and renewed one another, the poems gaining precisely the humanity and texture of reality we look for in the novel, and the novels acquiring that “abandon, wild calculation and seriousness” which James Dickey locates in Wagoner's poetry; though the four volumes of poetry alternating with four novels since 1953 have garnered a lot of cross-pollinating praise,2 it is surely because they insist so securely on being poems and novels that most of us have still to discover this writer's contribution to our literature. That is just it: Wagoner will not come out from behind his literature, and thereby protects himself from becoming another casualty of Success. The last word on the subject is Malcolm Lowry's, in a scrap of verse called “After Publication of Under the Volcano”:

Success like a drunkard consumes the house of the soul
Exposing that you have worked only for this—
Ah, that I had never suffered this treacherous kiss
And had been left in darkness forever to founder and fail.

The first of Wagoner's books of poetry, Dry Sun, Dry Wind, was published in 1953 and dedicated to Roethke, who remains a pervasive force in all this poet's work—even the novels. What Wagoner gets from Roethke is a preoccupation with the movement from external to created reality, the sense that we awaken in a world possessed and informed by something in our dream, so characteristic of the older poet. It is not so much the verbal echoes that suggest Roethke's influence here, though Wagoner has an ear cocked for the cadence which he can turn to his own advantage, the question which will afford an answer to itself by the rhythm of its very interrogation: “Why shall I curl? How may I touch? Who echoes me to death?” Rather than the Roethkean overtones, it is the underlying conviction that a morality abides—tragic, chthonic, buried in “the hollow of self, where no vibrations come”—in the act of vision which is the Northwest poet's gift, and one consequence of it is a focus on the arena of immediate sense-perception. There is, then, a kind of deliberate anonymity at first about the arena, for in the poems of Dry Sun, Dry Wind there is no way of knowing just where we are, save on the lip of some pond, upstairs in some house on a windy day, stranded in some desiccated marsh—“the rest is dreams, symmetrically absurd.” The locus is Everywhere, like Pascal's definition of God, without the human consolation of the locally indentifiable; the material under close scrutiny is either too minuscule, as in “Marsh Leaf”:

But the shape of a russet leaf
Reechoes the dry wind's cries:
One leaf, lying underfoot,
Speaks, though dead and fallen and deaf …

or too ordinary to be assigned a habitation and a name. How the poet has cherished, in all but the last of his books, the unidentifiable industrial suburb of Chicago—Whiting, Indiana—that is his “curious-knotted garden”! Even in his later poems, Way Out West as they appear to be, there persists a middling blank, a refusal of social comfort—we are concerned invariably with what Wagoner later calls “unharmonious earth, the stricken center.”

The title itself of this first book is a refusal—or at least an insistence on those aspects of Being which, ordinarily fertilizing, are here to be considered in their anti-human acceptation, without that encouraging moisture which allows for new growth; in a poem called “Sudden Frost,” Wagoner speaks of “all who threaten to live,” and the admonitory verb is characteristic of these poems, which are about what happens to nature, and even to our human structures within nature, when no one is there to see what happens:

Down from the culvert and the shaded spring
The air will topple, and no lips will sing.

Even the figures of human beings, a nurse, a nun, an old man at the beach, are treated as moralized landscapes, without an autonomous principle but rather the universal imagery of natural process, as in “The Nun”:

Now quietly she lies down to sleep, but O
What water is this, grown warm
And red within her dream, when into the empty
Pool the long fish glide?

It is not that Wagoner is uninterested in the separate human life, and in all that makes it separate; but in this first book, at least, it does not lie within his powers to anatomize “great creating nature”—and her destroying avatar—within the limits of selfhood. As he says of one of his figures dissolved in a landscape, “Old Man at the Beach”:

                                                            … The outer
Edges of his body have begun to burn,
Are curling inward to the nose and knees
To render the inner man of humours.

Such combustion of outer edges, in Wagoner's early work, is a different process from the “gradual furnace of the world” as Arnold called it, and in his first book, the method of dealing with both which the poet has devised is a two-chambered structure, the first part consisting of twenty-two rigorously inhuman lyrics, and the second part of eight dramatic monologues delivered from beyond the grave by a group of landlocked men and women, addressing—as the high-wire artist Bellado, “the great Bellado,” puts it—the safe others:

Those who scurry far from a taut line,
Turn hills, climb corners, or step back,
Are deaf to the insides of an earth
That calls them.

The tree-surgeon, the balloonist, the printer give us the facts from within, and though there is, in what they say of their lives, a consciousness beyond what they can, as mere individuals, lay claim to—as there always is in the successful dramatic monologue—it is nonetheless their limitation that allows Wagoner to get around them. The most convincing moments occur, in these proddings of “normal” lives, when the meaning is in disequilibrium with what the speaker reveals and understands, as when Luke of Sippo Heights (1884–1942), whose wife has already died and who is himself to die the next year, speaks to his son on the subject of noisemaking:

                                        O Tommy,
Make noise. Remember how I put
My cane one day into the bog-slime,
Then pressed the dank-end on your shirt
And said, “This is the bedlam of things
Upon you.” Think: living is loud;
And when the whispering biddies soothe you,
Cry them down; give them the thunder
That will kill or bless.

The yearning sympathy for “the bedlam of things” that is in the very slime, the consciousness that something in nature, antipathetic to identity, wants us nonetheless (“O what is wrong with water that it tugs us so?” asks Edmond of New Hope: “I have stayed, drying above the loss …”), suggests the profounder sympathies of this poet with the Roethke who said:

Is my body speaking? I breathe what I am:
The first and last of all things.
Near the graves of the great dead,
Even the stones speak.

But in his first book, with its stern segregation of the human (“Farewell, farewell, love sleeps beside the chamberpot”) from the humus (“the hot earth where lichen clings to the spoils of time”), Wagoner cannot yet command those accents of a selfhood which may reach to the speech of stones. His landscape cannot quite bear the proximity of his knowledge, and must—here again, Roethke helps—be presented in a series of line-by-line sentences, observations which, by the full stop, become aphorisms and sink into experience with a terrible weight, as in “Warning”:

Wind rocks the pier and the green rowboat.
Clusters of old fishline
Bob from the logs against the water.
All the ducks have gone alee.
Fish scales flip across the jagged hulls.
Today, only the wind sails.
Sinkers float at the ends of the blown lines.
Moss points all one way on the stones.

The slant rhymes and assorted rhythms keep us from collecting the material presented into a charm, an incantation. There is no self here to “breathe what I am”—just as, in the poems about selves, there is so little breakthrough to vision (“the eye turns feebler, year by year”); the partitioning of the beautiful lyrics from the bruised lives brings Wagoner to a strange alienation, a sense that Being itself, even while he watches, is being withheld from him, or rather, not from him, but that he is not yet himself entirely there, in the sense of selfhood that Keats intended when he wrote, “that which is creative must create itself”—for by the end of Dry Sun, Dry Wind, Wagoner has not yet created himself, but only the estranged world of “familiars” in which he will henceforth operate by an alienation-effect whose apparent suspension of energy, of process, turns every known thing Other:

Now the lull melts all the houses
And the vague yard
Is full of strangers, things.

The poet's strategy, in his dilemma—his duplicity, which he registers in his second book of poems: “This body and this thought / are strangers saying, ‘What has filled us now?’”—is to carry further still the separation of goods which has resulted in such an inconvenient marriage of self and circumstance in his first collection. Recognizing that the murmurous dramatic monologues articulated a different, even a contrary intention from the lyrics of ontological certitude (“beyond this gate, there lies the land of the different mind”), Wagoner divorced his pursuits even more sternly, following in effect Cocteau's famous advice: “what other people reproach you for—cultivate that! it is yourself.” The year after Dry Sun, Dry Wind, therefore, Wagoner published his first novel, The Man in the Middle and in 1955 his second, Money Money Money; and it was not until 1958, five years after Dry Sun, Dry Wind, that he had sufficiently released himself from the indenture to plausible surfaces, to accident and “the ravelled edge of everything” which we think of as the impulse of fiction, or at least its expedient, to produce his second collection of poems, A Place to Stand.

The intuition of futility in most biography, the awareness that we are impotent in the clutch of what happens to us, finds, in Wagoner's first three novels, a more appropriate rehearsal than in his early poems, which are committed—it is, of course, the lyric responsibility—to an order of knowledge and a hierarchy of Being. The Man in the Middle takes for its exergue a sentence from Donne which may stand over all of Wagoner's prose enterprises: “This minute I was well, and am ill, this minute. I am surprised with a sodaine change, and alteration to worse, and can impute it to no cause, nor call it by any name.” Wagoner's hero in each instance is a creature from outside the community life—invalid, obsessed, even idiotic—who knows what he takes for his own mind and wants to be left alone with that knowledge, not to enjoy it perhaps (“it was harder to invent life by yourself”) but to nurse it along, to “favor” it, in the sense of something felt to be vulnerable; but chance puts him in the world's way, and the ensuing adventures must lead to disaster along with a surrender of the separateness cherished by “the man in the middle,” crushed by the social and erotic forces he is called upon to mediate even as he unleashes them: “when there were no people around, you didn’t even have to think of yourself if you didn’t want to.” All four novels are set—embedded, really—in the outlying wastelands of Chicago (where Wagoner himself, as he says on the jacket of the second book of poems, has “worked at times as a railroad section-hand, a concentrated-soup scooper in a steel mill, a park policeman, and a restaurant grillman”),3 and though they are rich in tough-guy talk and the kind of detail usually described as action-packed, their real achievement is the conversion of a spoiled nature—exhausted earth, polluted water, befouled air—to an autonomous poetry, a beauty recognized because it generates the consciousness that inhabits it:

They went down the road bank into the sand and started for the vague outline of the boat. He looked left at the distant glitter of the South Chicago breakwater, then right at the red smudges of Indiana Harbor. Over his shoulder he could see the squat silhouette of the pumping station, made tall only by the smokestack that came out of its middle. Beside them were the shapes of three twisted cottonwood trees, surrounded by sections of sewer pipe, chest-high and broken; and fragments of bricks, worn smooth by the waves, lay embedded in the sand.

It is customary to attach the label “poet's novel” in a rather dismissive way to novels like these, in which every object, every landscape, every episode and every observation is a centripetal expression of the book's total feeling, its emotional marrow. Of course we could say the same thing about Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary: poet's novels indeed! In fact, it is the great realists who have taught us to read a novel in this way, so that every detail becomes an incarnation of the reality invoked. Wagoner's success with the fallen life is, perhaps, only a partial one precisely because of the partitioning he insists upon, but by the time he had published his second novel, the following year, it was clear that he had enabled, for his poetry, a clearer impulse than his earlier work had afforded, a more definite commitment to the rigors of the medium. In fact, it is in Money Money Money (whose title comes from an odd, suggestive fragment by Roethke:

Goody-by, good-by, old stones, the time-order
is going,
I have married my hands to perpetual agitation,
I run, I run to the whistle of money.
Money money money
Water water water)

that Wagoner, through one of his characters who quotes Wyatt and goes on to explain what poetry is, defends and even defines his own double enterprise:

‘They flee from me that sometimes did me seek, With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.’ Poetry is almost as good as money, but it isn’t. Unlike those bills, my dear, it hits you where you’re looking, and that hurts because you have a right to expect to be surprised when you’re defeated. Understand?

It is for the world in which poetry is not quite as good as money that Wagoner writes his novels, with their scrupulous prose and their scary plots; in the second one occurs the intimation of his second book of poems—and its title as well—to appear three years later:

He wouldn’t allow any of them inside his life any more, not if they begged. They could come holding out their bodies to be kissed or kept warm, and he wouldn’t do it. And he would change all their curious, insistent words into silence … And there would be a place to stand till it was entirely daylight everywhere and luck and sense were given away with no strings on them.

For just as the writing of novels liberated Wagoner to do something in his poetry which could not be done with all those Other Lives weighing on his tongue, so the writing of poetry (“that lofted my tongue / and cried blue language at the enemy”) afforded those necessary, utopian possibilities which the novel could not reach, but only reach toward—“a place to stand till it was entirely daylight every-where and luck and sense were given away with no strings on them.” In 1958, then, Wagoner published A Place to Stand, a book of poems which, in its vision of a transfigured existence, adumbrates a titanic self on the other side of appearances, a self that can be realized by an appropriate submission to organic process in which all antagonisms—the heart's...

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Robert Boyers (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of New and Selected Poems, in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 128, 1970, pp. 176–81.

[In the following review, Boyers praises Wagoner's poetry for its acrobatic ability to sustain balance as it chronicles the nature of living as continuous movement.]

David Wagoner seems to me one of our best poets, perhaps one of the best we have ever had in this country. I say “perhaps” because there is so much one might expect him still to explore, to attempt, that is as yet untouched in his verse, for Wagoner is a young man, his gifts are great, his commitment to craft exemplary. Which is to say, like any poet, Wagoner has his limitations, and, like...

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John Hughes (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Riverbed, in The Saturday Review, Vol. 55, February 26, 1972, p. 62.

[In the following essay, Hughes praises Wagoner's ability to convey the landscape and the processes of individual consciousness through the metaphorical use of natural phenomena.]

In Riverbed, David Wagoner, a poet of the Pacific Northwest, has broken through to the metaphysical Northwest Passage sought for so frequently in his four previous books of poetry. He has eschewed that less arduous route to the unconscious mind which has been championed by Pound, Lawrence, James Dickey, and other liturgists of pseudoinstinctive spontaneity. Instead, Wagoner has followed...

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Laurence Lieberman (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “David Wagoner: The Cold Speech of the Earth,” in Unassigned Frequencies: American Poetry in Review, 1964–77, University of Illinois Press, 1977, pp. 152–81.

[In the following essay, Lieberman traces Wagoner's development of a “language of sensory response,” by which means the poet can describe his encounter with and transcendence of the challenges of Nature.]


Stretched out on the ground, I hear the news of the night
Pass over and under:
The faraway honks of geese flying blind as stars
(And hoof—or heartbeats),
The squeaks of bats, impaling moths in the air,
Who leave light wings
To flutter by themselves down to the grass...

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Arthur Oberg (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Collected Poems: 1956–1976, in Poetry, Vol. 130, No. 3, June, 1977, pp. 162–67.

[In the following review of the Collected Poems, 1956–1976, Oberg concludes Wagoner is a major poet.]

David Wagoner's Collected Poems brings together selections from two decades of writing, three hundred telling pages of verse. If poetry at one level is always a hoarding procedure in the service of love, this book is a particularly generous one. In the face of so much contemporary poetry which is tritely minimal or narrowly confessional, Wagoner's collection acknowledges large intentions for poetry in a voice which can range from the loudly...

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Donald Hall (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of In Broken Country, in The New Republic, Vol. 181, No., November 24, 1979, pp. 34–7.

[In the following review, Hall distinguishes between the rare poetry of “true invention” and the much more common, but respectable, poetry “of the second intensity,” and praises Wagoner as a good poet of this type.]

Here is the first stanza of “For a Woman Who Dreamed All the Horses were Dying,” one of 63 new poems in David Wagoner's 10th poetry collection, In Broken Country:

You saw them falling in fields beyond barbed
Their forelegs buckling, the horses kneeling
In the dead grass, then falling awkwardly

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R. W. Flint (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of In Broken Country, in Parnassus, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1980, pp. 58–62.

[In the following excerpt, Flint celebrates Wagoner's nature/wilderness poetry.]

No sooner had Frost died than the Great West from Chicago to Seattle, Calgary to Santa Fe, was suddenly taken to be the one remaining continental reservoir of fresh local color. If the phrase brings a blush to your cheek, dear reader, you help make my point. You are one of those who settle for action, character, atmosphere, or unfresh local color used in new ways or seen in new lights. When Frost left the scene, only New York City was offering serious competition to the West. Elsewhere one either...

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Jarold Ramsey (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Who Shall Be the Sun?: Poems Based on the Lore, Legends and Myths of Northwest Coast and Plateau Indians, in Western American Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1, May, 1980, pp. 37–40.

[In the following essay, Ramsey commends Wagoner's reworking of Native-American myths in Who Shall Be the Sun?.]

There is so much to admire in this book, that it may seem perverse to begin its praise by enumerating some of the things that might have gone wrong with it. But such enumeration can be itself a kind of praise: remember Yeats' observation about the pleasure in a sense of difficulty overcome. So here—another writer (it would not be hard to offer...

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Robert Peters (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at David Wagoner's New Poems,” in Western Humanities Review, Vol. 35, No. 3, Autumn, 1981, pp. 267–72.

[In the following essay, despite his appreciation of Wagoner's poetic virtues, Peters sees him as a safe, nonadventurous poet with comfortable middle-class, middle-age sensibilities.]

The Blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

Wallace Stevens


“David Wagoner seems to me one of our best poets, perhaps one of the best we have ever had in this country.”

—Robert Boyers,...

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Steven Ratiner (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Landfall, in The Christian Science Monitor, September 30, 1981, p. 15.

[In the following review, Ratiner praises Wagoner's Landfall for its “precise, luminous diction,” unpretentious style, and friendly voice, but regrets what he sees as frequent verbal repetitions and permutations.]

David Wagoner has had a long, prolific career as a poet, novelist, and editor. In Landfall, his 12th collection of poetry, one can feel the slow ripening of his outlook and his art.

More than the beauty of single poems, what the reader finds intriguing here is the book's sensibility—groping, touching, examining, and then...

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Justin Askins (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Landfall and First Light, in Parnassus, Vol. 12, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1984, pp. 331–41.

[In the following essay, Askins discusses the difficulty facing poets who still write poetry of nature, and argues that although Wagoner succeeds as a nature poet, his poems lack outstanding and memorable phrases.]

the substantial words are in the ground and sea,
they are in the air, they are in you.

Walt Whitman

Ever since Emerson announced to a burgeoning Democracy that “in the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows,” nature poetry in America has been permeated with...

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Sara McAulay (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Getting There and Going Beyond: David Wagoner's Journey Without Regret,” in The Literary Review, Vol. 28, No. 1, 1984, pp. 93–8.

[In the following essay, McAulay traces Wagoner's journey in nature, and the primordial struggle with self it demands, which constitutes the subject matter of much of Wagoner's poetry.]

Although he is a poet of unusual versatility and breadth of interest, David Wagoner is probably best known for his naturalist's eye—the lapidary precision with which he renders the rivers, rain forests, and beaches of the Pacific Northwest. More important than the acuity of his eye, however, is the life-view that underlies and informs his...

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Ron McFarland (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Apprentice Work: Dry Sun, Dry Wind and A Place to Stand,” in The World of David Wagoner, University of Idaho Press, 1997, pp. 15–37.

[In the following essay, McFarland surveys Wagoner's early poetry, and traces the development of his themes, technique, voice, and poetic identity.]

The year 1953 saw the publication of Theodore Roethke's fourth collection of poems, The Waking, for which he was to win the Pulitzer Prize, and of David Wagoner's first collection, Dry Sun, Dry Wind, which shows clearly the impact of Roethke, to whom it is dedicated, as well as the influence of what might be regarded as the “formalist...

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John Taylor (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Walt Whitman Bathing, in Poetry, Vol. 171, No., January, 1998, pp. 229–32.

[In the following essay, Taylor praises Wagoner for writing poetry that simultaneously celebrates self-transcendence and the “ontological durability” of certain “essential emotions.”]

One way of interpreting the adage “art is long, but life is short” is to point out the difficulty of attaining clarity. David Wagoner knows what this challenge implies, for Walt Whitman Bathing confirms once again his ability to arrive at an admirable transparency, without compromising stylistic nuance or philosophical scope. Even when gently ironic (see the touching...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Carruth, Hayden. “Opposite Methods.” Poetry, Vol. 109, No. 6, (1967): pp. 400–01.

Includes an incisive review of Staying Alive.

Dobyns, Stephen. “Five Poets.” Poetry, Vol. 117, No. 6, (March 1971): pp. 392–398.

Includes a discussion of New and Selected Poems, focusing on the depth Wagoner achieves through simplicity.

Elliott, George P. “Poetry Chronicle.” The Hudson Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, (Spring 1967): pp. 137–150.

Categorizes the poems in Staying Alive as either playful or profound.

Helms, Alan....

(The entire section is 342 words.)