Richard Wilbur Richard Wilbur Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Richard Wilbur Poetry: American Poets Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Eschewing any obvious poetic version or formal, personal set of guidelines, Richard Wilbur has come to be regarded as a master craftsman of modern poetry. Although he sees himself as an inheritor of the vast wealth of language and form used by poets before him, Wilbur has consistently striven to create and maintain his own artistic signature and control over his own work. Having begun his career immediately after World War II and having been exposed to what has been called the Beat generation, Wilbur creates his poetry from an intriguing blend of imaginative insights and strict adherence to the niceties of conventional poetics. His is not the poetry of confession or hatred readily exemplified by Sylvia Plath, nor is it hallucinatory or mystical, as is much of Allen Ginsberg’s work.

Wilbur began to write poetry because the war prompted him to confront the fear and the physical and spiritual detachment brought about by a world in upheaval. He says that he “wrote poems to calm [his] nerves.” It is this sense of imposed order on a disorderly world that has caused some readers to think of Wilbur’s poetry as a distant investigation into human life addressed to a small, educated audience and delivered by a seemingly aloof but omniscient observer. Nearly all Wilbur’s poems are metrical, and many of them employ rhyme. Perhaps if a feeling of detachment exists, it comes not from Wilbur the poet but from the very standards of poetic expression. Every persona established by a poet is, in Wilbur’s words, “a contrived self.” This voice is the intelligent recorder of experience and emotion. It is Wilbur’s voice in the sense that, like the poet, the persona discovers relationships between ideas and events that are grounded in concrete reality but that lead to abstracted views of nature, love, endurance, and place. He uses concrete images—a fountain, a tree, a hole in the floor—to explore imagination. His flights into imagery are not sojourns into fantasy; they are deliberate attempts to be a witness to the disordered and altogether varied life around him.

Wilbur achieves brilliantly what he sees poetry doing best: compacting experience into language that excites the intellect and vivifies the imagination. His voice and the cautious pace at which he works are not to be taken as self-conscious gestures. They are, to use his word, matters demanding “carefulness.” He finds “gaudiness annoying, richness not.” Wilbur’s poetry is rich; it is wealthy in imagery and plot and rhythmic movement. He seems to believe that language cannot be guarded unless it is used to carry as much meaning as it can possibly bear. This freedom with language is not prodigal but controlled. Betraying poetry’s ancestry would be anarchy for Wilbur. At the heart of his canon is the verbal liberty he finds in formalism. Consequently, in each line he hopes that at least one word will disturb the reader, providing a freedom found only within the architectonics of poetry’s conventions. His poems enjoy humor and quiet meditation, and they lend themselves easily to being read aloud. Because of the freedom the rules of poetry give to them, Wilbur’s poems are energetic, and his persona, peripatetic.

A sense of decorum

If readers were to limit their interest in Wilbur’s poetry to a discussion of imagery, they would be misunderstanding and distorting some of the basic premises on which he builds his poetry. Just as he sees each of his poems as an independent unit free of any entanglement with other poems in a collection or with a superimposed, unifying theme, so he views the creation of a poem as an individual response to something noticed or deeply felt. Because all worthwhile poetry is a personal vision of the world, Wilbur heightens the tension and irony found in his poems by establishing a voice enchanted by what is happening in the poem but controlled so that the persona is nearly always a reasonable voice recording details and events in an entirely...

(The entire section is 5,625 words.)