Richard Wilbur Wilbur, Richard (Vol. 6)

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Wilbur, Richard (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wilbur, Richard 1921–

Wilbur is an American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, critic, and editor. The formal wit and grace of his poetry have inspired comparison with the metaphysical poets. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Aristotle praised the [poet's] gift of metaphor-making, the power to fuse the elements of a scattered or fragmented reality into meaningful new unities. Richard Wilbur has that gift, that power, and, in addition, the patience and perseverance of the craftsman, the carpenter, who respects his medium and submits himself to the slow task of fitting matter to design, theme to object. This combination of qualities has enabled him to write poems that are eminently well made: they are brilliant, strong in structure, and elegant. He works in traditional metrical forms and stanzas because, as he puts it, "The strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle." He evidently likes the resistance that formal obstacles represent and enjoys the triumph that makes them seem easy. It is perhaps this commitment to the forms, the nets, of tradition that enables him to sing. In this he is unlike many of his contemporaries, who merely talk. (pp. 93-4)

It must be said that public issues have not been particularly fruitful sources of subject matter for Mr. Wilbur, although he returns to them again and again, apparently feeling duty-bound to show his readers that he, too, worries about the atom bomb and … injustices…. (p. 94)

For the most part, [his first book, The Beautiful Changes,] is a joyous celebration of all that is wild and free and full of life. Wilbur praises the moral-free singing of the grasshopper, the nearly gravity-free leap of a sailboat in a race, the wild luxuriance of a garden which triumphs over all walls. He takes pleasure in the beauty of objects, for "the beautiful changes/In such kind ways," and delights in all particularities, rarities, and oddities…. He enjoys the play of the imagination, the ability to see summer where winter rules, a dazzle of light where there is gloom, for such play suggests a "prime/In the heart." Understandably, he rejects abstraction, the circles of geometry, liking them only when they return to nature and borrow flesh and content from it. (pp. 95-6)

This love of concrete reality, of particulars, is evident also in Ceremony (1950), a deftly written, fluent book full of the poet's experience of objects under varying conditions of light and weather. (pp. 96-7)

But … in Ceremony [and in Things of This World (1956)], the poet speculates about the reality of this world he renders with such love and precision. Is he dreaming it? Is he alone in space and imagining the properties of reality? Without a man to hear it, will a tree "fall to nothing without a sound"?… Over and over again the poet speaks of dreaming, of "dreamt land," of dream-laden reality. And his attitude toward the dream is both positive and negative. It is positive in poems where the imagination serves as a source of value and creative power; it is negative where the dream is delusional, divorced from work and responsibility. (p. 101)

[In] Advice to a Prophet [(1961)], his epistemological concern is again manifest. What is appearance? What is reality? When does one become the other? These questions make for witty paradox…. (p. 103)

In the title poem, "Advice to a Prophet," the poet deals with the prospect of atomic war, stirring the reader to a sense of what such a conflict would mean by presenting images not of a manless world, which is the conventional approach, but of a worldless man. This brilliant paradox suggests the wit of a poet who sees the world as both shadow and substance, subject and object.

But, whatever his doubts about the reality of the world, Wilbur has no doubt about the importance of making a vivid report of its characteristics. Each poem is a carefully articulated structure of sound and sense. The metaphors are exact, making the reality they describe brilliant. (p. 105)


(The entire section is 4,326 words.)