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Richard Wilbur 1921–
(Full name Richard Purdy Wilbur) American poet, translator, critic, nonfiction writer, author of children's books, and editor.
The following entry provides an overview of Wilbur's career through 1997. For further information on Wilbur's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 6, 9, 14, and 53.
The former Poet Laureate of the United States from 1987–1988, Richard Wilbur is respected for the craftsmanship and elegance of his verse, which employs formal poetic structures and smoothly flowing language to pinpoint and poeticize individual moments in modern life. Wilbur's English translations of the works of French dramatists such as Molière and Racine are also widely praised and considered to be the definitive versions.
Wilbur was born in New York City in 1921. The son of a commercial artist, Wilbur was interested in painting as a youth, but eventually opted to pursue writing, a decision he attributes to the influence of his mother's father and grandfather, both of whom were editors. Wilbur graduated from Amherst College in 1942 and Harvard University in 1947. During World War II he served in the Army, where he saw action in Italy, an experience that later helped form much of his poetry. Wilbur published his first book of poetry, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, in 1947, the same year he became a junior fellow at Harvard where he taught English until 1954. Wilbur went on to teach at Wellesley College, Wesleyan University, and Smith College. In 1987 he was named Poet Laureate of the United States, the second person to hold the position since its inception in 1986. Finding the bureaucratic responsibilities of the post too taxing, Wilbur opted not to serve a second year, and returned to writing and lecturing at various colleges and universities.
Wilbur's first book of poems, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, contains several pieces that focus on his experience as a soldier in World War II and reflect his attempts to instill a sense of order to an existence full of destruction and chaos. Other poems describe natural phenomena and include meditations on spiritual and metaphysical topics, recurring themes in Wilbur's work. In Ceremony and Other Poems (1950) Wilbur examines the relationship between the material world and the imagination, as he ponders mutability and death. Wilbur's next collection, Things of This World (1956), is widely regarded as containing his most mature work up to that point, and contains some of his most popular and critically acclaimed work, including "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" and "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra." Wilbur received both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Things of This World. In Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems (1961) Wilbur continued his lyricism and his command of various traditional poetic forms. Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (1969), which won the Bollingen Prize, contains pastoral lyrics, an elegy, a Miltonic sonnet, tributes, narratives, and a riddle. In The Mind-Reader (1976), Wilbur examines characteristic concerns by employing witty language within tight lyrical structures. Wilbur's previously unpublished poems contained in New and Collected Poems (1988) include a tribute to W. H. Auden, a fable, observations on nature and the imagination, and a cantata on which he collaborated with composer William Schuman to honor the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. In The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces 1963–1995 (1997), Wilbur collects many of his nonfiction prose writings, including book reviews, criticism, and essays. Wilbur is also highly acclaimed for his translations. Of these he is best known for his versions of the Molière plays The Misanthrope and Tartuffe, having shared the Bollingen Prize for translation for the latter drama. His renderings into English of works by eminent French, Russian, and Spanish authors have been included in several of his poetry collections.
While some critics have praised Wilbur's deft handling of formal conventions, others have asserted that his concern with form has led to thematic rigidity. Other commentators have noted that Wilbur's quiet conservatism is not likely to be well-received by an audience that expects poets to write personal and tormented explications of their own feelings rather than Wilbur's reserved metaphysical observations on nature. Thom Gunn wrote, after the publication of Advice to a Prophet, "The public prefers a wild and changeable poet to one who has pursued a single end consistently and quietly." Despite this bias, Wilbur's work has attracted wide admiration. Anthony Hecht commented on Wilbur's poem "Lying," "There is nobility in such utterance that is deeply persuasive, and throughout Wilbur's poetry we are accustomed to finding this rare quality, usually joined to wit, good humor, grace, modesty, and a kind of physical zest or athletic dexterity that is, so far as I know, unrivaled."
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 102
The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (poetry) 1947
Ceremony and Other Poems (poetry) 1950
Things of This World: Poems (poetry) 1956
Poems, 1943–1956 (poetry) 1957
Emily Dickinson: Three Views [with Louise Bogan and Archibald MacLeish] (criticism) 1960
Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems (poetry) 1961
Loudmouse (juvenile) 1963
The Poems of Richard Wilbur (poetry) 1963
Prince Souvanna Phouma: An Exchange between Richard Wilbur and William Jay Smith (poetry) 1968
Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (poetry) 1969
Opposites: Poems and Drawings (juvenile) 1973
Seed Leaves: Homage to R. F. (poetry) 1974
The Mind-Reader: New Poems (poetry) 1976
Seven Poems (poetry) 1981
New and Collected Poems (poetry) 1988
The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces 1963–1995 (criticism, reviews, and essays) 1997
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Suburbia," in Partisan Review, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Fall 1956, pp. 545-53.
[Gregory is an American poet, critic, and translator whose works include Rooming House (1930) and Medusa in Gramercy Park (1960). In the following review, he praises the "charm" of Wilbur's poetry in Things of This World, but expresses reservations about its ability to retain a place in American literature.]
The recent Zeitgeist in American culture is of suburban colors, manners, dress. Those who are currently publishing verse are affected by its daily habits and ambitions, and more than a few have mistaken its presence for a visitation of the Muse. The importance of the suburban Zeitgeist may not be enduring, but since the end of the Korean War, its influence has spread cross-country from the suburbs of Boston to the state of Washington, far beyond the toll-gates of large cities; and it can be heard and seen as vividly on a college campus as in Westchester or nearby Long Island. It is nourished by the magazines I find in my dentist's office: The New Yorker, Life, and Time. It may seem strange that popular culture should invade, and so thoroughly and quickly, the landscapes of academic life; it may not (I am sure it does not) represent academic thinking at its centers, yet on the fringes of the campus it is very much alive, geared to the speed of a two-toned—strawberry-pink and gingham-blue—station wagon. It is well known that most of the verse published today is brought forth in the temporary shelter of universities. Suburban culture has spread its wings over all the activities that surround the campus, and verse written in this atmosphere cannot help reflecting the surfaces of everyday experience.
Another factor influencing the spirit of the verse written today was the belated "discovery" of Wallace Stevens. Of course, he had been "discovered" long ago; but in the postwar years it was not only the wit and inventiveness of Stevens' work, it was the image of his success, both as an executive of an insurance company and as a poet, that caught and held the admiration of young men and women who wrote verse. It was rumored that he was rich, very rich, rich enough to escape all minor economic misfortunes and turns of chance. In the United States there has never been any sustained disrespect for wealth; roughness and the "homespun" manner are often enjoyed, but always with the hope of finding "a rough diamond" or "a heart of gold." So far as the best of Stevens' verse revealed him, he was a pluralist and a skeptic; and certain external features of his legend had become attractive to emulate. The new Zeitgeist quickly absorbed whatever it understood of this legend; then it acquired an air of "difference" from the forty years that separated it from the first publication of Harmonium. It disregarded conscious bohemianism and "sexual freedom," as well as the Left Wing politics of the 1930's, and the "academic" irony fashionable in the 1940's that was best represented by the little magazine Furioso.
The conventions of the new Zeitgeist were being formed. The more "advanced" younger poets had become instructors and lecturers and behind academic facades embittered laurels were being watered and cultivated; old-fashioned excess (if any) and toasts drunk to the memory of F. Scott Fitzgerald were reserved for holidays, or discreetly converted into weekend faculty cocktail parties. These younger poets began to use the word "elegance" in praising each other's writings, and if twenty years ago it had become fashionable to be "proletarian" in spirit, in the early 1950's, it had become a virtue to say that one could not live on less than ten thousand a year, that if one did not have hidden sources of wealth, it was a disgrace to live at all. Stevens' "elegance" was of mind and temperament, yet it was one that seemed easy to imitate in terms of the more garish advertising pages of Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, and The New Yorker, the kind of literature that for a brief, wholly deceptive moment makes the reader feel like a luxury product himself, ready to join the "International Set," to be severe with middle-aged, wealthy American patronesses in Rome, and to drink at Harry's Bar in Venice. The word "elegance," like so many transitory usages of language in the United States, has become the choice of copywriters to sell everything the suburban matron wears. One might suspect collusion between the poets of Harper's Bazaar and the shopkeepers of Westchester.
One effect of the suburban influence has been to revive a kind of writing that had been forgotten since 1914. What used to be called "magazine verse" forty years ago is back in print again, decorously written, and admirably fitted to fill empty spaces between fiction and feature articles. One might call it the New Yorker school of verse.
Though the offices of The New Yorker are in New York, its heart is in the suburbs. The magazine is certainly the handbook of the suburban matron throughout the country. The New Yorker publishes a quantity of light verse, which is nothing to be ashamed of; but light verse that lives beyond the moment is extremely rare. It is rare because poetic wit itself is a rarity; what often passes for it is something "cute," something coy, something pleasant, harmless, or naughty-bitter. It should be well-formed; and not—by the same poet—reiterated too frequently in the same phrases. The cutting edge too frequently wears dull. Large indiscriminate doses of it tend to cloy. These truisms are probably known in the offices of The New Yorker and regretted—therefore, it has fallen back on publishing quasi-serious verse as well, constructed according to current formulas: certain verse forms used with enough caution to be recognized at once, certain images within the verses that recall the "happy-bitter" experience of childhood, the joy of collecting toys and the discovery that toys are perishable, the country places visited at home, the holiday from suburban security in Europe. The great discomfort in reading too much New Yorker verse is that the formula continually wears thin; it is not as cheering as it hoped to be—or as light and witty as Sandy Wilson's parody of the 1920's in his musical The Boy Friend. Reading too much New Yorker verse becomes a bore.
By these winding suburban roads I have come to Richard Wilbur's third book of verse, with its well-chosen title, Things of This World. It is a book that should utterly charm the Zeitgeist. It is undoubtedly the best of Wilbur's three books, and if his early reviewers have placed him among the better poets of his immediate generation, they have not been wrong. With the same care with which he has chosen his title he has selected poems for this volume; they are not too many, not too few; though he is in the New Yorker orbit he seems to float slightly beyond it. What Wilbur contributes to the verse of the Zeitgeist is an absolutely engaging personality with "the desire to please" between the lines of every stanza. This is "the something new" that he has offered to the Zeitgeist. Some of the recent poems reflect his travels in Italy; the first poem in the book, "Altitudes," is among the best of written tributes to Emily Dickinson. His adaptation of Paul Valèry's "Helen" is written with excellent taste, restraint, and firmness; on second reading, more than half the poems in the book retain their charm. A second reading assures me that none of the poems would disturb the self-confidence of the young and smartly dressed suburban matron stepping from her station wagon on a sunny morning. She would probably enjoy most, wrinkling her forehead slightly—in the effort to recall her trips to Europe (on vacation from Radcliffe)—"The Beacon," with its images of deep sea water, and "Piazza Di Spagna, Early Morning"; the girl in that poem must have been the way she looked when she spent three days in Rome. And since she has, of course, read Robert Frost, she would be delighted at hearing familiar Frostian accents in Wilbur's "Digging for China." She might even imagine that her own Junior, age three, would enjoy digging for China in New Jersey, and hope that he, twenty-five years later, would recall the scene as memorably as Richard Wilbur does.
But if one has a long memory for verse, which unfortunately I possess, further rereadings of Wilbur's verse bring doubts to mind. "Piazza Di Spagna" becomes a reduced, less memorable flutter of lines that recreate Eliot's "La Figlia Che Piange." There is also much pleasure in reading Wilbur's "A Voice from Under the Table"—until one remembers Phelps Putnam's "Hasbrouck and the Rose." Both the resemblance and the contrast between the two poems bring up embarrassing questions: Putnam's poem is direct; passionate young fools are drunk and talking aloud. In contrast to Putnam's, Wilbur's poem is overdressed and a shade pretentious—and his phrase, "God keep me a damned fool," rings false, false because Wilbur seems so expert at contriving certain of his lines. It well may be that he feels a necessity to reiterate his adaptation of Francis Jammes' "A Prayer to Go to Paradise with the Donkeys"—but one gains no other evidence from Wilbur's writing that he is foolish. These are my doubts—but I am also convinced that Things of This World will be regarded by many as the best single book of poems published this year; and I believe that Wilbur's charm should not be underrated….
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SOURCE: "Richard Wilbur's Critical Condition," in Contemporary Poetry: A Journal of Criticism, Vol. II, No. 2, Autumn 1977, pp. 16-24.
[In the following essay, Woodard defends Wilbur's poetry against detractors who find his work "too happy."]
Critical commentaries on Wilbur's poetry have come to seem rather highly stylized and predictable, like bullfighting. First there is the ritual praise of his technical virtuosity (music, diction, imagery, metrics), to show that the critic is not devoid of the appreciation of beauty, followed quickly by the disclaimers which establish his awareness of its irrelevance to contemporary life. Objections to Wilbur's poetry, to phrase them in the simplest terms, take the following forms: (1) He thinks too much. (2) He does not suffer enough.
Strictly speaking, it is not Wilbur's thought so much as his imagination that is derogated. Clearly we cannot condemn him for his epistemological interests if we are to permit them to Wallace Stevens. It is Wilbur's use of the things of this world, his chosen poetic province, which gets him into trouble; he is not tough enough with them, not sufficiently insistent upon their thinginess, but persists in allowing them to pass through his mind, where his recalcitrant imagination may act upon them. Back of such criticism there hover the dicta and practice of William Carlos Williams, whose followers put their faith in an objective "rendering" of reality or experience as little tampered with by mind as possible.
The chief emphasis is on outwitting the mind's insidious attempts to impose its own patterns on reality or to substitute them for reality—an end accomplished by limiting its reported activities to acts of perception or "prereflective cognition." It is as if the poet were arrested in his linguistic development on the verge of the invention of language, striving for an arrangement of shells on the shore from which we as readers are to deduce an idea, rather as Deism could deduce God's existence from an inspection of the natural world. Perhaps it is not quite so primitive as this; a better comparison would be the still-life tableau of such objects as apples, pears, and a freshly killed hare, except that the seemingly arbitrary grouping must "mean" something, without saying it. With a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain, and white chickens, Williams takes us back to an approximation of pictographic writing. Thus the snares and delusions of discursive thought and emotive language are avoided, but only until we read an analysis of such symbols by one of Williams' exegetes. The reader is permitted to use his mind, we are tempted to say, but not the poet, except in the most rigorous "demonstrative" sense. It was Williams' insistence that there be no new wine in old bottles, and thus Wilbur is condemned for using older forms and conventions. Paradoxically, it is acceptable for Williams' imitators to put their wine in his old bottles, but Wilbur may not put his in Eliot's and certainly not in those of Pope and Donne. If wit and cleverness were not generally outside the laws governing the works of the Williams school, one of its members might write a satire on Wilbur, similar to that written by Dryden on Shadwell—no doubt it would be entitled "MacDonne."
The second complaint, which appears to have its origin in the vogue for "confessional" poetry, may at times be viewed as a result of the first; if Wilbur did not take refuge so habitually in his own mind, he would see the world for the pit of horror that everyone else knows it to be. Lowell and his followers, with their categories of "cooked" and "raw" poetry, take it as a priori that the good poet will suffer and, further, that good poetry consists precisely in the reporting of this suffering. Emotional Jacksonians, the critics who take this position, want no one whistling within hearing of their misery. They appear to view poetry as having some therapeutic function, but if poets are their physicians how can it profit them to be prescribed continuing doses of their own sickness? The answer must be that misery continues to love company; they want the assurance that the poet is not sunny or happy—that he is, in fact, exactly like themselves. They want it reaffirmed that man is beastly, the "human condition" hopeless. Thus assured, they may turn out the light and fall into dreamless sleep. In such a critical environment, Wilbur is a kind of Mauberley, born out of his due time in "a half-savage country, out of date"—a country with a taste, where a taste can be discerned, for meat not merely rare but raw.
The effect of such criticism is to confine poetry to immediate sensation and emotion. We appear to have reared a race of critics who go about with their tongues probing their aching teeth, hungering to see lepers, monstrosities, freaks, wounds, blood, madness. We require to be told that we are mad, or have at least the rich potential for going mad. We still, in some strange perversion of Victorianism, require our poets to be sages, but sages of a very rare and specialized breed, sages of suffering. Their hands display their stigmata, their wrists their slashes. The lurid path cut through our skies by the Welsh comet Dylan Thomas, Eliot's resigned nerveless suffering, Auden's frequent reminders of "the suffering to which we are fairly accustomed," Yeats even, with his cyclic cataclysms, our own grim expectations of life in the twentieth century, the dreadful tragedies of our younger poets—all these have led us to believe that the poet's role requires that he put the stamp of sincerity upon his work by stepping in front of an automobile or leaping off a bridge.
We seem, in fact, to have arrived, in recent years, at a kind of unwritten contract with our poets. Were it formalized, it might read more or less as follows: "You may be a poet, and we will reward you with grants and fellowships and readings if you are fashionable, and publish your doings in the papers, like those of football players and television performers, but never forget that it is your suffering for which you are being paid. We will begin to take most interest in your work precisely when it shows clearest symptoms of your breaking down. We want to know of every visit to a sanitarium, every cut, cuddled, and sucked thumb, your bouts with alcohol and depression, your flirtations with suicide. And then to prove your seriousness, you must write a final poem, in the form of a leap from a bridge or a pulled trigger. Then we will believe. Then we will establish a cult and proclaim you unreservedly a poet."
Confessional poetry may be quite as much a result of this attitude as its cause. The wounds! we cry, all the wounds, licked by so many bloody tongues. Knowledge is sorrow, but must art be pain? Must we now have suffering only, without catharsis? Unused to hearing confessionals, knowing only our own local pain, we are overwhelmed. This is what life is, we say, like the blind man laying hold of some part of the elephant. Granted that life is grim, that this may be, as Elizabeth Bishop said, "our worst century yet," must our poetry continue compulsively to rehearse this one obsessive fact? The mind's indwelling powers are capable of more; the vulture reminds the alert of Noah; another world opens through a hole in the floor. Even a man on the way to a madhouse may smile at a girl in the street.
Arnold criticized the Romantics for not knowing enough; another generation of critics condemns Wilbur for not suffering enough. He comes and sets up shop before us, dazzling us with displays of virtuosity such as to make him seem a creature from another world—or from another age, at the very least. His technical skill is immense. His poems stand apart from him in the independent world of art; both he and they are like cats, licking their fur in total self-sufficiency, self-possession. It is almost as if he were too blessed with talent. We may be tempted to see him as a kind of happy fool, a "natural," into whose pockets apples fall as he dawdles cheerfully across the verdancy of an outmoded romantic landscape. "How graceful," we say, "but does he go through life without pain?" His poetry is a reminder that the tragic vision which we prize so highly in our poets need not rule out the "wit and wakefulness," the free play of the mind delighting in itself, which Wilbur proclaims as his own. "It's pretty," say Kipling's Philistines doubtfully, "but is it art?" "It's art," we say of Wilbur's poetry, shaking our heads with equal doubt, "but is it life? Does he not suffer?" He does not say, overtly, and thus we conclude that he has nothing to say. We might pay him the compliment, however, of thinking that he is perhaps not trying to say so much as to make, and with materials subtler than oyster-shells. The play of his mind, as shimmering and translucent as the spray of his fountains, may be a delight to the reader; if it is an equal delight to Wilbur, so much the better. It was once considered a virtue to suffer in silence; if Wilbur suffers, it is thus he does. Socialized suffering can only be ruinous; shared property dwindles; shared pain multiplies until every emotional reservoir is overflowing. The giver retains a full store, no matter how fully he burdens his recipients. It would be tragic indeed if we forced Wilbur, as the price of our adulation, to take to drink and end a suicide in some peaceful New England summer, and thus to become overnight another of our cult-heroes.
In lamenting man's tragic circumstance, however, and supposing that Wilbur is unaware of it, we do him a very real injustice. Apart from man's mortality, with its attendant suffering, there is perhaps no more tragic situation in his life than the discrepancy between the world he perceives and the world which he knows intellectually to exist. A study of Wilbur's poetry—we may confine ourselves to the collection The Poems of Richard Wilbur (1963)—shows how often the things of this world which he celebrates are shadowed by an awareness of this discrepancy. His little poem "Epistemology" states a theme implicit in much of his writing:
Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.
We milk the cow of the world, and as we do
We whisper in her ear, "You are not true."
This is not merely the cow of Berkeley's idealism but the cow of current science, without milking machines. Nothing can bridge the gap between appearance and the reality which we know to exist but cannot perceive. Wilbur for his poetry chooses the cow he can see and milk rather than some molecular cow which cloudily fails to abide our question. Nevertheless, he is far removed in his epistemology from Williams and his followers. Though he knows, as the title of one of his poems tells us, that "a world without objects is a sensible emptiness," his poetry is ironically informed with the further knowledge that a red wheelbarrow possesses no quality of redness and that the chickens in a barnyard are cloudy stuff indeed, as is his cow. His poetry itself, the milk from that cow, must thus partake of the general untruth of those things whose fragile beauty it celebrates; and that fragility is more moving than the traditional theme of mutability. The Williams school accepts without question the world as our senses give it to us, while rejecting the validity of any Wordsworthian recollection in tranquillity. It is as if Margaret Fuller had said, "I accept the universe, but I will not allow my mind to contaminate it." Wilbur permits the entry of mind into the reality-equation, and not without logic. If the world which the Williams school uses as the materials of poetry is "unreal," as scientifically viewed, then it is difficult to see that the senses are more reliable than the intellect for poetry or more valid than the imagination. How can the mind contaminate in any significant way a world which the mind knows already not to exist except as invisible particles awhirl in infinite immensities of space? Poets, after all, are not philosophers or scientists; their observations are neither methodologically nor logically immaculate. If on the other hand the world is "unreal" in philosophic terms, with no existence outside mind, then intellection is not only the order of the day—it is the day, and the night.
We may, if we please, insist upon the validity of sensations and the "reality" of sensible objects; but such and assumption, in the context of modern scientific knowledge, is in itself a denial of the validity of the mind's operations; and thus we are returned to a primitive state of existence—a pre-cortical state, we are tempted to say—scratching or painting our visual perceptions on the wall of the cave. Such a state is not Wilbur's. In a world eternally in motion, where nothing is stable, where even atomic particles are beset with an uncertainty principle, the play of the individual mind, itself reducible to the activity of chemically generated electrical impulses, may be as good a model of reality as we have. If it imposes its own patterns on the outer world, perhaps that is not a calamitous event after all, since those patterns are a part of that world. Beneath the sensible surface of Wilbur's world another threatens, like the crack in Auden's teacup, to open into unspeakable voids—"the buried strangeness / Which nourishes the known" ("A Hole in the Floor"). His is a landscape of ephemera, of "opulent bric-a-brac," mined country, touched with the fatal "seeming" of the Edenic pear in "June Light," which constantly erodes the "truth and new delight" of the visible world. Each poem is a temporary victory over our knowledge of the nature of things; in each, like his juggler, he "has won for once over the world's weight," even as his prophet is being rehearsed to preach the "worldless rose" of an atomized earth ("Advice to a Prophet"). In this connection, Wilbur's tendency to concentrate on things rather than on dramatic situations (people), is perhaps not without its own sinister implications, as much a commentary by omission as Housman's excluding the fully adult and the aged from A Shropshire Lad.
Wilbur's concern is not mutability alone (although this too is a central theme) but the precariousness of a physical world which is known to be different from what our physical senses tell us it is, as we know that sand may be a component of glass, without being able to see it ("Junk"). A tension is set up between eye and mind. Wilbur must praise appearance even as he is being hoodwinked by it, because a molecular world is not a workable stuff for poetry, though it is always there, an undeniable adjunct to the assertions made by the poetry. His is not the too-solid flesh of Hamlet; things of summer growth "raise / Plainly their seeming into seamless air" ("June Light"); the erratic flight of birds suggests a world "dreamt" by "cross purposes" ("An Event"), and misty weather brings a fear of the loss of the physical world ("A Chronic Condition").
If Wilbur is to be criticized for being "too happy," for employing his mind too much, it might be well for those who do so to consider the poised fragility of his world as set against the "bloody loam," apparently eternal, which is the basis of Williams'. Both Williams and the confessional school appear to accept the sensible world at face value; in his later work Williams' world is poised between the mythic primal slime on the one hand and the momentary display of spirit on the other. The uneasy ground of Wilbur's poetry is the irreconcilable oppositions of appearance and knowledge. It is not immediately apparent that Williams' world is more "real," and thus more unhappy, than Wilbur's, or that it deals more rigorously with its facts and artifacts, since it does not show any inclination to question the evidence of the senses as the basis of its epistemology.
Between the two poles of sensation and knowledge, Wilbur's mind functions as mediator. Its graceful error many "correct the cave" of reality ("Mind"); it milks the cow of the world which it knows to be untrue. The perceived world, with its fine gauzy shimmer of fountains and its colored juggling balls, is equally a world of the fine shimmer and juggling of mind. His poetry constitutes a realm of its own, with its own truth, constantly reiterating that the mind's reflections are hardly less substantial or valid than the objects of its perceptions. If a critic, standing at the edge of one of Wilbur's displays, cries, "Unreal!" Wilbur need only allow a wider spin of the lariat to rope him into the scene whose existence he is denying. After all, Wilbur has denied it from the beginning.
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SOURCE: "Master of Metaphor," in The New Republic, Vol. 3, No. 826, May 16, 1988, pp. 23-32.
[Hecht is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet whose works include A Summoning of Stones (1954) and The Hard Hours (1968). In the following review, he offers an overview of major themes and techniques in Wilbur's work and praises his New and Collected Poems.]
"The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis," observed Wittgenstein. And since today there are critics who maintain that art and criticism are indistinguishable from one another, it ought to follow that the critical work itself is seen from the same August perspective. Yet our experience of the history of criticism and the morphology of aesthetic theory fails conspicuously to support this view. Nothing is more familiar to us than the changes in the mode of taste that time itself seems to bring round in its course. Bach endured an eclipse of 200 years, and Richard Ellmann has recently told us that for the undergraduate Oscar Wilde, Keats and Swinburne (whom modern readers would only reluctantly identify with one another) were akin in the "effeminacy and languor and voluptuousness which are the characteristics of that 'passionate humanity' which is the background of true poetry." In the comparatively brief course of my lifetime, John Donne's reputation was virtually disinterred, and the Romantics are now enjoying a revival. And I suppose I should add that it must take a very curious and cultivated taste to enjoy reading criticism of Wordsworth as much as reading Wordsworth himself, though I have known such creatures. (They are desperate graduate students, and no less desperate professors.)
These ruminations are brought on by the publication of Richard Wilbur's New and Collected Poems, and by a wistful desire to arrive at a large and serene view of his accomplishment, the crowning of a long and distinguished career. (Just how distinguished is hard to assess, but apart from his many honors, awards, and appointments, I can note here that the 14th edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations contains 107 lines of his work.) I am already on record as a somewhat defensive admirer of his, having reviewed his last book of poems, The Mind-Reader (1976). And while that review attempted to offer a view of his entire poetic career up to that point (apart from his translations of French drama), I have no desire now to serve up warmed-over views, or to engage again in the parochial and tribal battles that are often waged between rival schools and camps of current poetic taste. Wilbur's distinctions do not need to be set off by the infelicities of others, and his work is by now so well known, and so widely honored, that I can spare the reader a repetition of the formulaic terms of praise that have become the logos and labels of critical approval of his work.
The new book presents all of his previous volumes in reverse order, concluding with his first book, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947)—the same order in which his poems were arranged in the, by now, familiar assemblage, The Poems of Richard Wilbur, which brought together everything from the first book to Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems (1961). The present volume reprints everything heretofore collected and adds to it the contents of two subsequent volumes, Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (1969) and The Mind-Reader, and adds to them a volume of new poems with which this rich and impressive collection begins. This new work bears all the hallmarks of excellence that have stamped Wilbur's previous work: a kinetic imagination that is rare among poets, as well as an unusually rich and fertile gift for metaphor. I share with Aristotle a view of the importance of this gift, and cite him accordingly as follows:
It is a great thing, indeed, to make a proper use of these poetical forms, as also of compound and strange words. But the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.
When I try to make a mental list of the major English and American poets from, say, the turn of the century on, I find myself unable to come up with a single one who can match Wilbur in this regard. Each good poet, of course, has his own unique merits, his own vision, style, and idiom. And good poets do not cancel one another out; if we like Blake we are not thereby forbidden to like Marvell as well. But I can think of no other poet who could do what Wilbur does metaphorically in the following poem, "An Event," from Things of This World:
As if a cast of grain leapt back to the hand,
A landscapeful of small black birds, intent
On the far south, convene at some command
At once in the middle of the air, at once are gone
With headlong and unanimous consent
From the pale trees and fields they settled on.
What is an individual thing? They roll
Like a drunken fingerprint across the sky!
Or so I give their image to my soul
Until, as if refusing to be caught
In any singular vision of my eye
Or in the nets and cages of my thought,
They tower up, shatter, and madden space
With their divergences, are each alone
Swallowed from sight, and leave me in this place
Shaping these images to make them stay:
Meanwhile, in some formation of their own,
They fly me still, and steal my thoughts away.
Delighted with myself and with the birds,
I set them down and give them leave to be.
It is by words and the defeat of words,
Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,
That for a flying moment one may see
By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.
There is a great deal that might be said about this poem, but I will confine myself to two observations. In its ingenious, philosophic course it plays with the pre-Socratic puzzle of "the One" and "the Many," a playfulness that is carefully carried out in such words as "their image" (which is both singular and plural), "singular vision" (s.), "divergences" (pl.), "alone" (s.), "images" (pl.), and "formation" (both s. and pl.). And then in the course of our progress we come to that matchless simile in answer to the question, "What is an individual thing?" "They roll / Like a drunken fingerprint across the sky!" There isn't a poet I can think of who would not have been overjoyed by a trouvé of that sort. It is breath-takingly vivid, accurate, and most astonishingly, in motion.
But Wilbur then proceeds to do what virtually no other poet would have the courage to do: he, in effect, throws it away. Or in any case declares that this is only one, and perhaps an imperfect, way to formulate what may in the end defy formulation. He allows the seriousness of his epistemological or metaphysical puzzle to take precedence over any incidental felicities that might be encountered along the way. This sprezzatura would be reckless in another poet. But Wilbur's government of his enormous resources is what makes this poem (as well as many others) a triumph over its local details, and an amalgamation that is wonderfully greater than the sum of its parts. The Eleatic auditors of Zeno would have been delighted.
It seems worth adding that the theme of this poem—the delicate and necessarily imperfect attempt at an equation between the exterior world and the human faculties that apprehend and try to "render" it—is one that has preoccupied Wilbur almost from the first and figures beautifully in such an early stanza as this one:
Sycamore, trawled by the tilt sun,
Still scrawl your trunk with tattered lights, and keep
The spotted toad upon your patchy bark,
Baffle the sight to sleep,
Be such a deep
Rapids of lacing light and dark,
My eye will never know the dry disease
Of thinking things no more than what he sees.
It's a theme that recurs in "A Fire Truck," "The Mill," "Digging for China," "The Beacon," "A Plain Song for Comadre," and "Altitudes." In an era when a lot of supremely pompous things have been claimed for the omnipotence of language, it is refreshing in the work of so accomplished a poet to encounter an acknowledgment of "the defeat of words" in the face of the richness and multiplicity of an external reality that will always supersede and evade the limitations of our vocabulary, however well deployed. So there is to such poems a salutary and characteristic humility that is in itself attractive, and in turn points to something else about Wilbur's poetry that is worth remarking on, though I approach it with a certain tentativeness.
It has to do with the character of the man within or behind the poems; with how and to what degree that man gets expressed, if at all. This is a matter both delicate and controversial. There is an impressive body of modern thought that maintains there is no necessary connection between the work of art and the artist's nature, character, or history. Wilde, for one, maintained this view, and it seems implicit in Eliot's theory of the "impersonality" of art. It is a view Auden adopted in the stanzas he later deleted from his elegy to Yeats—the lines in which he declares:
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honors at their feet.
The same view is expressed by Shaw in his preface to The Doctor's Dilemma in these words:
No man who is occupied in doing a very difficult thing, and doing it very well, ever loses his self-respect…. The common man may have to found his self-respect on sobriety, honesty, and industry; but … an artist needs no such props for his sense of dignity … The truth is, hardly any of us have ethical energy enough for more than one really inflexible point of honor…. An actor, a painter, a composer, an author, may be as selfish as he likes without reproach from the public if only his art is superb; and he cannot fulfill this condition without sufficient effort and sacrifice to make him feel noble and martyred in spite of his selfishness.
It is quite wonderful to think how widespread is this doctrine among some artists of very doubtful merit; and we are likely to find it so familiar that it will seem a curiously modern attitude, but it isn't. Plutarch reports in his Life of Pericles: "Antisthenes … when he was told that Ismenias played excellently on the flute, answered very properly, 'Then he is good for nothing else; otherwise he would not have played so well.'"
Yet this view is by no means universally shared, and it is generally felt that though precision in the matter is impossible, the work of art bears some important imprint of the spirit and inmost life of its maker. And so, by way of facing a puzzle that I have never comfortably resolved, I present two Wilbur poems, the first of them, "Still, Citizen Sparrow," from a volume of 1950:
Still, citizen sparrow, this vulture which you call
Unnatural, let him but lumber again to air
Over the rotten office, let him bear
The carrion ballast up, and at the tall
Tip of the sky lie cruising. Then you'll see
That no more beautiful bird is in heaven's height,
No wider more placid wings, no watchfuller flight;
He shoulders nature there, the frightfully free,
The naked-headed one. Pardon him, you
Who dart in orchard aisles, for it is he
Devours death, mocks mutability,
Has heart to make an end, keeps nature new.
Thinking of Noah, childheart, try to forget
How for so many bedlam hours his saw
Soured the song of birds with its wheezy gnaw,
And the slam of his hammer all the day beset
The people's ears. Forget that he could bear
To see the towns like coral under the keel,
And the fields so dismal deep. Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where
He rocked his only world, and everyone's.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah's sons.
And now, in juxtaposition, a poem called "A Wood," published in a volume nearly 20 years later:
Some would distinguish nothing here but oaks,
Proud heads conversant with the power and glory
Of heaven's rays or heaven's thunder-strokes,
And adumbrators to the understory,
Where, in their shade, small trees of modest leanings
Contend for light and are content with gleanings.
And yet here's dogwood: overshadowed, small,
But not inclined to droop and count its losses,
It cranes its way to sunlight after all,
And signs the air of May with Maltese crosses.
And here's witch hazel, that from underneath
Great vacant boughs will bloom in winter's teeth.
Given a source of light so far away
That nothing, short or tall, comes very near it,
Would it not take a proper fool to say
That any tree has not the proper spirit?
Air, water, earth and fire are to be blended,
But no one style, I think, is recommended.
These poems probably were not composed to be matched and mated, and yet they do form a pair by dint of theme and contrast. They are both symbolic poems in which some aspect of nature takes part in a little allegorical pageant, exhibiting human attitudes in a manner that we've become familiar with from poems like Robert Frost's "Spring Pools." And even though there was a long interval between their appearances, it is possible to think of them as a sort of diptych, as poems that face each other and quarrel in a friendly way, as do Milton's "L' Allegro" and "II Penseroso"; though here we are prompted to wonder if the alternative postures presented by the two Wilbur poems are the consequence of a change of attitude on the part of the poet, or simply an attempt, as in Milton's case, to set up an antiphonal or dialogic relationship.
The question seems worth raising partly because there is something disturbing in the earlier, and in my view, the less successful, of these Wilbur poems. There is, for one thing, a curiously Jacobin flavor to the opening words and the title, suggesting the bloodthirsty resentment of some revolutionary leveler and vengeful egalitarian. The very first word, "Still," invites us to suppose that the speaker is now countering a long and detailed diatribe of condemnation with a word that means, "In spite of everything you say…." The citoyen is asked to admire his grotesque and more powerful rival and predator, whose ugliness, at a sufficiently great distance, will not be discernible. This powerful enemy "has heart to make an end" in that he finishes off his rivals, and in this way, it is claimed for him, "keeps nature new." I can't help feeling there is something frightful about this, and the more frightful in that we, and the citoyen, are being asked to admire and forgive it. In some way that is to me quite unpersuasive, this creature is identified as "the hero," and further identified with Noah, who, like the vulture, survives the hideous death of everyone else. Nothing is hinted about the merit of Noah and the wickedness of mankind to account for this introduction into the poem of a biblical story.
The poem seems to be about the elect who succeed and survive, in contrast to the masses who perish and are undeserving. Indeed, the biblical citation seems totally unexpected, and by no means easy to assimilate. There is a species of social Darwinism going on here "to which / The ripped mouse, safe in the owl's talon, cries / Concordance," in the words of Wilbur's poem "Beasts." I can't believe that this is a skewed or perverse reading of the poem, which seems to invite a sort of class distinction and exclusiveness. In any case, one cannot help feeling that the parable of the trees in "A Wood" is a great deal more charitable and generous than the parable of the birds in "Still, Citizen Sparrow."
This is the more striking in that, as opposed to the violence, insolence, and outright repulsiveness with which any number of poets now assault us, Wilbur's work has been characterized from the first by an admirable capacity to praise. "Obscurely yet most surely called to praise," begins one of his earliest poems. Long ago there used to be a commonplace belief that the end of art was precisely to delight ("Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not"). This did not mean, of course, that art was therefore purged of any taint of unpleasantness, presenting instead a dilute and sentimental version of existence, any more than Shakespeare's The Tempest is free from villainy. But, in Keats's formulation, "The excellency of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate"; by which, I assume, he means that even the most terrible matters could be redeemed by their assimilation into art.
Wilbur's poems have exhibited over the years an impressive capacity to confront the shocking, the appalling, the grotesque. Among his finest poems are the powerful dramatic monologues from which his last two books take their titles: Walking to Sleep and The Mind-Reader, each of which deals with terrors of different sorts. It is an index, in fact, of Wilbur's growth as an artist that his emotional range has become increasingly ample over the years. If there could be said to be any characteristic limitations to his early work, they might be described as a sort of runaway mellifluousness, a Hopkinsian/Swinburnian/Tennysonian drench of language:
A script of trees before the hill
Spells cold, with laden serifs; all the walls
Are battlemented still;
But winter spring's winnowing the air
Of chill, and crawls
Wet-sparkling on the gutters;
Walls wince, and there's a steal of waters.
Now all this proud royaume
Is Veniced. Through the drift's mined dome
One sees the rowdy rusted grass,
And we're amazed as windows striken bright.
This too-long spring will pass
Perhaps tonight …
I don't mean that there's anything "wrong" with this, though it is perhaps a little more "mannered" than the later poems, and the calligraphy of the trees is less convincing than the fingerprint of that flock of birds in flight. Even here there is in "spells" a pun of the sort that will continue to inhabit Wilbur's poems throughout his career. His puns are serious and serviceable, and only occasionally comic; they are a major feature of his work, as are Shakespeare's "quibbles," which are the despair of translators. It was this sort of ambiguity and multivalenced power of words that led Tolstoy to his impatient dismissal of King Lear and his assertion that Shakespeare was "only playing with words." But, in a deeply serious way, that is actually what all good poets do: words are their only instruments to convey what is not easily conveyed by words alone. To resort to abusive epithets such as "artifice" or "dandy" is merely to embrace one convention and use it to bludgeon another that is equally valid.
Those who in past years have been stinting in their approval of Wilbur have pointed to his universally admired translations of classic French drama and have gone on to declare that this dated, formalized sensibility perfectly accords with his own tendencies to precision and stateliness. But I remember as an undergraduate reading Molière done, or rather, done in, by Louis Untermeyer in a translation that the veriest lout would recognize as doggerel. And since Wilbur's versions have become available there is no self-respecting production that would resort to another.
The linguistic gifts that have made possible these superb translations from 17th-century French are also at work in the collections of lyric poems, which contain Wilbur's translations from French, Latin, Russian, Spanish, and Italian poems, dating from the fourth or fifth century to the work of his contemporaries. This latitude of sympathy for poets sometimes very idiosyncratic and different from one another (for example, Villon and Voltaire) is itself an expression of Wilbur's reach and suggests that like another American poet, he "contains multitudes."
The new poems that are now added to his six previous collections are as rich, varied, and accomplished as we have come to expect, and in addition he has risked, successfully, an admirable departure from his usual practice. Wilbur has written texts for musical settings before, and with great effect. Two very fine examples that come to mind are "A Christmas Hymn" and Pangloss's song about syphilis for the comic opera Candide. But now Wilbur has written a more extended text for a full cantata in celebration of the Statue of Liberty. It was written for the composer William Schuman, is divided into five sections, runs to a total of 102 lines, and is called "On Freedom's Ground." It seems to me to succeed wonderfully where anyone else I can think of would have failed. And the task was rife with potential pitfalls. There were the twin perils of jingoism and chauvinistic sentimentality on the one hand, and the symmetrical or compensatory danger of leaning over backward to avoid anything that looked suspiciously like "affirmation."
But over and above these was the problem of writing an extensive text for music. Many poets, and not a few composers, are likely to be obtuse in these matters. Poets incline to want to hang on to syntactical complexity and sinuousness, to resist end-stopped lines that these days are regarded as artificial, identified with 18th-century heroic couplets, verse epigrams, and plain lack of breath. Composers are sometimes too eager to find texts by poets of stature that are also short enough to set, and in consequence are likely to come up all too quickly with one of the more enigmatic and impenetrable of Emily Dickinson's poems, simply because it was written in the old hymnal quatrains, and thus seems eminently settable. Of modern poets Yeats may have been the most intuitive and plausible about writing for music, knowing somehow that he would have to simplify his ways if he wanted his auditors to grasp anything of what he wrote while having to attend to a vocal performance of music with accompaniment.
Wilbur has risked this kind of dangerous simplicity and straightforwardness, and has done so with great success. He has ingeniously made use of the device of the catalog, a genuine relief to a listener's need to follow the thread of an argument or a narrative, and he has cunningly and discreetly worked a famous phrase of Martin Luther King Jr.'s into the fabric of his text, where it is surely but unostentatiously resonant. The cantata stands at the end of this new collection, separated from the rest and intended to be recognized for what it is: something written in a special, ceremonial, accessible idiom that will give the composer room to do some creative work of his own, and command some part of the listener's attention.
Before addressing the admirable new poems that open this volume I must confess that I am puzzled by a passage in one of Wilbur's loveliest and most celebrated poems, "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra." After presenting a contrasting set of fountains, the poet returns to his fons et origo and asks:
What of these showered fauns in their bizarre,
Spangled, and plunging house?
They are at rest in fulness of desire
For what is given, they do not tire
Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse
And riddled pool below,
Reproving our disgust and our ennui
With humble insatiety.
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow
Before the wealthy gate
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this
No trifle, but a shade of bliss—
But the account of Saint Francis on which these lines depend, and which comes from the anonymous Little Flowers, does not confirm what Wilbur says in his poem. The relevant passage goes this way:
One winter day Saint Francis was walking with Brother Leo from Perugia to Saint Mary of the Angels, the Portiuncula. The very sharp cold made him suffer greatly, and he called to Brother Leo, who was walking ahead, and said: "Even though the Minor Brothers may set everywhere a fine example of holiness and edification, nevertheless write this down, and note carefully, that that does not make for perfect joy."
And a little farther on Saint Francis called to him again: "O Brother Leo, even if the Minor Brothers should make the blind see, straighten crooked limbs, drive out demons, and make the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dumb speak, and—the greatest miracle—raise to life the four days dead, write that therein does not consist perfect joy."
After still more of these repudiations of what might have been thought the grounds for perfect joy, poor Brother Leo impatiently breaks out with "Father, I beg you, for God's sake, to tell me wherein lies perfect joy," and Francis answers as follows:
When we arrive at Saint Mary of the Angels, soaked by rain and frozen by cold, spattered with mud and tortured with hunger; if when we knock at the convent door, the porter comes angrily and says: "Who are you?" and we say: "We are two of your brothers"; and he says: "That is not true; you are a couple of tramps who go around fooling people and stealing the alms intended for the poor. So get out!" And when he won't open to us and he makes us stay outside till night, hungry in the snow and rain and cold—then if we bear all these rebuffs and cruel insults with patience, without answering back, and if we think with humility and charity that this doorkeeper really knows us, but God commands him to repulse us—then, O Brother Leo, write that there is perfect joy.
The new collection opens with a superb poem called "The Ride," which continues a kind of obsessional theme that Wilbur has made characteristically his own: the poem that plays on the delicate and tenuous relationship between dream and waking. Readers of his work will know how this subject has preoccupied him in such poems as "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," "In Limbo," "Walking to Sleep," "For Ellen," and "Marginalia," for example. The subtle changes between different states of consciousness are a rich source for poetry, and many of the best modern poets have worked the region with success, but none, I think, as successfully as Wilbur.
He also presents us with a translation of a poem by Joseph Brodsky called "Six Years Later," which Brodsky chose to open his most recent collection, A Part of Speech. It is a love poem of great formality, and with an ingenuity of metaphoric structure that is distinctly reminiscent of the poems of Donne. Brodsky was from very early in his career a great admirer of Donne, for whom he wrote an elegy. And it is no small accomplishment on Wilbur's part to have translated a poem from the Russian that allows the influence of the 17th-century poet to exhibit itself in a modern and modulated way.
I should add that Wilbur's translation, also included, of Apollinaire's "Mirabeau Bridge" is as miraculous in its poise and fragility as the original. There is a deftly funny poem called "A Fable," which is a blithe commentary on American foreign policy, and a beautiful elegy for Auden. Again and again these poems take away the breath by the stunning aptness of simile or metaphor, and almost always of something in motion:
Still, nothing changes as her perfect feet
Click down the walk that issues in the street,
Leaving the stations of her body there
As a whip maps the countries of the air.
And in "Trolling for Blues" Wilbur returns to the subject of "An Event," the problem of capturing in words or in the mind some fleeting hint of what is called "reality." This topic is also the focus of one of the very best, wittiest, and most thoughtful poems in the new groups, "All That Is." The poem begins with the mootness and growing obscurity of dusk, beautifully described, and with the uncertainty that this blurred hour engenders. As the night darkens the stars come out and we follow "a many-lighted bus" making its way through a city, and a passenger who has turned to the cross-word puzzle, as have, at that hour, many others in the kitchens and parlors of their homes.
And somehow, strangely, suddenly, the poet invites us to raise our eyes above these heads bent over their puzzles to behold "a ghostly grille / Through which, as often, we begin to see / The confluence of the Oka and the Aare." We have moved wonderfully into a region of some obscurity, partly because of the approaching night, and partly because the language of crossword puzzles has, as it were, taken over. That grille we have focused upon is partly perhaps the gridwork of a celestial map, but much more surely the checkerboard of squares of a typical crossword puzzle in which we might find that two rivers, the Oka and the Aare, which in prosy geographical fact are located in Russia and Switzerland, can nevertheless form a confluence where their letters intersect. Their very names, perhaps, produce in the poet a kind of crossword reverie of exotic words, in which he giddily proceeds to indulge:
Is it a vision? Does the eye make out
A flight of ernes, rising from aits or aeries,
Whose shadows track across a harsh terrain
Of esker and arete? At waterside,
Does the shocked eeler lay his congers by,
Sighting a Reo driven by an edile?
And does the edile, from his runningboard,
Step down to meet a ranee? Does she end
By reading to him from the works of Elia?
This charming fantasia of unanswered questions, this visionary excursion into the realm of the linguistically obscure, is not, in my view, the sort of text for which notes ought to be supplied or demanded. If it sends you, as it sent me, to the dictionary, and even to the Britannica, that is merely to acknowledge that the poet's mental life has gone off on a delightful toot of its own, and that we should take a puzzler's pleasure in tracking it down, just as he has attempted to trace, "Between the street-lamps and the jotted sky," a grille of crosswords that will resolve everything. There follows a passage I have not yet unravelled, in which the poet presents us with a vision of "A lambent god reposing on the sea, / Full of the knitted light of all that is." And he continues:
It is a puzzle which, as puzzles do,
Dreams, that there is no puzzle. It is a rite
Of finitude, a picture in whose frame
Roc, oast, and Inca decompose at once
Into the ABCs of every day.
A door is rattled shut, a deadbolt thrown.
Under some clipped euonymus, a mushroom,
Bred of an old and deep mycelium
As hidden as the webwork of the world,
Strews, on the shifty night-wind, rising now,
A cast of spores as many as the stars.
Witty and complex and lovely as this poem may be, I nevertheless feel that another blank verse poem of meditation, titled "Lying," is, at least in my present view of things, the best poem in the collection. It begins with distinct modesty this way:
To claim, at a dead party, to have spotted a grackle,
When in fact you haven't of late, can do no harm.
Your reputation for saying things of interest
Will not be marred, if you hasten to other topics.
Nor will the delicate web of human trust
Be ruptured by that airy fabrication.
The poem then goes on to speculate about what it is that prompts us to these little acts of mendacity. Perhaps, initially, an impatience or boredom with the dailiness, the sheer routine, of things, and even with the more miraculous of things, "the horse's neck / Clothed with its usual thunder," in an echo of the majestic words of God in the 39th chapter of the Book of Job. That biblical catalog of divine wonders is always before us, as are other, still more uncommon, wonders, "And so with that most rare conception, nothing."
Since evil is only the absence of good, and since Satan is the Prince of Lies, he makes his sinuous entrance into the poem with almost unperceived skill, as "the water of a dried-up well / Gone to assail the cliffs of Labrador." He then approaches us, "pretending not to be," and appears, in the words of Milton from the ninth book of Paradise Lost, as a "black mist low creeping," which, when it rises, turns to a rainbow. But perhaps because of the invocation of Milton, the poem now finds itself confronting the axiom that art itself is a lie of sorts, and, in the words of Shakespeare's Touchstone, "The truest poetry is the most feigning." All of it is, according to Aristotle, a form of imitation, which is a kind of lie. Wilbur continues:
Closer to making than the deftest fraud
Is seeing how the catbird's tail was made
To counterpoise, on the mock-orange spray,
Its light, up-tilted spine; or, lighter still,
How the shucked tunic of an onion, brushed
To one side on a backlit currents, prints and prints
Its bright, ribbed shadows like a flapping sail.
Odd that a thing is most itself when likened: …
And now we have come to the very heart of metaphor itself. It is metaphor that allows us to contemplate a great deal that might otherwise be intolerable, and, like tragedy, it "Finds pleasure in the cruellest simile." We return to the catbird, which, like a mockingbird, or a poet, is distinguished as a mimic, gifted in the art of imitation. The bird's song is characterized as "a chant / Of the first springs," and as a "tributary / To the great lies told with the eyes half-shut / That have the truth in view: …" There follow three such lies, all of them masterpieces of the imagination. The first is the pagan tale of Chiron, who "Instructed brute Achilles in the lyre," another of Wilbur's serious puns. The second is the biblical image of faultless Eden, and the third the concluding sacrifice and valor of Roland:
who to Charles his king
And to the dove that hatched the dove tailed world
Was faithful unto death, and shamed the Devil.
There is nobility in such utterance that is deeply persuasive, and throughout Wilbur's poetry we are accustomed to finding this rare quality, usually joined to wit, good humor, grace, modesty, and a kind of physical zest or athletic dexterity that is, so far as I know, unrivaled.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12172
SOURCE: "Richard Wilbur: An Interview," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, May-June 1991, pp. 45-55.
[Kronen is an American poet and critic. In the following interview, Wilbur discusses his influences, his thoughts on being poet laureate, and his opinions of contemporary poetry.]
[Steve Kronen:] For the past four or five years, there has been a range-war of sorts in the various journals between the so-called New Formalists and, ironically, the old free versers. What are your thoughts about this interchange?
[Richard Wilbur]: I'm aware that there is something of that sort going on, and I was recently sent an article from APR by Ira Sadoff, in which he was engaging in one side of the controversy at considerable length. I don't follow all of the poetry periodicals, turning all the pages, but I know that there is a lot of talk about the New Formalism. Some of the young poets whom I know and think well of are associated, by people who engage in this sort of taxonomy, with the New Formalism. Of course it makes them nervous. No one wants to be defined simply in terms of whether he uses meter or not, whether he makes rhymes and stanzas. I think that the best of our poets who work in traditional forms, who make use of traditional forms, would rather be approached, as Mr. Sadoff said, in terms of their vision than in terms of their technical means.
I don't know that I can explain the resurgence of "form" except to say that a certain kind of extremely relaxed, personal and prosaic free verse poem may have run its course, may have tested itself about as much as it can, and that a number of poets now see it as a new and exciting thing to take advantage of the special capabilities of these old instruments—meter and rhyme. You run into people in poetry societies who attribute a kind of intrinsic sanity and goodness and even moral quality to received forms. I do think that that is nonsense. There's nothing essentially good about a meter in itself. And I think it is unfortunate for people to look back with nostalgia toward such poetic means, or to look towards the future in terms of them. They are really timeless. There is nothing particularly dated, is there, about a fundamental tool like a hammer? A hammer is neither of the past nor of the future. And that is how I think we should look at these things.
There was a while in the early part of this century when people like Eliot and Pound and Ford Madox Ford, who were very discriminating about many things, made that sort of error in their discussions of meter and rhyme. Timothy Steele has discussed this very well in a new book of his—Missing Measures.
People like Bill Williams used to say—as a matter of fact he said it to me—that a sonnet written nowadays was a curtsy to the court of Elizabeth I, that to write a sonnet was to commit yourself not only to 14 lines in iambic pentameter, but also to fall of necessity into old locutions, into tired diction. Well, that's not true. It was undoubtedly true of Williams that when he started out as a young poet, he tried to write in meter and rhyme and found himself being old fashioned and altogether too lovely, and therefore rightly moved away from those forms because he couldn't handle them. He couldn't, as Pound said, make them new. Well, we've made that kind of mistake in associating meters with ancient and tired diction and themes for a long time. There are people still making that mistake. And I shall be glad if an energetic movement, tendency, call it what you will, changes our minds about that, and makes it apparent to us that these tools can be used in the freshest way, and have nothing necessarily to do with whatever in the metrical poetry of the last century we would like to repudiate or not do again.
Many of the poets who published their first books in the last ten years or so studied under poets who themselves had written little or no verse in received forms. Can a poet, even if he or she chooses not to write in traditional forms get by without practicing it on studying formal prosody?
I guess my feeling about it is this: that poets who are any good and who do their homework—that is to say, who read the poetry of the English tradition right back as far as they can go, and respond to it—will have been keeping in touch with what can be done in so-called form, whatever their personal practice may have been. A few years ago, Brad Leithauser said in some publication that he thought that one of the many ruptures in culture brought on by the late fifties and sixties was loss of familiarity with meter, loss of the ability to read confidently in meter, to know what metrical poetry was doing. I'm not so sure he was right. Not long ago the poet John Ridland, on the West Coast, offered some of my light verse poems, my children's poems called "Opposites," to one of his writing classes. They're done in rhymed tetrameters, and after he showed them some of these poems and they talked a little about what they were doing, he said, all right, write some of these poems, write some opposites. Most of these young poets, Ridland told me, had not written in meter and rhyme before. He sent me some samples of their work and it was pretty good. They did know what tetrameters were and they could write them, just as people who have been watching waltzers for some time, but not waltzing themselves, can catch on pretty quickly.
I think, by the way—just to put in a parenthesis here, a response to one thing you said—I don't think that the study of prosody, the abstract study of prosody, is of any use to beginning poets. It's a bore. The use of prosodic terminology, it seems to me, is critical and not creative. We need sometimes, in order to talk about how a line of Gerard Manley Hopkins operates, to use terms like pentameter and talk about extra unstressed syllables, but heavens, I don't think anybody ever caught on the writing of meter by any means except infection.
About twenty-five years ago, you stated, "A good part of my work could, I suppose, be understood as a public quarrel with the aesthetics of Edgar Allan Poe. What are the aesthetics of Edgar Allan Poe and have you and Mr. Poe come to terms?
I think the people we quarrel with are always the people whom we're attracted to or people in whom we see something of ourselves. I like the thing that my friend Pierre Schneider said years and years ago; he said that "All satire is confession," and I do think that's true. If I denounce something in a poem, I denounce it because I understand it. And why do I understand it? I understand it because the reprehensible thing I'm pointing to it is something of which I'm capable or even guilty. So, in the case of Poe, I feel an attraction to him. And I think he was a genius and a great innovator in prose fiction, and in the exploration of states of mind and of the warfare that goes on in the soul. Those are the things that draw me greatly.
Is that the aesthetic to which you refer?
No, it's not. I think his poetry is the minor part of his work, and in his critical writing he distinguishes between prose fiction, in which a certain amount of what he calls truth is permitted, and poetry in which the sole object is beauty. And beauty consisted for him—I wish I could quote him exactly right now, I haven't been reading him of late, but I can paraphrase—it consisted for him in "a wild effort to reach the beauty above." Yes, that's how he put it. If poetry is forever renouncing this world and reaching out toward the beauty above, it means that it has a kind of destructive economy. Whatever of a mundane character poetry looks at, it is the business of poetry to destroy, to negate, so as to give the reader and the poet a sense of transcendence, a sense of embarkation toward the beyond. That's a rather exciting idea. It's like John Cage's theories, you know, exciting in themselves, desperately bad in their application.
Indeed, do you see as one of poetry's purposes to destroy and recreate?
No, I'm saying that's Poe's theory, that's Poe's view of poetry. There are various techniques in his work for negating, for putting to death almost everything that he mentions. Almost everything that isn't already hazy and of the spirit, he disintegrates in his poetry. He does this not only by verbal tricks, but also by the hypnotic, chanting character of his poems. They're there to put you to sleep, to put you perhaps into what seems a visionary condition. And I'm just too earth bound a person by nature, and on principle, to find that prescription satisfactory.
I think that we don't understand this world perfectly, and I think that it's reasonable to say that we live both here and in heaven. But we can't write poetry simply about heaven, we can't write poetry simply about transcendent things. We have to work with what's under our noses, and give the creation proper respect. So that's my war with Poe, I think. Have I been clear?
No ideas but in things?
Yes, I've always been fond of that expression, which of course is challenging and extreme. And would lead you away from using all abstract terms, all large concepts, make you embody everything in the Imagist object. It had marvelous results in Williams, and I know that he will always be one of my inspirers, but I wouldn't want to take on his program absolutely.
"Heaven in a grain of sand," to rephrase Blake here?
Yes, that mode of transcendence in which you see everything in itself and also see what is wonderful in it what has symbolic implications, what is divine in it. That's an aesthetic which appeals to me far more than Poe's.
Which was to negate that for the other world?
Yes, to negate the object. You never see any grains of sand in Poe. Never see much of anything.
Before Auden died, you said of him, "At the moment he's the best presence around, our most civilized, accomplished and heartening poet." And in your elegy to him you referred to his civil tongue and that he was the poet of all our cities. Is there anybody you would apply that description to now?
I think there are a number of very good, civilized poets among us. I don't think at the moment that I would vote for one as playing exactly the versatile and civilizing and encompassing role that Auden played. But of course, when I said that about Auden, he'd been at it for quite awhile. We'd had time to steep ourselves in his work, develop a long gratitude, apply to him words like "great," and I suspect that there are amongst us right now a number of poets of comparable stature doing a similar job, being in the broadest sense civilized. I don't think I want to reel off a list of names, though you or I could both think of poets of more or less my generation about whom I'd be inclined to say similar words of praise.
How about my generation?
I don't know the younger generation as well as I used to. For a long while there I was on the poetry board of the Wesleyan Poetry Program, of which I was an initiator, and I read (it seems to me) everything that was being written for many years, and was much in touch, and I'm less so now. All I know is that there are a lot of exciting young talents around. I know of a number of people in their thirties who seem awfully good to me. I don't think that I would right away apply to any of them the sort of praise I gave to Auden. You have to have had a long career before you're given that kind of gratitude. But there's a lot of reason for hope, indeed, enthusiasm.
You use the terms "civilized, accomplished, heartening" when talking about Auden. Do you see that as a function of poetry to civilize and hearten as a stay against anarchy or entropy?
Yes, certainly to civilize. It's a very unfortunate thing, I think, that we have taken off our poets a lot of the burdens that used to be on them. In the Soviet Union, they still look to the poet as a kind of conscience of the country.
An unacknowledged legislator, to wheel out another cliché?
Yes, kind of acknowledged, I think, some of them, as valuable social critics, not as protestors, not this dreary business of protesting. I think that the political role is one that we overdo. But the business of being the conscience of the nation, the conscience of the culture, that's something that the best Russian poets have always performed, sometimes, of course, to the point of protest. And then I think that poets, like all writers, should be continuators and custodians of our culture. I hate to apply the word "should" to poets, but let me say I'm grateful to writers who do that job, who don't simply sit in some room somewhere and complain of the draft and tell us that their dog is sick and that their father is dead. There's more to what poets can do and say than that. Heartening: when I speak of heartening, in connection with poetry, I don't think I mean poets should take on the job that the fireside poets gave themselves in the nineteenth century. So much of Bryant and Longfellow is kindly counsel, religious encouragement, a kind of noble hand-holding. I don't think that poetry is necessarily called on to do that at present. The heartening that a poet ought to do is to be as articulate as possible about his own life, his own feelings, and also about serious matters in which he's involved with the society in general. And so preserve us from inarticulateness. That's the heartening thing poetry does, I think, to have a great vocabulary and to use it as clearly as the subject permits.
When you think of Auden now, Auden the man, what do you think of?
I didn't know him very well. I had just a few encounters with him. When he published his book, Nones, I did a review of it for a little magazine published down at Johns Hopkins. And he wrote me a very pleasant letter saying that he had appreciated what I had said, that I'd caught his drift and that he wished that I had noticed that in his poem, "In Praise of Limestone," he had been using syllabics of 11 and 14. I hadn't noticed that. That was a species of encounter.
Later I met him at the Robert Frost's 85th birthday dinner in New York, at which Lionel Trilling gave the most interesting talk to which so many people objected. At that time, Auden and I discussed martinis and how hard it was to get a decent martini away from home. And at another time, when I was editing a series of paperback books of poetry for Dell, the Laurel series, I got Auden to agree to do one of the books and we had lunch together with an editor from Dell. And Auden was most amusing.
Did you want him to edit a book?
Yes, and he did, in fact, he did a beautiful job of editing a book of nineteenth-century English minor poets. But on that occasion at lunch, we went over English poetry from the beginning, at any rate, from Chaucer. And I would simply say, "Skelton" and he would say, "not bad at all." Or I would name some other name, and he would say, "a bore."
An example of the latter?
I don't remember which authors he considered bores. I should remember, because I kept making notes to think it over. But there were too many poets talked about. The question was, what other authors we should represent in our series. And he was very arbitrary, he didn't give any arguments, but there was clearly spontaneity and conviction in what he said, and that was fun to do. The only other thing I remember about that luncheon was that toward the end of it, speaking of a common acquaintance, I said, well in view of such and such, I think I approve of him. And he said, "What did you say?" And I said, oh dear, that sounds a little smug, doesn't it? One doesn't approve of people. And he said no, certainly not (laughter) I think he did not much care for being judgmental.
He was so strong in his opinions, though I suppose that's different from being judgmental.
He was being strong in his aesthetic opinions, but as for judging people as people, I think that he had a good deal of the quality of mercy.
I suppose that's what you find so civilized in him?
That is one thing about him. I think that, although a lot of people have said that Auden's attending 8:00 mass every Sunday in his carpet slippers because his feet hurt, was mostly an aesthetic thing, that he enjoyed the pomp of it, the forms of it … many people have said that. But I don't think so really, I think that he was a serious, religious sensibility and a serious thinker about such matters. There's a strong moralistic element in Auden. I really think that he wanted to be good, and in fact, I could put in evidence certain of his poems like "Music is International" from that book Nones, which in a clever way does that most dangerous of things, he comes out in favor of kindness.
There was a period in mid to late-nineteenth century when Shelley fell out of favor and later Eliot more or less revived the reputations of Donne and Herbert. Are there any poets you feel have been overlooked, or the other way around, held in regard beyond their merits?
I'm sure that I could, given time, come up with some names on both sides of that I don't know whether I'm spoiling to devalue anybody right now, I'm very glad that Eliot changed his mind about John Milton. Because when people ask me what poet of another time I might like to be, I know that that's the answer. I'm very devoted to Milton except for Paradise Regained, which I can't stomach.
Why can't you?
I simply have never been able as they say, to "dig" it. It's never seemed to me to have the force and the verbal excitement and the technical glory of Paradise Lost or a lot of the early poems, the early short poems. I've been told by many people that when I grew up I would find that the severity of Paradise Regained would appeal to me, the plainness. The plainness in some other poets very much appeals to me. In Shakespeare, who can write a very plain line, and in Dante, and in many another poet of lower degree. But Paradise Regained still seems to me impoverished rather than plain. I hope that I'll come around, because I'd rather like as many things as I can.
What is it in Milton that draws you so?
A superb architectural power, a power to build great verse paragraphs, to take a sonnet and make something massive and energetic out of it.
How does that differ from Shakespeare?
If you compare Shakespeare's sonnets, which are magnificent, with Milton's, I think that the big difference is that whereas Shakespeare works on the whole in delightful, restating quatrains, parallel quatrains, summed up by a final couplet, Milton comes near violating the sonnet form every time he takes it on, continually runs over the ends of the divisions and does this expressively and to some purpose.
He doesn't turn when he's supposed to turn?
He doesn't turn, he will run over into the next line, or he will stop short. What this does, I'm not the first person to say this, is to turn the sonnet into a great paragraph or sometimes two great paragraphs. Often a Milton sonnet will be one sentence, or two sentences. He simply had a great transforming influence on the sonnet. Very few people have taken up where he left off, but as with most forms and modes of writing, when Milton took the form on he transformed it—and well.
So I admire him as a genius in the building of verse structures and I respond greatly to his Baroque sensibility, it's full of concreteness. I know that Eliot indicted him for abstractness, but I find a great deal of the concrete in him, and especially in the muscularity of the movement of his lines. You can't read Milton with any enthusiasm without feeling that you're getting a good workout, a good physical workout, and I very much react to that in him. I react also to something that hasn't recently been noticed very much, to his playfulness. He's a man with an extraordinary linguistic knowledge, who wrote many Latin poems for example, and whose use of English is all full of etymological …
Little plays going on?
Lots of plays going on. There are many more jokes in Milton than is generally allowed. When I think of his etymological play, I always think of what the affable archangel Raphael says to Adam in the Garden, that if human beings will just behave themselves they may be qualified to be transformed into higher creatures and to rise toward heaven by "gradual scale sublime." Now that's just full of Latin word play, gradus, and scala, and sub limen. Milton is just having a good time, a good lighthearted time with the Latin roots of English words. Probably to some of his readers that seems donnish, but to me it seems lighthearted and playful.
This seems to invoke Auden once more, that the poet's first requisite is to simply love playing with words.
I think so. It's serious play most of the time but it is play. And there's no harm in enjoying it to the point of laughter, even in the midst of the reading or the writing of a serious poem. I do think that that's something that was mislaid by many of our earnestly prosaic free verse poets in the sixties and seventies.
An overriding solipsism?
I don't know, I think that too many poets thought that they should, on some kind of principle, speak in the unadorned, unplayful, unclever language of the man on the next bar stool. Perhaps because, in the hands of such poets, the subject matter of poetry became so confessional, so merely personal, any great deal of wordplay struck them as a fancying up of their testimony. Maybe that was what was behind it. I confess, without naming any names, though I'm thinking of hundreds of people, that a lot of the poetry of the sixties and seventies has seemed to me extremely dull in its word choices.
Do you have Ginsberg in mind?
No, I'm not thinking of Ginsberg really. I'm not thinking of anyone of his degree of talent. It strikes me that there's a lot of verbal animation in his best work, in poems like "Howl." It may be that his kind of verbal play has become somewhat formulaic and repetitive in his later work, a kind of jargon. But no, he seems to have a lot more verbal life than the kind of anonymous person I'm speaking of has displayed in the last couple of decades. I'm talking about people who on principle want to talk like regular guys, and for whom to get anywhere above the level of ordinary bar stool discourse is to become too fancy, too arty.
Do you enjoy Frank O'Hara?
I don't read him very much. I read him somewhat during his very early days in Cambridge and I found him lively and amusing, not my kind of thing, but nevertheless I was glad he was there. I think that he belongs to some extent to a school, though I don't like to join those critics who put us all into schools. I used to enjoy, and still do, the work of people often associated with him, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery. They had a lot of good jokes, a lot of playfulness.
Do you read Ashbery now?
Yes, I do. I find that, though I don't understand him very well, I am often fascinated by taking the trip through one of his poems and shifting from one kind of diction, one kind of literary awareness, one kind of implicit experience to another. I best understood him in one of his books, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, I was delighted when that book came along because, though I've always liked Ashbery, known how bright he was, respected him as an artist, I had not fully enjoyed him until that time. I was able to write him a letter saying "good book."
I brought up Ginsberg not so much because he fulfilled the portrait you were painting, but when the Beats came along, it was such a divergence from what you and Shapiro and Lowell and the poets of your generation were doing that I just wonder what the effect was at that time?
I think it had different effects on different people.
On me. Well, I felt that there was a lot of PR in the Beat movement, so-called. Though Ginsberg was a truly talented person, and Gary Snyder a truly talented person, there was not really a lot of talent around amongst them. And their value was very greatly magnified by a lot of academic people who were really not specifically interested in letters whose approach to letters was very much American studies or sociological in nature. I don't mean to sound as if I were resentful of having been put in the shade by these fellows. I don't think I felt that. I was resentful of being classified by contrast to them. I thought it pretty silly that people like Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder who had their college and university degrees, some of them advanced, were thought to be wild fellows on the one hand, while others of us were classified as academic.
It sounds like you resent that designation.
I resent being put into that slot, because no one says "academic" in a kindly way. And distinctions like "cooked" and "raw" didn't seem to me to make very much sense either. So I was bothered not by the poets themselves, really, but by what silly critics began to do by way of organizing the American poetic scene.
When I went out to the West Coast in 1956, because I was dead broke and had to make some money reading poems up and down California, I went to San Francisco first, and Allen had just read his "Howl" for the first time and it had wowed them as indeed was proper. And almost at once I began to feel that—well, I was someone who had hoboed up and down through California long before it had occurred to the Beat generation to wear blue jeans and ride on trains. I felt I now came there as an establishment figure in a gray flannel suit, reprehended for his academicism and his love of the past and his attachment to meters and all those reprehensible things.
Did you feel frustrated?
Not frustrated, bothered to be classified. Nobody wants to be classified, nobody wants to be limited by a classification. We all like to feel, though it's not true of any of us, that we can be all things, that in some way we can encompass all experience and find the right words. I was troubled to find myself, in the minds of some, a sort of regional specialist and a young fuddy-duddy.
About forty years ago Randall Jarrell wrote a rather scathing review of your work. I'm curious how that affected you at the time, what your relationship was with Jarrell before that, what your relationship was with him after that?
My relationship with Jarrell had been good before that and it was good after, actually.
Were you afraid to look at each other at the next party you were at together?
No. I remember the review, it was in the Partisan Review. It was the review of my second book, around 1950. He said some nice things in it. However, he got going very amusingly on the limitations of the book as he saw them, and I found myself laughing at these jokes that were at my expense; and at the same time I wrote him a letter saying come on Randall, it's all right you see me as having limitations, but why are all your jokes about me comparisons to girls and ladies, why do you say that my translation of Beowulf suggests Marie Laurencin's illustrations for the Iliad, and why do you say that I remind you of a nice southern girl who has been told that her accent is just charming and that she must persevere in it? There were a couple of other instances of that kind of thing. Do you think, I said to him, that there's anything essentially sissy in my poems? You seem to imply it by these comparisons. And he wrote back saying golly, I never meant anything of the sort, those were just the jokes that occurred to me.
That begs the question it seems to me. Why did those jokes occur to him? I wonder if he was being disingenuous.
I don't know. There was always an element of malice in him. He made very good negative jokes about people. But he never had it in for me before or after, and so I simply accepted what he said and was sorry I had written him at all.
We should never write letters to critics about the things they say. I felt foolish to have done so. I think that there may have been some truth in some of the things he said. At the same time, I explained to myself some of his emphases by the fact that Randall himself at that time was embarking on the writing of longish narrative poems, and so, my book having consisted largely of short lyrics, I said to myself, that's why he said I don't try for long gains. He feels that he himself is trying for long gains and he wishes I would. I suppose I tried to explain away some of his criticism. It really doesn't matter, and didn't matter greatly to me then. He and I remained friends, and my book was well enough received for me not to be blighted and to go ahead with my work. I think that the only thing that annoys me now about Randall's 1950 review is that people who write favorable essays on me always feel that they have to start by quoting that essay and then reacting against it. Jarrell's later critical treatment of me is very positive, but no one seems to quote it.
I want to ask you about some other people you knew forty years ago. "Cottage Street, 1953" portrays a Sylvia Plath, who has wished to die. This poem was written about twenty years after your meetings with Plath, and perhaps ten years after she took her life. Was her wish to die or hint thereof in any way evident to you back in 1953?
I saw Sylvia Plath a few times, very briefly, in my life. When I wrote that poem, I think I had perhaps a couple of meetings with her telescoped in my mind. Though the poem doesn't say so, doesn't say I'm trying to remember as well as I can, that's what I was doing. When she was an undergraduate at Smith, she once came to me and did an interview—for Mademoiselle. I believe, I think she also interviewed, at that time, Tony Hecht, and a couple of other then-young poets who were also teachers. I've some slight memory of her at that point, either then or at my mother-in-law's house. I remember her as very slumped and pale, and mute, and withdrawn. And my poem simply goes on that memory, whatever year it may derive from. It's a true memory, but I don't know where it belongs.
Some of the other poets who started publishing around the same time as you did, a little earlier than Sylvia Plath—Berryman, Lowell, Jarrell—also wished to die as it turns out and were granted their wishes. Looking back now, what do you remember?
I remember lots of the behavior of Lowell and Ted Roethke and of Berryman, and I know that it can be described as self-destructive.
Was that evident at the time?
The only person at that time in whom I really felt that I saw a desire to die was Dylan Thomas. We knew him during his trips around America. He stopped and saw us, and we gave or attended parties for him, things like that. I can remember him sitting on our couch and saying, "I am a used up, bottle-shaped rummy, who has been trading for years on his inspirations at age 18, and at the moment I'm riding high, but the world's going to see through me." He felt really quite desperate about himself, both as a person and as a writer at that time and so there was a kind of wish to die operating in him. I hasten to say that he was a terribly lively and entertaining man, and that such things were not what he talked about most of the time. Yet he had those drunken and lachrymose moments in which he felt he was played out and done for.
I never saw this in Lowell. Lowell seemed always to me—though he could be distressed by the onset of a bad state of mind, made glum by that—he seemed to me a man of great energy who was interested in continuing to make and to do. And no, I didn't see Roethke as self-destructive. For our generation, drinking a lot was standard behavior. Though God knows Berryman and Roethke overdid it. I don't think they thought they were trying to destroy themselves. I think they were wanting to have a hell of a time. And I think that for them, as often for me, drinking seemed to be something that poets did. Now, I never thought it inspired me to write poetry. No, never have I thought that I could write good poetry under the influence of booze. I don't even think Hart Crane did, but somehow it belonged then to the life of poetry. As it pretty much doesn't now.
Do you think they were trying to fulfill their own image of what a poet's supposed to be, including this kind of doomed, Byronic quality which eventually leads to death?
There was a little of that. I think. There were times at which I felt that Roethke, a marvelous fellow but not quite a jelled personality, was being Dylan Thomas. There were times when I thought he was conforming to that desperate and delightful pattern of behavior, and it's true that it was thought honorific in those days, since Thomas had done it, and since others had done it, to arrive late to your poetry reading a little drunk, a little untidy.
When I went for the first time to record my poems at Caedmon, a little bit after the Dylan days, the ladies at Caedmon said, "we'll be with you in a minute to make your recording, meanwhile wouldn't you like to have a few drinks," and they gave me a pint of whiskey. This was noon. I don't drink whiskey at noon, never have. That was the expectation at that time.
I always thought that one of the great expressions in English was Lil Armstrong's expression, on a record of hers, "Let's get drunk and be somebody." That's the way I think my generation felt about it, and we did not take a gloomy view of drink. It was something you did to laugh and raise hell, and blurt, and come out with surprising things. And it's too bad that that frayed people's nerves and hurt their health and led in some cases to the hospital and to death.
It didn't lead to death in you; why was your sensibility somehow different than some of your contemporaries?
I don't have enough insight into myself to answer that. No doubt it has to do with my genes, although I did once experience a depression of some depth and had to go into the hospital for it.
When was that?
In '85. My natural state of mind is a cheerful one. I've had a very lucky life. And I've been happily married. I've loved my children. All of the things that could hold you up have happened to me. So I think that I may have stayed away from self destruction for those reasons. I've had other things to do, and any undercurrent of self-destruction that's in my nature has never been allowed its head.
Have you any anecdotes about Berryman, anything that stands out?
I don't know that I can come up with any at this minute. I've told about the time Berryman and I, at a poetry conference in Washington, went to get Delmore Schwartz out of jail. That's on record in a biography of Schwartz.
Do you want to encapsulize that quickly?
Well, it's really a story more about Schwartz than about Berryman, except that I think it indicated a quality of Berryman which many people like his old friend William Meredith have spoken of, his great loyalty to people he regarded as friends and of whose work he approved. He was awfully choosy, indeed snobbish about other writers. But once he thought somebody was a good guy or a good girl and also a good writer, he really stuck with that person. And though Delmore Schwartz had been quite difficult with him at one time or another, when he heard that Schwartz was in trouble in Washington and in the jug for drunkenness and total destruction of a hotel room, he wanted at once to come to the rescue, and I went along to help. I saw at one or another time that kind of loyalty in his discourse, in his behavior. I always felt that though he had a very harsh tongue, it was utterly unlikely that he would ever say anything naughty about me behind my back. I felt that, yes, he had decided that I was okay and that he would always talk accordingly.
Howard Nemerov said something to the effect that he was happy to be the poet laureate but that he wasn't going to write any poems for the queen as it were. When you accepted the laureateship were there any expectations placed upon you and did you have any of your own?
I hadn't any expectations of my own, and certainly no expectation that I would fall into the writing of proper laureate poems. I knew that, if I took the job on, I would be expected to advise the Library as to who ought to record for its wonderful archive of poetry and fiction; and I knew that I would be expected to plan its lecture series, its series of readings and performances in poetry and fiction and drama. And I knew that there would be some ceremonial moments to it. Also, that I would undoubtedly find myself reading at schools and colleges and being visited by delegations of students, that kind of thing.
All that happened, and then there were more things that happened. There was an extraordinary influx of mail. You might not expect that, but from almost every state in the union there came letters from poets, or from people interested in poetry asking me all sorts of things, asking me to say whether they were good poets, to criticize their work, to suggest where they might publish, to identify remembered lines of verse, to give advice as to how poetry could be forwarded in one or another programmatic way.
I take it you felt rather inundated.
I did feel rather inundated. I faithfully answered all of my letters for months. That was both interesting and exhausting. Then, after a while, I threw up my hands and asked my two wonderful associates in the poetry office to screen the mail, and just give me what really needed answering.
As for the writing of poems, the main reason why I didn't take the job on for a second year was that I was inefficient in handling the various demands of the job—which included also, by the way, endless interviews by all the media. I was so inefficient in handling the demands that I wasn't getting any of my own writing done. I'm not very good at jumping on and off planes and writing poems in hotel rooms at night. And so I regretfully quit on it, although I had enjoyed a great deal of the experience.
I had written, in 1985 and 1986, the text of a cantata for the centenary of the Statue of Liberty at the request of the composer Bill Schuman. I had taken on that job, of course, with great horror. It seemed very unlikely that one could do anything fresh with that subject. But after a while I was challenged by it, and I was pretty well pleased by what I managed to turn out in the way of a text. And certainly pleased by Schuman's beautiful, setting of it, which was performed at Lincoln Center in October of 1986. So I had done a laureate thing before I ever went to Washington, and didn't feel that I had to do any more. The situation was facilitated by the fact that Robert Penn Warren, the first person appointed as laureate, had stated that he damned well wasn't going to write any official poems.
Were you grateful for the precedent?
Yes, I was. I think that there's nothing wrong with writing poems that have a national political concern, and I did in fact write a poem in that year against the Strategic Defense Initiative; but I didn't write it as a laureate, I just wrote it as myself. Howard Nemerov has written, though, some occasional poems for Washington purposes. I think he wrote one which was read at the convening of Congress. Of course, he's very good at that. I liked very much a recent essay by Helen Vendler, in which she discussed Howard as a public poet. I think he's always been outstanding in this respect, in this and many others.
In your "A Miltonic Sonnet for Mr. Johnson on His Refusal of Mr. Peter Hurd's Official Portrait," you noted that Thomas Jefferson would have "wept to see small nations dread / the imposition of our cattlebrand," and you admonished Johnson for his "talk of vision" while being "weak of sight." And more recently, you wrote "A Fable" which you just referred to about Reagan's Star Wars. I wonder if you had any words for Reagan or Bush and any thoughts about the course of the U.S. over the last decade?
Of course, I have positions on all sorts of things that have arisen over the Reagan and Bush administrations, and I have very little admiration for Reagan's conduct in the Presidency, and I don't think that Mr. Bush is doing very well. I don't think I'm very likely to write a poem about Bush's stupidity in vetoing the Congressional bill which would have safeguarded Chinese students in America. That's a very special issue which I think I would only address if a happy phrase chanced to occur to me.
Feel free to elaborate right here.
I have my opinions on the matter, no more important than anybody else's. It's something on which I could imagine writing if the right slant came to me. I do think there's no point in writing poems on political subjects simply to go on record on the right side. Poetry had better be interesting always, it had better be fresh always, and so the sort of poem that simply says "don't drop the bomb" is of no interest to me.
There is one thing that I think would be useful for a poet to do. I almost wish that I had been asked to do some sort of song and dance for Congress. If I had, I might have taken the opportunity to be as simple as a poet is entitled to be. Our legislators naturally feel that the whole question of nuclear energy and nuclear arms is a complex one, and I think it's simple and I should have liked to say so. I should have liked to say to them, "Look here, haven't you watched people and seen how they behave, haven't you noticed that when people walk down the street, they bump into each other? Haven't you noticed how cars wrinkle each other's fenders? How utterly clumsy we all are and how high our insurance rates are? We're a fallible breed, and can we possibly afford to have energy sources which cannot be trusted to fallible hands? Can we possibly afford to have arms which cannot be entrusted to the irresponsible or the deranged or the drugged?" I don't have any Gary Cooper visions of what such a speech might accomplish. Nevertheless, I think that it might be useful in a public place to be as simple as that, because I think that something in almost all of one's hearers would respond.
I hope you do write it. You spoke of the Library of Congress before; in 1946 or 1947 there was a schism among poets as to whether Pound should be awarded the Bollingen Prize by the Library, which after all was a branch of the U.S. Government, after Pound's broadcasting for the Axis powers throughout the war. Pound's offense seemed especially egregious so soon after the war and the revelations of Nazi atrocities. More recently there was the Mapplethorpe flap with Helms and the NEA, and I was wondering if you can see any circumstances whatsoever when considerations other than those purely artistic should help determine such awards.
It's a really troublesome question, and yet I know where I have to stand on it. When I was in the Enlisted Reserve Corps in New York in 1942, waiting to go into the army, I had my short wave radio and my directional antennae rigged up down there on Christopher Street, and I used to listen to Ezra Pound's broadcasts from 2RO Rome. He did say all those things that he is said to have said, and they were primitive and disagreeable. And he also, in those broadcasts, showed a positive side, if one could get over the ugly things he was saying and note the positive side of it. He was rather touchingly pedagogical. That was something about him from beginning to end. He was a teacher, best when he was teaching literature, worst when he was teaching politics. He gave little incoherent lectures, and he gave, in fact, assignments. One of his assignments was to go and get Brooks Adams's The Law of Civilization and Decay and read it before the next broadcast.
I did that. I went up to the New York Public Library, took that book out, and read it, and it was a good book, most interesting. Nevertheless my reaction to his broadcasts was pretty negative. They did not have a great deal of redeeming artistic value to them. But as for the Bollingen Prize, I do think that he deserved it for the great art of his poetry, and I can't kick about that. Though I could not, I think, have given him warm personal congratulations. I feel the same way about these Mapplethorpes and—who's that other fellow, who photographed a crucifix through his own urine?
I can't remember his name. [Andres Serrano]
This fellow had been for some time, as I've learned, photographing this or that object through his own body fluids. And it just happened to occur to him, one day, to do a crucifix through his urine. I haven't seen the work on a museum wall, so unlike Jesse Helms, I'm not going to have opinions about the quality of the work sight unseen. I do feel that whatever's good about these artists, and whatever's the matter with them, I have to defend them because we can't have Jesse Helms messing with the freedom of art. I'm annoyed with people who abuse the freedom of art, and who say inhuman things in art. Yet I feel I have to stick by them. This photographer fellow was interviewed by the Boston Globe not long ago, and they did quite a whitewash on him and his artistic motives. I learned from that article, which dimly reproduced the offending photograph, that the title of the crucifix seen through urine was "Piss Christ." Now it seems to me that anyone who gives a photograph such a title is putting a chip on his shoulder and daring you to knock it off, and so I'm not going to join those apologists who say to offended parties, "Oh, how can you possibly be offended?" It was an offensive title, it was meant to offend, and to hell with the guy. Nevertheless, I have to be on his side.
The New and Collected Poems begins with "A Ride." The poem seems particularly Frostian. Was this done consciously or in retrospect, unconsciously, or am I merely projecting my own agenda here?
An English reviewer recently spoke of Frost in connection with that poem and then proceeded to say that the poem wasn't like Frost at all. I think it was the snow and the horse that put him in mind of Frost. I don't think it occurred to me. Although I'm a great admirer of Frost and once knew just about every line of Frost by heart, I don't think that it occurred to me that I might in any way be borrowing from him. One reason for that is that the poem proceeds directly from a dream I had. The poem tells, as clearly as I could tell it, what that dream was like. And it was not a dream about Robert Frost stopping by woods. It was a dream about a mysterious horse and terrible storm through which the horse carried me.
The poem also seemed as Poe-like as it did Frost-like because it had the dreamlike quality to it, that certain mystery around the edges.
Well, that is a thing that I've had in common with Poe. Poe is a great realizer of dream states. And I, who knows why, have always been interested in dreams. Just as John Berryman was—he used to write down all his dreams in a notebook. Yes, I suppose whatever there is in me that responds to the dreamer in Poe is in that poem, and yet I don't think of it as a derivative poem. It seems to me one of my most direct. As you know, Steve, we do not on the whole have experiences and just go write them down. But this was one case in which, although to find words for things always changes them, I pretty much took an experience and stamped it on paper.
Twenty-five years ago you said your then earlier work was more decorative, which was expression of exuberance. And you said there was "less gaiety" in the then-more recent poems, that is, the poems that eventually became Walking to Sleep. How would you characterize the difference in your work between then and now. Has it indeed become even less decorative, less gay?
I think I've become plainer. This is the kind of thing which a nonwillful writer—I'm really not very willful with my work; I don't say "now I shall do such and such"—is not likely to be sure about. An outside critic, someone else, is more likely to be right about it. And yet I have a general impression that I've grown plainer, that to some extent as Yeats said, I've withered into the truth. I find more excitement now than I did as a young poet in the idea of saying something with the utmost simplicity, with perhaps an untranslatable degree of simplicity. As a translator, I know that the hardest lines to translate are those which are most simply put.
What about your poem "Lying"?
Of course, it's true that a number of people have found that poem very difficult. I wouldn't call it decorative, because decorative suggests the nonfunctional, the flossy, and I think that everything in that poem is trying to say something very hard. But it is a sort of torrential poem.
What do you mean by torrential?
A whole lot of data come at the reader very fast. They can be hard to assimilate, at whatever rate of hearing or reading, and I know that I took some pleasure in writing a poem that was going to be like that, that was going to be a bombardment of various instances. Perhaps I felt I could do that in honesty, because the poem is fundamentally simple and is simply saying throughout that all things are really of one nature, that all things are co-natural, that every comparison we might make, that every likening we might make, is justified because everything belongs to one creation. That's all the poem says.
Was it a job description of what the poet does?
I think so in great part although there is in our literature a lot of wonderful nonfigurative poetry. I think I would agree with Stevens that the central thing in poetry is metaphor. I'd agree with Mr. Aristotle that the specific poetic gift is for metaphor, comparison.
Donald Hall has stated that poetry itself is doing pretty well but poetry reviewing is in a bad way. How do you see the state of reviewing now? In this century, Eliot, Winters, and Jarrell all influenced the poetry of their day through their commentary. Do you see anyone fulfilling that function now? And though you've written much commentary, why don't we see any reviews from you?
I have written reviews in the past, but very little recently, that's true. I like to do reviews, they're challenging, and I think it's very important that there be good reviewing of poetry. I've been involved in other things of late, slacked-off on it. I do think that there are some fine reviewers going. I very much admired a review which came out last year in the Times by Richard Tillinghast. It seemed to me that he really grappled with what was going on in several books, had real insight, and some applicable criteria. There's a good piece by Alfred Corn in the latest Poetry, a very brainy job of reviewing and I like the work of William Logan, who very rightly, I think, received a reward from the Critic's Circle last year for his reviewing of poetry.
It's very hard for our reviewing media to find as much good poetry criticism as they would like to publish, and I think that's why the Los Angeles Times, a couple of years ago, said that it was going to cut down on its reviewing of poetry, and instead represent poetry by the reproducing of particular poems in its book section. Not a bad decision to make really, not at all as bad as some people took it to be. For a while there, everyone was belaboring the Los Angeles Times, because its decision was misunderstood. If you actually look at their admirable Book Review, they do still cover a number of important books of poetry, and every week there is a well chosen poem out of some recently published book, put there to speak for itself.
I don't think that poets on the whole make a direct and profitable reaction to being criticized. I've never learned how to do anything from any critic, and never been made either proud or ashamed of myself by a critic. I'm always gratified when somebody of great intelligence pays sustained attention to me in an article, whether or not he likes me. And yet that doesn't have anything to do with what I shall now write. I suspect that this is true of most poets.
Do you find that you write more for the page or the ear?
Nowadays, I know that I write with a fully developed awareness of the poem as designed for oral performance. When I'm writing a poem, I don't think of myself on an art museum stage reading to people, but I've done so many poetry readings now, enjoying them always and had so much to do with the theater through my translations of Molière and Racine, that I can no longer feel about poetry as I did when I was starting out. Then it was purely for the page, and I very often wrote lines that turned out to be not very pronounceable. When the age of the poetry reading came along I had to try to do them from a stage.
Can you think of any poem in particular that struck you that way?
No, I can't this minute, but I know that there are poems in my first book which would be hard to say aloud in this or that passage, there are clots of consonants or conjunctions of s's that would not do well in bel canto. They say that Tennyson used to write a couple of extra lines, if necessary, to avoid a conjunction of s's. Of course, he was very given to reading aloud. If you went to call on the great Tennyson, you had to listen to an hour of his verses sometimes. I've been educated in poetry as an oral art by giving poetry readings (which have become so popular since I began to write) and then I have also been very much involved with the stage. When I sit around translating Molière, I sound every line. Not, aloud, but I sound it in my head, and amongst two or three possible renderings of a line I choose the one that an actor would find best and most expressive to say. By now when I write, I write with sound and pronouncability and dramatic stress in mind. I know that there's a lot of poetry still being written which isn't of a highly oral character and I'm not telling anybody else what to do, but I place a very high value on speakability and dramatic force.
Do you think you came to that conclusion because of your translations which were meant for the stage?
They helped a great deal. I just drifted into this kind of awareness as a by product of my translations of seventeenth-century Classical plays. And also, I suppose, because I got mixed up in Broadway musical theater for awhile, and had to write for music, or with music. That conditioned me to some degree, I'm sure, not, however, a measurable degree. I can't really measure any of these effects. I never said to myself see here, Wilbur, poetry is an oral art. The awareness of the oral dimension of poetry just crept up on me.
Can you lose yourself in your translations in the same way you do with your original work?
Not in the same way, no. Because in a translation, quite obviously, one is leaning all the while on what someone else has said and meant. Of course you have to contemplate the original and you have to bring out of the original its deepest intention, if you can find it. But what you're bringing out when you write your own poetry is something you don't know yet, and something for which there is no original. There is a feeling of arbitrariness in writing a poem of one's own that doesn't belong to the translation art. If I'm translating Molière I'm trying to do well by something which already has its own deserved prestige. And which, if I do it properly in English, will emerge as an English classic. I don't have any of those feelings about producing a classic when I'm writing a poem of my own. I'm just getting something off my chest as clearly as I can.
Because you don't know where your own poem is going and you do know, more or less, where the translated piece is going, is it harder to maintain fervor while translating? Is it easier to keep a pitch of excitement when you're working on your own work as opposed to Molière, or whomever?
I think that's probably true. A poem—if you're at all serious as a poet—every poem is a terrible gamble. Though I find that whenever I start to write I have a pretty sure sense that there is a meaning to be found, that there will be an end to the poem. Nevertheless there's always a chance that it won't be there, the meaning, the end, or that I'll spoil it. And with translation, you never do feel that. Though you have to work with a grasp of the work as a whole in mind, it is a kind of moment by moment battle. To compare great things to small, it's a little bit like solving one corner of a crossword puzzle, to find a solution for some six-line speech in a Molière play.
You know one thing I've found—not in answer to your question, but something I've noticed in the last few days—if I translate a Molière play of 1,100 lines or 1,500 lines or something like that, I find that it's possible to render every thought that's in the original, to be faithful in a thought-by-thought manner to the original, not leaving anything out, and emerge with as many lines in the translation as there are in the play. I wouldn't feel any kind of emotional upset if I found myself writing four more lines than Molière had written, or four fewer. But it just happens that passing over from the Alexandrines of the original to the pentameter of my translations, I can conveniently reproduce each thought as it comes. I'm getting rhymes, too, in the process, and one thought that has occurred to me in the last few days is this: people are always speaking of English as a rhyme-poor language. Sometimes you hear poets say that rhyming is a bad idea, because we haven't enough rhymed sounds in the language, and therefore the use of rhyme compels us to say things we don't want to say. Well, it ain't so. I find that we have enough rhymes in English so that I can be faithful to each thought of Molière as I go along, and rhyme those thoughts as well. I think that's a considerable test of our language's resourcefulness in rhymed sounds, that this can be done if one is patient enough.
That's the fun of it, is it not, to find that rhyme, to work that puzzle out?
Yes, I think if the original is rhymed, good God, why put it into free verse or blank verse and destroy its economy, destroy the kind of punch it has in the original?
Do you enjoy working in French so as to take a break from the typical English pentameter?
If you speak of metrical waves the average Alexandrine comes out to be something like four humps, four waves of voice, and it's not at all as emphatic in its effect as a measure of our highly stressed language is. People have often asked whether I try to reproduce the rhythms and the sound patterns of Racine or Molière in English, especially they ask this about Racine, because he's considered so musical. Well you just can't, because a French rhythm just isn't like an English rhythm. You have to find a comparable English rhythm, and you have to find comparable English music. The effort to imitate French sounds in English verse is ludicrous.
In the same article in which you talk about Edgar Allan Poe and his aesthetic you used three poems of your own to demonstrate your aesthetics, "A Baroque Wall Fountain," "Two Voices in a Meadow," and "Love Calls Us to the Things of this World." Are these three poems still representative?
I think so, insofar as I know myself. I'm always quoting something that Edwin Muir said. He said, "If we could know ourselves, it would be a violation of ourselves." And I think that's true—at any rate, for the poet in connection with his art. It's not wise, it's not good economy, to be too analytically aware of one's own work and its themes. I got fairly explicit about my own work and its themes in that little piece you're referring to, because I'd been asked by Howard Nemerov to write a piece suitable for broadcast by the Voice of America; it seemed to me that what was called for was some very barefaced writing, and that I should be as open as possible about my concerns. I still wonder what that little essay sounded like when somebody broadcast it into a forest clearing in Kenya.
Of the poets of the last 50 years who do you think people will be reading 100 years from now?
I really can't speak about the people of 100 years from now. I don't have a gloomy view of the future. I hope there will be a future. I hope that poetry will still be a necessity to a lot of people then. As for how popular it will be, I cannot guess, really. Donald Hall's figures on poetry are extremely encouraging, very surprising to people who are accustomed to saying "of course, nobody reads poetry, of course people don't buy books of poetry." Well it appears they do read it, they do go out to hear it by the hundreds and they do buy it in the thousands. I'm glad of that. But what their tastes will be in 2090 I don't know. All I can say is that there are a lot of people whose poems seem to have a high quality and usefulness right now, and that I hope such usefulness will be perceived in the future. When I was hanging around the Library of Congress and giving a lot of interviews, I was often asked about the state of poetry, and the future of poetry, and I found myself saying that there were about fifty American poets I knew of whose next poem I would be interested in seeing. If others feel the same, that may indicate a good state of health for American poetry, and may give a good prognosis for the reading of poems in the next century.
Any poets now that you take particular pleasure in reading?
I continue to read, very often, poets of my own generation to whom I'm especially attached, Elizabeth Bishop, for example, I go back to her all the time.
What is it in Bishop that delights you?
A kind of lucidity. Some kind of cleanness of the language. Subtlety, humor.
Any particular poems of hers that you return to more than others?
The one I was saying to myself yesterday as I bicycled across Key West was the one called "Anaphora," from her first book, North and South, the one that begins "Each day with so much ceremony / begins …" and ends with the words "endless / endless assent," which as I told myself, riding along on my bicycle, means both ascent and assent. I never get tired of her work. I go back to Frost. I go back to Williams very often. Somehow Williams's work seems to have on it, as Robert Lowell once said of May Swenson—seems to have permanent fresh paint signs on it.
For me, there's a lot of wheat and chaff mixed in Williams.
Yes, there's lot of chaff. He's one of the few poets I can think of in the modern century who showed again and again that he didn't know what certain words meant. In this he's like Faulkner. Faulkner often didn't bother to look up a word in the dictionary. I can't give you an example, but it would be a long Latinate word.
Are we talking about Faulkner or Williams here?
Faulkner. Oh, I can give an example of Williams. Williams in his poem "Burning the Christmas Greens," which I love, at a certain point, when the greens go up in flame, cries out "Recreant!" He thinks it means recreating and it doesn't, it means something like traitor. He should have looked that up.
Any young poets you're reading now?
I'm reading Stephen Mitchell right now.
His Parables and Portraits.
Yes, I enjoy his work. I'm very fond of the work of August Kleinzabler. Do you know his work?
Yes, Storm Over Hackensack and his new one Earthquake Weather I think is the name.
Yes. Really there is quite a list of fine young poets. It could go on quite a distance. I think I'd better not try to do it, because of the people I'd leave off.
How about poets before my generation or your generation. Milton as you mentioned, anybody else you keep returning to again and again?
Well I'd return to Herbert.
Herbert more than Donne? Why is that? What is it in Herbert?
Well I do, at times, to Donne. Elizabeth Bishop's favorite poet was George Herbert. They had many qualities of clear subtlety in common and there's a kind of sprightliness of soul in both of them which is very attractive to me. There's no end to poets. That's been something I've been grateful for all my life. I was very fond of Coventry Patmore; and who's that guy I'm trying to think of?
Well, of course, of Clare. There's simply been a very wide range of poets and not only in English, but in other languages I dare to venture into in whom I delight and who are part of my impulse to write a poem to see if I can add one more poem. The reason I always recommend to young poets that they go out and get enamored of 50 or 100 poets is that, in my own experience, it is valuable never to have succumbed to one great influence. The only poet who ever seemed to me to threaten me with abolition was William Butler Yeats. I taught him for a while at Harvard. John Kelleher and I taught a seminar in Yeats.
What do you mean by "threaten you with abolition"?
He's a very idiosyncratic poet, and a very powerful one, and I found that while I was teaching him, reading him, and expounding him there were occasional false notes in my own poems, unconscious borrowing. His way of using the word "being" for example. He'll begin a phrase with "Being by Calvary's turbulence," you know that kind of thing. That's a specialty of his, nobody else can do that without falling into his language. And I've always felt that Dylan Thomas's poem "Do Not Go Gentle" was marred by his then-fashionable, then Yeatsian use of the word "rage" in it. It was a little too much a line of its time when he talked about "rage, rage against the dying of the light." Yeats had written so much about an old man's rage … A very overpowering influence. So I found myself not reading Yeats as much as I would have liked to do, just so that he would not get at me and queer my way of writing. Delmore Schwartz once said in the Partisan Review, in an essay on Hart Crane, that it was very nice that Hart Crane had happened once but that if he had become a major influence on American poetry it would have been a total disaster. I think that's true, he's an intoxicating poet. And we can't profit as poets from the people who intoxicate us.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1348
SOURCE: "Wilbur's Beasts," in The Explicator, Vol. 49, No. 4, Summer 1991, pp. 247-49.
[In the following essay, Green analyzes and discusses the images and metaphors in Wilbur's poem "Beasts."]
Richard Wilbur's "Beasts" depicts in striking imagery the anomalous place of man in Nature. This brilliant six-stanza lyric can be divided into three scenes: the harmonious world of Nature; the painful world of degenerating human nature; and the world of "superior" men who betray their calling and bring destruction on all the worlds. Man seems to be the only creature whose nature, form, and function are not fixed. Paradoxically, this freedom from definition leads him into obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. The vision of the poem is Calvinist.
In the first two stanzas, we are in a peaceful world, whose condition is reinforced by a motif of musical harmony. The elements of this motif are major (the major keys are happy ones), plucked, lyric, dulcet, and concordance. The water current "sleeps" (play on sweeps?) the sunfish. The deer's feet are "spotless," that is, immaculate, without the stain of sin, as well as unmarked. It is nevertheless a predatory world: the gull dreams in his "guts" of the fish that he has caught in the waves. And, most strikingly, the disembowelled mouse paradoxically sees the harmony of it all. Death is a feared occurrence, but a natural one; it is not horrifying. Hunting for survival is what beasts are supposed to do; their instincts make them behave this way. Their behavior is not immoral. At the end of the second stanza, we switch to the world of man, entering a scene of much more horrifying "harm and … darkness." In this switch, we focus on the moon, which acts as a beneficent overseer in the first two stanzas, and even contributes its influence to the harmonious movement of the tidal waters ("the moon-plucked waves"). But in the world of man, the light of the moon is "warped in window-glass," a synecdoche for civilization.
Civilized man is still, uneasily, a prey to the influence of Nature; he is not completely at home in either world. Seeing himself as "above" the other animals, he nevertheless inevitably ("as always") slides back toward Nature. His painful situation becomes apparent; he can never fully revert to the animal. The werewolf is not an animal but a monster. The peacefulness of the world of Nature is closed to him. It holds a deep attraction, but consciously he draws back. Instead of "slumbering in peace," he turns his head away on "the sweaty bolster"—a pillow that is also a support, because it is manmade—trying to resist the inevitable metamorphosis into a monster. When the change takes place (as in the old Lon Chaney movies), his ears become "sharper" (more acute, as well as more pointed). Although sharp is another element in the motif of music, it represents not a full note, but something in-between.
In this sequence, "sponsors" suggests the godparents in the rite of baptism, in which the soul passes from the corruption of original sin to the innocence of sanctifying grace. Here the process is more-or-less reversed. Another word that reverberates is "minors," obliquely echoing "major" in the first line of the poem. The minor keys in music are melancholy. Another instance of verbal texturing is "panic," derived from Pan, god of Nature. Like the werewolf, he is an amalgam of man and beast. He is said not only to cause panic fear, but to send nightmares—like the werewolf's. The "degradation of the heavy streams" may be not only (polluted?) water flowing downhill and eroding the earth, but also the once-human bloodstream of the werewolf.
Next comes perhaps the most difficult phase of the poem. I am inclined to agree with Charles R. Woodard in his Explicator article in spring, 1978 (vol. 36, no. 3, 6-7) that the "suitors" are not scientists, as Donald L. Hill had maintained they were in Richard Wilbur (1967). Woodard holds that the more satisfactory reading would be to see them as "poets, philosophers, creators of myth, who have always been quite as much students of evil as suitors of excellence…." But would the phrase not also suggest mystics, ascetics, and founders of religions, such as Christ and Buddha? In any case, their ambience is somewhat Platonic, inasmuch as they are at "high windows / Far from thicket and pad-fall." They are far from the beasts and the werewolf. Thus their vision is limited. In addition, they seem to undergo an experience similar to that of the werewolf: he "turned his head away" (presumably from human nature); they "turn from their work." Their work seems to have to do with "raising" man's nature by rejecting the body. (I do not see how their work could be "the contemplation of hell," as Woodard puts it.) Inasmuch as it is night, however, when the libido is in the ascendant, they are drawn, despite themselves, to contemplate what are for them projections of man's "baser" nature: the "painful / Beauty of heaven" (Venus), the "lucid moon" (Diana), and "the risen hunter" (Orion). All are aggressive (Venus also, through her archer son). In addition, man himself, as a product of evolution, can be seen as the "risen hunter."
As they turn from their work, the suitors "sigh" because they realize that their sublimated ideals are impracticable. As "suitors" they themselves are lovers, however Platonic. That is, they come to realize (as Plato himself did in the Phaedrus) that their drive for perfection originates in the libido. As a result, an uneasy amalgam of the intellectual/spiritual and the emotional/physical results, "making such dreams" as those that produce the chaos in the last stanza.
Another way of looking at the ordeal of the suitors is that they are experiencing what Freud calls "the return of the repressed." The physical/emotional rises up to play a largely unrecognized role in the dreams made by the suitors. It may be suggested that the work of the suitors—questionably perfecting themselves and mankind—is further perverted into a pursuit such as astrology (inasmuch as they are contemplating the heavens). Astrology is a perversion because it sees man as determined, and places the blame for his condition and actions on forces beyond his control. Compulsion rules.
But astrology is only a synecdoche. Any pseudo-science or dogma (Manifest Destiny, the Master Race, dialectical materialism, or the rightness of any orthodoxy) makes dreams that lead to the warlike chaos of the last stanza. Many religions, too, tend to create abstract beliefs and rules that hold up a "heavenly" standard of conduct, a standard that man consciously strives to attain, but which he unconsciously knows that he cannot. In the resulting "heartbreak," he projects his failure onto the external world in the form of violence. With the slippage of rationally sensitive control, men become sleepwalkers, in effect, and as Ralph Ellison maintains, there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers (prologue to Invisible Man). When the "suitors of excellence" create their meretricious dreams, the inevitable ("as always") degeneration occurs. So finally, there is little to choose between the threat represented by the werewolf, and that represented by the suitors themselves. If anything, that of the werewolf is more limited in scope. In any case, "as always" connotes a tragic denial and fear of freedom.
Perhaps also the exaltation of the hunter-killer aspect of man represents the fatal compromise by men of intellect and taste (like the Poet in Giraudoux's The Trojan War Will Not Take Place) who feel that they must be "tough-minded" and construct apologias for the warriors. Christ and Buddha did not, but their doctrines were almost instantly so perverted. The result is that, instead of having pigeons (doves) on the "public statues" (themselves usually commemorating former wars) we have crows, scavengers of death. Ships are torpedoed ("fish" is Navy slang for a torpedo). Nature itself is troubled and out of control ("unbridled"). The contrast with the opening stanza is handled beautifully.
The poem is a reminder of Sartre's sardonic dictum, "We are condemned to freedom." Being human is a precarious undertaking.
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SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'The Writer'," in The Explicator, Vol. 50, No. 1, Fall 1991, pp. 58-60.
[In the following essay, Ramanen explains Wilbur's use of form and contrasting imagery to create a unified poem.]
Richard Wilbur's "The Writer" (New and Collected Poems, 1988), a poem about his daughter writing a story, is an outstanding example of the poet's method of setting up a poetic debate within the terms of a single meditative voice. The debate becomes an occasion for the demonstration of the deft formal control the poet has over stanza and line, point of view, diction, and imagery, which are all forged into a unity clinched by strong poetic closure.
Wilbur sustains through the poems what Brad Leithauser, speaking of formal verse, calls the "prosodic contract" that a poet enters into with the reader. The nature of the contract is clear from the pattern of three-line stanzas that the poem compares. The first and third lines of each stanza are shorter than the middle line, and there is no rhyme. The absence of rhyme is more than made up for by a strong narrative joining the stanzas together. The plot in the poem is one aspect of its unity, and this plot has its climax in a turning point precisely in the middle of the poem. The turning point and the momentum in the argument are achieved through imagery.
Wilbur organizes the poem in terms of two sets of images—the one natural, the other that of the whistling bird, the starling. The opening stanzas speak of the girl at the "prow" of the house, "where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden," writing a story. The poet pauses in the stairwell and listens to the sound of the typewriter, which resembles the commotion caused by "a chain hauled over a gunwale." The poet passes a benediction on the young writer who has a heavy cargo to carry, dealing as she is with the very stuff of her life. We expect the poet to develop the nautical imagery but he does not, preferring to announce a change in his attitude to the subject by moving on to the starling image.
The starling (Sturnus vulgaris), according to the OED, is a bird of gregarious habit and often nests near human habitations. Indeed, in America it is almost a pest. Wilbur's starling, in fact, has been trapped in the very room where his daughter is writing and escapes after great difficulty. The suggestion of a friendly singing bird trapped and seeking freedom fits the young writer's situation. The fable of the trapped starling is very literary indeed. Wilbur was perhaps aware of Sterne's use of it in Sentimental Journey and of Maria Bertram's reference to Sterne's use of it in Mansfield Park, for both instance the idea of confinement.
In any case Wilbur explains the change in his poem. The explanation is part of his poetic procedure of helping the reader along in his reading. Wilbur suggests that the nautical imagery is too simplistic, for the writer "pauses, / As if to reject my thought and its easy figure." The writer stops work, and the whole house seems to be considering the poet's "easy figure" and its appropriateness as a description of the writer. By this strategy Wilbur focuses on his own craft and on the crux of the debate in the poem as to what figure or image is the adequate one to describe the writer. Thus the poem about his daughter writing becomes a poem about his capacity to write about his daughter writing.
The change of imagery also means a change of point of view, but the shift does not disintegrate the unity of the poem. Indeed it underscores its unity because of the sense of one voice speaking and considering options and weighing choices. The same experience is rendered differently, more appropriately, but this could happen only because the first set of nautical images was tried out and found inadequate. The poet remembers the "dazed starling" in the room and how he and his daughter "stole in, lifted a sash / And retreated, not to affright it." The starling, after a long hour, rose from its "humped and bloody" state and flew out of the open window, but not before it had shown itself to be a "sleek, wild dark / And iridescent creature." The mellifluous accents of the poet's language now contrast with the heaviness of the nautical images. Both in mood and in diction the poet has now found an answering idiom for the idea of creative freedom that the writer represents. Significantly, it also release Wilbur's creative energies, for he, like his daughter, has been moving from captivity to freedom of the imagination and to the creative jouissance of adequate expression. This poetic triumph is best seen in the resolution of the poem into satisfying poetic closure:
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.
Wilbur's narration allows for this kind of decisive ending. The debate about creativity, about what images are best suited for a description of it, and the subtle infusion of the poet's own creative conflicts into the poem make for a "sincerity" that has nothing to do with the sincerity of confessional exhibitionism. Wilbur's is the true voice of feeling, arrived at through a painstaking charting of the experience in formal terms. Such a method prevents flabbiness of thought and enables a poetry of almost Augustan strong sense.
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SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'Advice to a Prophet'," in The Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall 1992, pp. 55-59.
[In the following essay, Frontain cites classical and biblical sources and influences of Wilbur's "Advice to a Prophet."]
In "Advice to a Prophet," the title poem in Richard Wilbur's 1961 collection, the poet addresses one of the most important social and political problems of the atomic/nuclear age—the danger of mankind's destroying itself and its planet. It also answers one of the most difficult questions addressed by the poets of his generation—namely, how to reach an alienated, uninterested, even apathetic audience grown deaf to the poet/prophet's voice of admonition and entreaty. The speaker's advice is that the anonymous prophet not emphasize the destruction that will result if the community continues on its present course; people have grown so incapable of imagining a world without them that the prophet's traditional scare tactics cannot serve any purpose. Rather, the prophet should employ a gentle, prophetic voice and, in a quiet celebration of passing beauty, remind the listeners of the poignant fragility of everything that is worth valuing in this world and thus of their own existence. Wilbur's "Advice" maps a new poetic program for an age no longer capable of being shocked out of its complacency by what Hungarian poet Endre Ady calls "the prophet's mad red rage / that storms against the seat of heaven."
The poem's opening line assumes the inevitable: "When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city…." Conditions have become so extreme in the speaker's time that it is no longer a question of whether a prophet will come to upbraid them but simply of when. The tension that animates the poem is the urgency that animated the Hebrew prophetic oracles: the people's days are numbered; they are on the verge of horrible destruction and can be saved only if they heed the prophet's message and repent totally and immediately. In the Bible, the destructive wrath of Yahweh is figured variously as the smashing to the ground of an earthenware pot, as the sexual ravishing of an adulterous woman, and as the leveling of a proud city's walls by an invader's army. But Wilbur's speaker anticipates an even worse catastrophe: when the prophet arrives in this city, it will be too late for him to "proclaim … our fall" (line 3) or the fall of any single city, as the prophet will be confronted by the possible annihilation of the human race in an atomic war.
The question that the poem attempts to answer concerns the best tack for the prophet to take. Prophetic utterance, John Becker concludes, is "a perennial act of resistance against the complacency of the mind"; it aims to attack, and to "protest with the extravagant gestures" of the prophet's outrage the centers of political and social power. For this reason, as Abraham Heschel points out, Hebrew prophetic language is "luminous and explosive, firm and contingent, harsh and compassionate, a fusion of contradictions" as the prophet both alarms and urges his listener onward to recognition and reform. The prophet's channeling of "divine derision and scorn" makes prophecy intrinsically satiric.
But traditional prophetic utterance fails in the face of modern complacency. The prophet, when he finally gets to Wilbur's city, will already be "mad-eyed from stating the obvious" (2). One can recite statistics regarding the stockpiling of weapons and their destructive capacities, but people will no longer be persuaded. "Mad-eyed" suggests both the angry gaze of the prophet who speaks in an accusative mode and his going mad with frustration and despair because no one heeds. The enormity of the statistics and their constant repetition have the unintended effect of immuring the audience emotionally from the probability of their self-destruction. The problem, Wilbur's speaker understands, lies not in the people's unreasonableness, which paradoxically threatens to drive the prophet mad, but in their "slow, unreckoning hearts" that are "unable to fear what is too strange" (7-8). How to make those hearts "reckon"—in the dual sense of rationally computing the significance of the prophet's statistics and of accepting the consequences ("face the reckoning of") of their actions—forms the "advice."
Wilbur is, in effect, attempting to resolve the "Catch-22" that is inimical to prophecy: The only biblical prophet ever listened to by his audience was Jonah, whose narrative is a comic one. Jonah is acutely frustrated by the Ninevites' being so completely and immediately persuaded by his single-word oracle, "Repent." If people heed the prophet's warning and reform, then the doom that the prophet prophesies is averted, and no one will ever know if what the prophet threatened would have come to pass. People who scorn the prophet's message, on the other hand, do not live to acknowledge its authority, their deaths being that authority's proof. As Jesus sadly observed, a prophet is never respected in his own time or country (Mark 6:4), and, in classical tradition, Cassandra was condemned to foresee the future but never be believed by the people whom she tried to warn. The difference, perhaps even the scorn, of the people whom he would save leaves the prophet "mad-eyed from stating the obvious" and drives him or her to speak even more impassionedly, thus appearing crazed and further alienating the audience.
And thus the radically different form of address that Wilbur's speaker advocates: "Speak to us" (13); "Ask us, prophet" (26); and "Ask us, ask us whether" (33). The speaker advises the prophet to employ a gentle, questioning voice that can "call / Our natures forth" (26-27) in the root sense of to educate by "leading out" the knowledge that is an essential part of our humanity and by actualizing through use what the listener had only an implicit grasp of before. The prophet must be a gentle Socratic educator rather than a threatening, cajoling satirist.
Not only the prophet's voice but the message must change. If, as the speaker claims, the prophet's traditional threat of annihilation is rendered ineffective by human inability to see itself as anything but the center of creation, then the prophet must quicken the reckoning heart by rendering the possibility of death only too familiar. The exquisite beauty of Wilbur's poem derives from the complex, twofold program that is implied here. First, the prophet must show how transience is the very essence of all experience by speaking "of the world's own change." Thus, images of the white-tailed deer slipping into perfect shade of stillness, of the lark soaring just beyond the reach of human sight, and of the gliding trout suspended for just one moment in a rainbow of light represent the uncountable instances of nature holding in perfection for one brief moment before suffering inevitable eclipse. "The dolphin's arc" (24) recalls Cleopatra's eulogy for Antony, whose delights, she claims, "were dolphinlike, they showed his back above / The element they lived in" (5. 2. 88-90). The dolphin's momentary transcendence of its watery or mortal part makes its aerial soaring all the more joyous and intense. Everything in the world bespeaks change, allowing us finally to conceive of "the death of the [human] race."
But as Wilbur proclaims in what is perhaps his best-known poem, "Love calls us to the things of this world." People learn to love—that is, their hearts learn to reckon—only when they are faced with the loss of what they value most. In this, Wilbur is close to John Keats, whose goddess Melancholy
… dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to Poison while the bee-mouth sips.
Nature at its most fragile and beautiful is for Wilbur the "live tongue" that calls "our natures forth," the mirror that reflects back to us (by eliciting from us) our love and courage. Like the locust that sings during its most vulnerable stage of metamorphosis, nature teaches us to celebrate what is passing. And the song that nature gives voice to is "all we mean or wish to mean"—that is, the most significant or meaningful part of us, as well as the highest meaning that we can aspire to, the meaning that we cannot, on our own, find words to express but which we must rely upon the "live tongue" of nature to articulate.
Thus, if man destroys the world, the rose will have no place to grow, and our unreckoning hearts will finally have failed us. The prophet must make humans aware both of their own mortality and of how they hasten their eventual dissolution by the proliferation of atomic and nuclear weapons. By speaking of "The Beautiful Changes" in nature, the prophet holds up a mirror to human hearts, paradoxically strengthening and quickening them.
The root of the word prophet, the Greek prophetes, means "to speak for, or on behalf of." The colloquial oath that is sworn in lines 3 and 4 ("begging us / In God's name to have self-pity") seems only to emphasize the fact that it is not God who is speaking through the prophet, but Nature, that "live tongue" that "call[s] / Our natures forth." The biblical prophet, frenzied with righteous indignation and alienated from his fellows by the gift of divine inspiration, is out of place in the modern world, where people's solipsism prevents them from understanding the destructive consequences of their acts. Instead, the poet insists, the prophet must quietly direct his listener's or reader's attention to the details of a sacramental universe, one of "sensible fullness."
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SOURCE: "One Definite Mozart," in Renascence, Vol. XLV, No. 1-2, Fall 1992–Winter 1993, pp. 81-96.
[Hazo is an award-winning American poet and critic. In the following essay, he surveys Wilbur's works and praises him as one of the greatest American poets.]
Ever since I first began reading Richard Wilbur's poems in the late 1940's, I think I've read only one negative review of his work. It was not Randall Jarrell's somewhat patronizing critique of Wilbur's second book, Ceremony. It was a review of The Mind-Reader by Calvin Bedient in The New Republic (June 5, 1976). Bedient contended that Wilbur was too safe a poet—that he rarely took chances. The reviewer was not referring to subject matter; he was taking Wilbur to task for deliberately choosing to remain within the limits of traditional metrics and prosody and yielding to "moral complacency."
I mention this now because one of my themes in this appreciation will be to demonstrate that Richard Wilbur's refreshing and refreshened traditionalisms along the lines of metrics and prosody are not a weakness but a strength. And I make this statement as one not fully enthralled by that tradition as it is literally defined but fully supportive of Wilbur's achievements within it. To say smugly that he rarely took chances is to betray a superficial reading of Wilbur's work to date. The nuances of diversity and experiment are everywhere, and they serve to re-create rather than merely perpetuate the set patterns of quatrains, couplets, sonnets, pentameters, trimeters or the alliteratively linked linear segments that Wilbur adapted from the Anglo-Saxon scops. That he has done so with almost Elizabethan elegance is what has distinguished his poetry among that of all his contemporaries from the time of the publication of The Beautiful Changes in 1947 to the appearance of New and Collected Poems in 1988, for which he received his second Pulitzer Prize. That he has been criticized by some who lack his consistent virtuosity within the chosen disciplines that he has embraced and with which he feels most at home is perhaps inevitable. But to me this is not unlike criticizing a tennis player for playing tennis (also an activity governed by fixed rules) exceptionally well on, of all things, a tennis court. Even if one does not like the game or the rules, one at least can respect the talent of one who has mastered them, re-created them in his own style and advanced and enriched the tradition by performing well within its strictures.
On the other hand, the aforementioned reviewer may not have been impressed by how a poem by Wilbur reads, i.e., how it evolves from first word to last word. Those who believe that poetry is a mere stream of consciousness or that the language of poetry is nothing but the language of associated meanings and not, as Maritain claimed, of "intelligenciated sense" or that poetry is a kind of imaginative ink blot whose destiny is simply to expand to the limits of exhaustion will assuredly not read Wilbur with pleasure. His work does not accommodate such frivolity. As a poet he has a definite syllogistic way of thinking; his poems have a beginning, a middle and an end. Not all of them follow the "If … but … therefore" mode of syllogistic logic, but a good many of them do, and the imprint of this way of thinking is characteristic of a mind that does not meander but concludes. Shakespeare's sonnets impress us with a similar way of thinking, which further accentuates my use of the adjective Elizabethan vis-à-vis Wilbur's style. Wilbur's poems seem to obey an inner imperative that is intellectual rather than emotional, or perhaps I should say emotionally intellectual. We sense that the poet is actually thinking through his feelings to their inevitable and ineluctable conclusion.
So much then by way of apologia. It is not my intention to defend Richard Wilbur against mere carping but to appreciate and admire his poetry that consistently rewards every moment of attention devoted to it. Rather than concentrate on Wilbur's evident technical virtuosity, I propose to focus on his artistic restraint, his genuine mirth, his sense of the tragic and his overall—for lack of a better word—felicity. By felicity I mean language that is happy with itself in the circumstances that this poet has created for it. As a rule Wilbur is such a felicitous poet except in those rare instances when he seems to will a poem into being because something rouses his indignation before his inspiration or talent can fully digest it. I will discuss this at greater length shortly.
To call Richard Wilbur a formalist, as he has been identified throughout his career, is simply to state that he writes within the established traditions of English and American poetics. But formalism is too pat a label to paste on any poet, and it clarifies little. (The same thing could be said about Anthony Hecht, Peter Taylor, and George Bradley.) Isn't it more helpful to speak about Wilbur's restraint as a poet, his peculiar aesthetic reserve that eschews the "let-it-all-hang-out" approach in favor of the minuscule detail that is capable of being the key to everything? For example, he does not flail at war's barbarity (which, as an infantryman in World War II, he must have seen at close quarters) but concentrates on the lonely sentry in "First Snow in Alsace" who is momentarily distracted by snowswirls and snow designs so that he ignores the whitening shell-holes, the snowdrifts on the ammunition stacks and, ineradicably, the "snowfall [that] fills the eyes / Of soldiers dead a little while." Nor in another poem called "Place Pigalle" does he moralize about the whores and stripshows but somehow intermingles the lust and loneliness of soldiers on leave from the front who search out "their ancient friends" with the poignancy of a midsummer night's dream-like respite from a war that makes murderers out of young men who might otherwise be lovers:
Ionized innocence: this pair reclines,
She on the table, he in a tilting chair,
With Arden ease; her eyes as pale as air
Travel his priestgoat face; his hand's thick tines
Touch the gold whorls of her Corinthian hair.
"Girl, if I love thee not, then let me die;
Do I not scorn to change my state with kings?
Your muchtouched flesh, incalculable, which wrings
Me so, now shall I gently seize in my
Desperate soldier's hands which kill all things."
This poem illustrates Wilbur's restraint at its finest. The result is that the theme is strengthened by what is held back. I do not find this to be the case with "On the Eyes of an SS Officer," which ends with this explicit final stanza:
But this one's iced or ashen eyes devise,
Foul purities, in flesh their wilderness,
Their fire; I ask my makeshift God of this
My opulent bric-a-brac earth to damn his eyes.
The rhetoric of hate is here, but the directness of its expression makes the poetry vanish. Wilbur does not suffer such lapses often, but they do occur. Perhaps this is because his basic optimistic and open nature does not easily transmute rage and indignation into the stuff of poetry. Dante, of course, could do it. Neruda did it when his inspiration and indignation fused; otherwise he simply versified a lot of personal propaganda. Wilbur is capable of the right indignations, which means he gets angry at the right times, but his moral umbrage often strips him of the restraint that is the fertile growing ground of his poetic talent, and the difference is immediately noticeable as in the aforementioned poem as well as in the concluding sestet of his "A Miltonic Sonnet for Mr. Johnson on His Refusal of Peter Hurd's Official Portrait."
Rightly you say the picture is too large
Which Peter Hurd by your appointment drew,
And justly call that Capitol too bright
Which signifies our people in your charge;
Wait, Sir, and see how time will render you
Who talk of vision but are weak of sight.
I suppose a case could be made for this poem as a re-creation of the Miltonic spirit in our time, but Wilbur's language has too direct an indebtedness to Milton for me to see it as more than an exercise in adaptation, despite the contemporaneity of the subject matter. The fact remains that Wilbur's formidable talent does not appear at its best when he is moved to write like this. It is not that one disagrees with his moral or political position (agreement or disagreement is not relevant here) but with the way it is stated. Knowing him less than casually, I would say that certain social or political issues affect him deeply and that he sincerely would like to take issue with guile or chicanery or plain wrongdoing through a poetic vision rather than through other means i.e., speeches, letters, and the like. But such poems fail as poems more often than they succeed, despite his efforts to place them in a tradition of righteous anger, as with the just quoted Miltonic sonnet. Take his "Speech for the Repeal of the McCarran Act" as another example. Wilbur invokes Mercian figures as the basis for his central metaphor, but his rhetorical impulses still get the better of his poetic ones. In short, the style of his utterance in this hectoring vein seems to be adapted, not natural. And I attribute it to temperament. Some poets can make poems out of spleen; their poems seem a logical extension of their talent. But Wilbur's poems in this genre seem willed into existence; they lose in similitude what they gain in directness, and the poetry is in the similitude. I'll rest my case by quoting a few lines in evidence from a poem Wilbur wrote in 1970 entitled "For the Student Strikers."
Go talk with those who are rumored to be unlike you.
And whom, it is said, you are so unlike.
Stand on the stoops of their houses and tell them why
You are out on strike.
It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt
Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.
Let the new sound in our street be the patient sound
Of your discourse.
Having expressed what is probably my only reservation about Wilbur's talent, I now feel free to praise. And I have no intention of being stingy in my praise of a man who, in poetic terms, is possibly the Mozart of our time. What Mozart achieved in music has a counterpart in Wilbur's achievement in poetry, particularly in his sense of symmetry, his uncanny precision of word choice and his almost infallible ear, his sense of humor as well as his sense of the tragic within a historical and literary tradition that he knows well and, finally, his basic Christian ethos and the worldview that it nurtures.
To speak of Wilbur's sense of symmetry means more than the appearance of the poem on the page, although even from that perspective the basic shape of a Wilbur poem gives one an immediate impression of entirety—an impression that a reading instantly confirms. His poems end in conclusions, not confusions. The conclusions may flow from an idea advanced early in the poem, or, as in "Piazza di Spagna, Early Morning," the elaboration of a single image:
I can't forget
How she stood at the top of that long marble stair
Amazed, and then with a sleepy pirouette
Went dancing slowly down to the fountain-quieted square.
Nothing upon her face
But some impersonal loneliness,—not then a girl,
But as it were a reverie of the place,
A called-for falling glide and whirl;
As when a leaf, petal, or thin chip
Is drawn to the falls of a pool and circling a moment above it,
Rides on over the lip—
Perfectly beautiful, perfectly ignorant of it.
He does something similar in "A Glance from the Bridge."
Letting the eye descend from reeking stack
And black facade to where the river goes,
You see the freeze has started in to crack
(As if the city squeezed it in a vise),
And here and there the limbering water shows,
And gulls colonial on the sullied ice.
Some rise and braid their glidings white and spare,
Or sweep the hemmed-in river up and down,
Making a litheness in the barriered air,
And through the town the freshening water swirls
As if an ancient whore undid her gown
And showed a body almost like a girl's.
The most regular poetic progressions in Wilbur's work appear in the riddle-poems or the what's-my-name poems that have been part of his writing from the very beginning (they spilled over delightfully into a book called Opposites whose meters challenge and rhymes please adult and young adult and children equally). These poems are not mere puzzles to be solved; they have about them a wit and whimsy that keep them enjoyable even after the solution is known. The poetry is in their very structure and resolution with each poem ending, as Yeats once said of good poems in general, like the snap-shut lid of a box. Here, for example, is one of the riddles of Symphosius—a three-liner describing coinage:
First I was earth and deep in earth retired;
Another name I gained when I was fired;
I'm earth no more, but through me earth's acquired.
Another example of Wilbur's sense of symmetry, though somewhat atypical, is the following single image entitled "Sleepless at Crown Point":
All night, this headland
Lunges into the rumpling
Capework of the wind.
This symmetry in Wilbur's poetry is never imposed. It seems to proceed from the poetic seed out of which each poem grows, and Wilbur is artist enough (negatively capable enough, to use Keats's term) to go with the flow of this poetic energy until the poem has completed itself at his hands. If his poem were chairs or tables, one would always be convinced that their sutures and fastenings were secure and that they could stand on their own. At least this has been my experience. I know from my reading of his work over almost forty years that he has never permitted himself to release something that is not complete. At a time when some of his contemporaries regard opaqueness as a virtue and not a sign of immaturity, this is no small triumph. And, of course, Wilbur's ongoing concern with the exact meaning and connotation and sound of words is a further aspect of his talent that places him in direct (and, for me, happy) opposition to some modern poets described by E. M. Cioran in his recently translated and published Anathemas and Admirations as follows:
Poetry is threatened when poets take too lively a theoretical interest in language and make it into a constant subject of meditation, when they confer upon it an exceptional status…. If we are truly to think, thought must adhere to the mind; if it becomes independent of the mind, exterior to it, the mind is shackled from the start, idles, and has but one source left—itself—instead of relying on the world for its substance or its pretexts. The writer must guard against reflecting obsessively upon language, must avoid making it the subject of his obsessions, must never forget that the important works have been created despite language. Dante was obsessed by what he had to say, not by the saying of it. (Cioran 105)
I do not think it presumptuous to claim that these words might have been written by Wilbur himself; in any case, I doubt if he would take violent exception to them. He is concerned with language the way a landscape painter is concerned with paint. He constantly searches for the right word as an artist might search for the right (the exactly right) color to express his vision. He identifies the song of bells, for example, as the "selfsame toothless voice for death or bridal." He alludes at just the right moment in "The Melongene" to the "purple presence" of an eggplant, and, presto, we see it. In "Potato" he is able to distill in two lines the essence of potato smell: "Cut open raw, it looses a cool clean stench, / Mineral acid seeping from pores of prest meal." His poetic obituary to Phelps Putnam ("To an American Poet Just Dead") contains the "ssshh of sprays on all the little lawns" and an allusion to immortality as a "higher standard of living." In "Driftwood" he writes of "the great generality of waters" and the "warped" wood having the look of "excellence earned" by retaining "their dense / Ingenerate grain." In "An Event" he perceives in the zigzag of clouds of birds in flight "By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt." And "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra" contains one of the best re-creations of the sound and sight of fountaining water that I have ever encountered in any literature:
Happy in all that ragged, loose
Collapse of water, its effortless descent
And flatteries of spray.
The stocky god upholds the shell with case,
Watching, about his shaggy knees,
The goatish innocence of his babes at play;
His fauness all the while
Leans forward, slightly, into a clambering mesh
Of water-lights, her sparkling flesh
In a saecular ecstasy, her blinded smile
Bent on the sand floor
Of the trefoil pool, where ripple-shadows come
And go in swift reticulum,
More addling to the eye than wine, and more
Interminable to thought
Than pleasure's calculus. Yet since this all
Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall,
Must it not be too simple? Are we not
More intricately expressed
In the plain fountains that Maderna set
Before St. Peter's—the main jet
Struggling aloft until it seems at rest
In the act of rising, until
The very wish of water is reversed
That heaviness borne up to burst
In a clear high, cavorting head, to fill
With blaze, and then in gauze
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine
Illumined version of itself, decline,
And patter on the stone its own applause?
It is in stanzas like these that one can detect how Wilbur's ear rarely fails him. The matching of sound and pace to the fall of fountaining water is so unobtrusively true that we actually hear as well as see the "wish of water" in the language. I for one admire the subtlety here of Wilbur's musical sense much more than some of the onomatopoetic stanzas in "On Freedom's Ground" (Part IV) where he attempts to capture the rhythm of waltzes, polkas, cakewalks, and jigs. Subtlety gives way to the obvious, which is by definition a less suggestive alternative, and the result is verse. True, it is verse of a rather high quality, but it does not have the poetry of the aforementioned lines of the Villa Sciara fountain.
As he has grown older, Wilbur has not abandoned the formal hallmarks of his earlier style (as has Karl Shapiro, for instance) but adapted them to different subjects with the same jeweler's eye and musician's car for the right word in the right place at exactly the right moment. Poems like "The Fire-Truck" and "The Undead" from Advice to a Prophet (1961) testify to this as does the book's powerful title poem. Nor does Wilbur's basic style change in Walking to Sleep (1969) in such poems as "For Dudley," "Playboy," and "A Late Aubade."
The poem called "Shame" in Advice to a Prophet is a happy aberration. True, the lines are basically iambic pentameter, but they are certainly not in the tradition of Pope's ten-syllabled pentameters. Wilbur hues to five-feet per line, but he plays fast and loose with the count, and the poem is the better for it because the fastness and looseness match the theme. This is one of the few poems in which Wilbur just lets himself go, and his sense of mild sarcasm, his basic good humor and his almost Rabelaisian swagger here and there (usually hidden to the point of invisibility) fuse and flourish to the plain delight of any fairminded person who reads the poem. Anyone familiar with the poem knows how the unspecified country of "Shame" achieves its ultimate and decisive victory over its occupiers. Wilbur informs us early in the poem that this is a nation with "no foreign policy," an unfathomable grammar, a national sense of its own unimportance and a geography "best described as unrelieved." the people's chief weapon seems to be self-deprecation wedded to self-disdain. Left alone, they turn these weapons upon themselves and manage thus to perpetuate their own mediocrity and undisguised mendacity. After all, this is a country whose "national product" is sheep and whose people truly believe that "they do not count" and who confirm this by announcing that the population total is "zero." Yet, their very vices make them invincible when they confront the "hoped for invasion" with "complete negligence" and "overwhelming submission." The result is that they conquer their conquerors by slowly imbuing them with their own vices:
Their complete negligence is reserved, however,
For the hoped-for invasion, at which time the happy people
(Sniggering, ruddily naked, and shamelessly drunk)
Will stun the foe by their overwhelming submission.
Corrupt the generals, infiltrate the staff,
Usurp the throne, proclaim themselves to be sun-gods,
And bring about the collapse of the whole empire.
Further confirming Wilbur's sense of artistic restraint during the sixties were two touchstone poems—one from Advice To a Prophet (1961) and the other from Walking to Sleep (1969). The title poem from Advice to a Prophet is not a direct but a slantwise comment on the nuclear apocalypse, but Wilbur eschews the apocalyptic tone and pose so readily adopted by numerous other poets dealing with the same subject. He asks not to be informed about "the weapons, their force and range," nor does he want to be told for the zillionth time about the possible extinction of humanity ("Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race"). Instead Wilbur considers the realizable desolation we would immediately know if certain specific animals and birds would disappear from the world as we know it. He is not speaking in general terms of the death of mankind but of finite, definite absences, and the sense of loss that the poem describes grows out of a consideration of these very absences:
Though we cannot conceive
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt world crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,
How the view alters. We could believe,
If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip
On the cold ledge, and very torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without
The dolphin's arc, the dove's return,
These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken
In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld.
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.
The power of this poem derives from how we respond to these enumerated losses and the effect their absence will have on how we define ourselves. The extent of this loss is left to our imaginations. In terror as in art, less proves to be more, much more.
The poem entitled "Running" from Walking to Sleep is structurally a typical Wilbur poem—a series of introductory descriptions in each section, each ambience counterbalanced by the poet's reaction to it, the gradual evocation of the reality beneath the mere appearance asserting itself. All three sections of the poem deal straightforwardly with the joyful exhilaration of running or of observing runners in action. In the first section Wilbur remembers running in Caldwell, New Jersey, in 1933. The lickety-split run becomes an absolute in his memory—"Thinking of happiness, I think of that." Skipping the second section for a moment, we find in the third section a self-description—Wilbur running as an older man and coming upon two boys running in the opposite direction. As they prepare to pass one another, they rhyme for a moment simply as runners, and Wilbur senses the exhilaration of youth from that passing moment. But it is in the second section that we find the correlative that is (possibly) an inadvertent profile that Wilbur actually gives of himself. Watching marathon runners from the sidelines, Wilbur, now a non-participant, focuses on one of the runners in the pack:
Dark in the glare, they seemed to thresh in place
Like preening flies upon a window-sill,
Yet gained and grew, and at a cruel pace
Swept by us on their way to Heartbreak Hill—
Legs driving, fits at port, clenched faces, men,
And in amongst them, stamping on the sun,
Our champion Kelley, who would win again,
Rocked in his will, at rest within his run.
The style of Kelley's run is a perfect match for Wilbur's style as a writer—a man sure of his skills and strengths, secure within his own skin, husbanding his known resources and then pitting them against nothing but the challenge before him, confident that he is equal to it.
It may not seem important to some to identify humor as one of Wilbur's poetic assets, but I certainly believe it is. Levity is also a sign of a person with a sense of balance. Although Robert Lowell was and is a poet of genuine stature and was often regarded as a more cosmic poet than Wilbur in some quarters, one must look long and hard to find a Lowell poem with a smile on its face. This does not prevent us from taking Lowell seriously, despite Mark Van Doren's admonition that one should not take seriously someone who always takes himself and the world seriously. Nonetheless, a sense of lightness goes a long way to acquaint a writer's readers with his very humanity and not merely with his personal demons. Wilbur's humor, whether ribald enough to provoke a good guffaw or subtle enough to coax a good chuckle, is never mean-spirited or silly. Its aim seems to be pure fun whether it has a satirical edge or not. And this is true of his earlier poems ("Superiorities," "Parable," "Museum Piece") as well as his later ones ("Shame," "Matthew VIII, 28ff," "A Late Aubade," "The Prisoner of Zenda." "To His Skeleton"). The spirit of humor in "Matthew VIII. 28 ff," is a typical example:
Rabbi, we Gadarenes
Are not ascetics; we are fond of wealth and possessions,
Love, as you call it, we obviate by means
Of the planned release of aggressions.
We have deep faith in prosperity,
Soon, it is hoped, we will reach our full potential.
In the light of our gross national product, the practice of charity
Is palpably inessential.
It is true that we go insane;
That for no good reason we are possessed by devils;
That we suffer, despite the amenities which obtain
At all but the lowest levels.
We shall not, however, resign
Our trust in the high-heaped table and the full trough.
If you cannot cure us without destroying our swine,
We had rather you shoved off.
The barely concealed criticism of the smugly rich in this poem somehow does not get in the way of the roystering, and by the time we get to the last line we are smiling our way into a good laugh.
To move from Wilbur's humorous poems to such master-pieces as "The Writer," "Cottage Street, 1953," and "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" is to realize that Wilbur is not a man who, like some of the confessionalists of his generation, eschews the lightsome in order to be "properly" glum. Not at all. His is a sensibility which permits him to respond to and then re-create in his poetry the light as well as the weighty, the smile as well as the frown. And who can deny that a complete vision of human life does, after all, include both?
Now to a consideration of the ethos of Wilbur's talent. That Wilbur has a theocentric view of life is traceable not only to those poems of his that have liturgical or theological themes, i.e., "A Christmas Hymn," "A Wedding Toast," "For Dudley," "John Chrysostom," to name but a few of the many, but to a deeper and unmistakable spirituality that infuses his entire corpus and is unfeignable. Since tracing this thread is impossible in a short paper such as this, I will concentrate on only three poems since they represent to me the three salient aspects of this spirituality. The first is "The Proof," a crypto-poem that is both a prayer and, in its succinctness, a further variation on his more telegrammic poems, i.e., riddles etc. The second is "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" a poem which, in its acceptance of the given world and its transfiguration of it, is as consummate a realization as I know of what the calling of poet as seer really means. And the third is "Cottage Street, 1953," primarily because of all that stands behind the judgment of the final line.
The tone of "The Proof" (with tone defined as the author's attitude toward his subject, his audience, even toward himself) is as revealing of Wilbur's sensibility as the subject. From first word to last the author reveals himself as a trusting and humble man who is willing to abandon himself to the mercy and generosity of God. It is as if Wilbur has taken the Bible's injunction that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and made it the very soul of this poem. I have detected this same tone in numerous poems of Wilbur (and in some of his translations as well), and it is neither forced nor fictitious. Somehow one senses when one is in the presence of genuine feelings of this nature, and the feelings in "The Proof" impress me in this way.
Shall I love God for causing me to be?
I was mere utterance; shall these words love me?
Yet when I caused his work to jar and stammer,
And one free subject loosened all his grammar,
I love him that he did not in a rage
Once and forever rule me off the page,
But, thinking that I might come to please him yet,
Crossed out delete and wrote his patient stet.
This poem has the unmistakable resignation and deference of personal prayer. It is this deference that appears again and again in Wilbur's poetry—a deference to things as they are in their God-created or man-created uniqueness, a deference to the beautiful and its changes, a deference to love itself and a willingness to allow it the spaces it needs (which is the very proof of anyone's respect for love itself) to manifest itself and grow.
Perhaps no poem in all of Wilbur's writings affirms his wonder in the presence of God-created and man-created things than his much (and deservedly) anthologized "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World." Rather than quote the poem in its entirely since it is one of the most well known of Wilbur's works, I will allude only to the basic circumstance of the poem and how Wilbur, presumably the persona of the poem, finds in that circumstance a reason to affirm and bless it.
A sleeper is slowly coming awake. He imagines that the laundry hanging on a line outside his window is like a flight of seraphim. This angelic laundry seems to float and dance in the "false dawn" of semi-wakefulness.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing.
But such a Platonic view has only a limited lease on the observer's life, and, no matter how much he wants the illusion to persist in defiance of the upcoming "punctual rape of every blessed day," he knows that the soul must descend "once more in bitter love / To accept the waking body." And, of course, form and function are destined to exist in consonance, which means that the laundry, which is destined for use as clothes, must come down from the "ruddy gallows." It must clothe thieves, lovers and nuns; the world must go on being the world. The fulcrum image of the lovers ("Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone") provides the ironic balance between thieves and nuns, since lovers go dressed only to that point where they must undo their clothes so that they can become lovers in fact. Regardless of the irony, the entire poem ends on the side of life and "the things of this world" where only love can humanize us, not in otherworldly but in this-worldly terms. Like Frost, Wilbur believes that "earth's the right place for love." Thus the "waking body" offsets the bitterness of its dream-ending moment of false bliss by quite literally blessing (what is an affirmation but a blessing?) the real world where theft, loving and devotion are ongoing and co-existent.
"Cottage Street, 1953" is Wilbur at his lyrical and perspicacious best. The setting could not be simpler—a tea on Cottage Street hosted by Edna Ward, Wilbur's mother-in-law. Present are Wilbur and his wife, Sylvia Plath and her mother. Wilbur admits to having been invited so as to serve as a role-model for the despondent Sylvia:
It is my office to exemplify
The published poet in his happiness,
Thus cheering Sylvia, who has wished to die;
But half-ashamed, and impotent to bless,
I am a stupid life-guard who has found,
Swept to his shallows by the tide, a girl
Who far from shore has been immensely drowned
And stares through water now with eyes of pearl.
The ongoing "refusal" of Sylvia Plath to do anything but drown is contrasted sharply with the quiet courage of Edna Ward, destined to die a decade and a half later (the poem was obviously written after 1968) but doing so with tearless dignity and speaking of love to and at the very end. Against the example of Edna Ward's graced and graceful end at the age of eighty-eight, Wilbur describes Sylvia Plath as one who in her despair seemed "condemned to live" and whose poem's "brilliant negative" was on balance "free and helpless and unjust." It is the mention of injustice that tells us how Wilbur perceives the lives of these two radically different women—the elder, a valiant example of keeping faith with life in extremis; the younger, a victim, not so much of life as of her twisted vision of it. Weighing Edna Ward's bravery against the spiritual self-betrayal of Sylvia Plath who, at the time of the writing of the poem had already taken her own life, Wilbur comes down on the side of justice—justice to life itself. This transmutes the poem into a double elegy, and, as elegies tell us more about life when it is touched by death than they tell us about death itself (since death is actually unknowable), they reveal the human values of the elegist. He pities Sylvia Plath; he is edified by Edna Ward.
This then completes the range of my appreciation of this immensely talented writer. (I should add that he is an equally talented reader of his own poems and translations. Whoever has listened to Richard Wilbur read his work has experienced what Wilbur himself once ascribed to the work of Degas—"Beauty joined to energy.") My few reservations, which I felt obliged to include in the spirit of absolute candor, are but quibbles in the balance. Far exceeding them is the wealth of poems by Richard Wilbur that will be part of our literature as long as it lasts. For that we can only be quick to praise and, above all, grateful.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1218
SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra'," in The Explicator, Vol. 54, No. 4, Summer 1996, pp. 244-47.
[In the following essay, Wai provides an analysis of Wilbur's poem "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra."]
In his book of word games for children Opposites, Richard Wilbur speculates about the relativity between objects, or between ideas, and between objects and ideas. In his poems, he uses contrasts to explore the relatedness of two conflicting inclinations: spiritual aspirations and mundane commitments. Wilbur approaches the intangible dimension of a real object through its tangible appearance. He tends to juxtapose one character or object against another, balancing each against its "counterpoint." The opposed images show the inadequacy of one divorced from the other.
The rivalry between spiritual yearnings and a commitment to the imperfect world of objects inspires Wilbur's poem "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra." The baroque fountain and its counterparts in St. Peter's Square represent two different views of happiness—participation in worldly pleasures and transcendence toward heavenly bliss. The poet favors a spirituality that is not world renouncing.
To comprehend His creation is to comprehend the Creator, Wilbur states:
I think a lot of my poems, instead of saying "isn't this a marvellous world permeated by divinity," say instead "come on, let's not be too spiritual, let's get down to earth." That of course implies the possibility of being spiritual. That kind of attack on a too-unworldly spirituality could be seen as a way of affirming the possibility of any kind of spirituality.
The structure of many of Wilbur's poems is dialectical, corresponding to the rival claims of the actual and the ideal. His dialectics usually take the form of a succession of examples through which the poet examines the complexities involved in the conflict. The arrangement of the arguments is usually a juxtaposition of the thesis against the antithesis. Sometimes this is followed by a synthesis, which may be a poetic resolution ("difficult balance" in the poem "Love Calls Us to the Things of this World" [233-34]) or a paradoxical image ("light incarnate" in "A World without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness" [283-84]). The religious allusion to St. Francis in "A Baroque Wall-Fountain" serves as a concluding argument.
The ornate Baroque wall fountain in a public garden of Rome, meticulously described in the first seven stanzas of the poem, is a scene of fallen Eden, of "saecular ecstasy." A stone cherub wears a bronze crown that is too big for its head. "A serpent has begun to eat" the cherub's feet. The water trickles down over the three shells in "effortless descent." The descent is "effortless," for it is in harmony with the natural law of gravity. Beneath the third scalloped shell live "a faun-ménage and their familiar goose." The presence of a serpent and the descent of water recall the Fall of Adam into the world of experience. The faun, expressing a possible view of happiness, accepts his condition with case.
The faun's "babes" are heirs to their parents' attitude toward life. The happiness of the faun-ménage consists in their total acceptance and enjoyment of what they are allowed. Sensuous delights are conveyed throughout the description of the wall fountain: the water is "Sweet," the flesh of the "fauness" is "sparkling," and the "ripple-shadows" are "More addling to the eye than wine."
Trickling down through the seven stanzas, the lengthy sentences imitate the downward movement of water from the stone cherub to the "trefoil pool," where "ripple-shadows come / And go in swift reticulum." Certain words are strategically placed at the beginning of a line to heighten the intensity of the fall or movement of the water. The word "Collapse," for example, sends the water, sustained by the adjective "loose" in the preceding line, plunging downward at full speed. And the phrase, "flatteries of spray" is a kinetic and graphic description of the water after "its effortless descent." The language suggests the dance of light and shadow associated with the music and patterns of splashing water.
Juxtaposed against the elaborate wall fountain are the plain Maderna fountains in St. Peter's Square. Compared with the wall fountain, they are less intricate in design, but more intricate in their expression of human ideals.
The Maderna fountains are depicted in one sentence, manifesting the effort that sustains the upward movement of the water in defiance of the natural law of gravity. Again Wilbur captures the kinetic motion of the water, "struggling" and balancing itself "aloft until it seems at rest / In the act of rising." Yet the world-renouncing struggle of the Maderna fountains toward spirituality seems to be indistinguishable from the desire for personal glamour. The words "cavorting" and "display" imply that the ascent itself is a showy performance, which is applauded by the descent of the water pattering "on the stones." The water of the main jet is only "at rest" after a glimpse of heaven and after self-glorification, whereas the fauns "are at rest in fulness of desire/For what is given."
The poet wonders whether men should model their lives on the "water-saints" who "display / The pattern of our areté" or on the "showered fauns" who "do not tire / Of the smart of the sun." It is through the example of St. Francis that the poet suggests a subtle, ambiguous resolution for the dilemma between the two human tendencies: restless spiritual yearning and "humble insatiety." Although St. Francis abstained from worldly pleasures, he might be enlightened by seeing the virtue of the fauns: their humbleness. The virtue of humility, according to the saint, can be the key to celestial riches. Yet this revelation that the saint may have experienced is only a possibility, and the "bliss" he "might have seen" only a "shade."
Unlike the fauns, who have fulfilled God's command to multiply, St. Francis at Sarteano scourged his recalcitrant body because of his desire for a family. But the saint differs from the water saints, whose struggle for spiritual bliss is tinted by a desire for secular applause. St. Francis believed that perfect joy consists in humility and acceptance.
St. Francis, who provides a contrasting parallel to both the water saints and the fauns, might have achieved a balance between the two sets of virtues: the fauns' humility and the water saints' aspiration toward transcendence. Yet the achievement of that balance would have been contingent upon his respect for and acceptance of "That land of tolerable flowers, that state / As near and far as grass/Where eyes become the sunlight…." The word "flowers" recalls the title of the book The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Flowers ordinarily are emblems of the short duration of existence, but these flowers are "tolerable" because they are perceived as enduring. In St. Francis's case, the flowers are his virtues and his worldly religious accomplishments. The "eyes" or lights of the soul "become the sunlight," the life-giving force. And the "hand," meaning physical labor in general and the flower tender in particular, "Is worthy of water," which is associated with both Baptism and irrigation. The "tolerable flowers" (immortal mortality) are nourished by the lights of the soul and the sun and by water from both spiritual and physical sources. In this "dreamt land / Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass," spirituality is world nourishing rather than world renouncing.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567
SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'Ceremony'," in The Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 2, Winter 1997, pp. 98-99.
[In the following essay, Wai provides a brief explication of Wilbur's poem "Ceremony."]
In his poem "Ceremony," Richard Wilbur treats the paradox that man and nature may seem to be in combat with each other yet are in some respects basically akin. The poem demonstrates his respect for ritualistic forms in both nature and society. "I think that a lot of one's feeling of union with natural things is unilateral," says Wilbur, "and yet I persist in feeling that nothing, right down to the stone, is irrelevant to us, is not part of a family."
"Ceremony" begins with Wilbur's response to a painting by Bazille, a nineteenth-century French-Impressionist painter:
A striped blouse in a clearing by Bazille
Is, you may say, patroness of boughs
Too queenly kind toward nature to be kin.
The reader immediately senses the poet's awareness of man's intrusion into nature and his perception of the contrast between civilization and wilderness.
Thus the girl in Wilbur's poem who seems to be "queenly kind," or supremely civil, must be alien to the wild, unruly life of the forest. But the second half of the first stanza contradicts this assumption. Although the formality of the girl's attire distinguishes her from the surrounding woods,
… ceremony never did conceal
Save to the silly eye, which all allows,
How much we are the woods we wander in.
If the lady were without social mannerisms and formal dress and appeared instead as Sabrina the water nymph ("Let her be some Sabrina fresh from stream"), the nature-man distinction would be invisible in her. Without this contrast, Bazille's scene would have lost its meaning and form. "[F]resh from stream," closely associated with the sun and the fern beds, and having become "the flowers' cynosure." Sabrina is Nature herself, and Nature is she. The "nymph and wood" interpenetrate each other's being:
Then nymph and wood must nod and strive to dream
That she is airy earth, the trees, undone,
Must ape her languor natural and pure.
Yet their mingling of identities results in an absence of contrast and, consequently, a loss of vigor. Words such as "slowed," "[b]edded," "dream," and "languor" create an atmosphere of sleepiness and oppressive stillness.
The poet yawns. "Ho-hum." The idyllic scene associated with Sabrina is too pure or uniform and harmonious to provoke any creative impulse. Then the poet dispels the drowsiness and praises the "wit and wakefulness"—imaginationand dynamic contrast—embodied in the lady. The concluding stanza demonstrates that beneath the ceremonious appearance of "curtsey and quadrille," man and nature are akin. The lady's "social smile and formal dress" only "lightly" hide her bond with the wild, unceremonious "tigers." Through the contrast between wild life and civilization, the presence of tigers and the lady's etiquette are more intensely felt. Wilbur shares Bazille's recognition of the interaction among objects in a certain environment and juxtaposes them with each other accordingly, to provide a surprising and revealing effect. Ironically, although the lady's social formality lends contrast to the forest, her stripes, resembling those of the tigers, reinforce the impression that she is part of "the woods" she "wander[s] in."
Like the lady, both Bazille and Wilbur feign. Bazille frames his response to reality in a painting, whereas Wilbur fables his interpretation of Bazille's impression in a poem, ceremoniously observant of restrictions of rhythm and rhyme.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 187
Bagg, Robert. "Merlin and Faust in Two Post-War Poems." In Merlin versus Faust: Contending Archetypes in Western Culture, edited by Charlotte Spivack, pp. 189-98. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.
Analyzes Wilbur's poem "Merlin Enthralled" as exemplary of the search for meaning amid chaos in the tradition of war poetry.
Schwartz, Joseph. "The Concept of Historical Form in the Poetry of Richard Wilbur." Renascence 45, No. 1-2 (Fall 1992/Winter 1993): 35-48.
Discusses Wilbur's "sense of history" evident throughout his work, but found particularly in his poem "Looking into History."
Turner, Alberta T. "About 'Cottage Street'." In The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces 1963–1995, by Richard Wilbur, pp. 147-52. New York City: Harcourt, Brace, 1997.
Interview in which Wilbur discusses his poem "Cottage Street, 1953."
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