Thursday, December 2, 2010

Themes, Style and Technique of Wilbur’s Poetry


Richard Wilbur is living, white, male and, from all appearances, neither despondent nor mad. This is not a writer to whom glamour will attach easily. (I have cherished Wilbur’s poetry for many years, but can recall only one detail from his personal life: he likes Ping-Pong.) Not coincidentally, the last decade to see him pre-eminent was the 50’s, when Louise Bogan hailed him in The New Yorker as ‘’composed of valid ingredients,'’ and T. S. Eliot told an interviewer ‘’I must admit to a continuing respect for Robert Lowell and Richard Wilbur.'’
 Then public taste — courtesy of ‘’Howl'’ and Lowell’s ‘’Life Studies'’ and the phenomenon known as Sylvia Plath — edged away from Wilbur, and from his dedication to urbanity and metrical poise. Wilbur, it used to be said, coasted along a little too smoothly; he wrote the poem bien fait. In our poets as in our lovers, too much technique leaves us first impressed, then cold and finally resentful, a pattern that could well describe the arc of Wilbur’s critical reception over the past half-century. In the end, we would prefer to be ravaged, not finessed.

Well-adjusted poet

His ‘’Collected Poems, 1943-2004′’ is now out, and it is the indispensable Wilbur, covering recent unpublished work, many of his children’s poems and song lyrics, and all of his nine published volumes of poetry. In addition to being filled with light, music and wit, and a generous and very native aplomb, these poems form an argument, about how one goal of the well-lived life might be composure, rather than the mad flowering of a personal signature. This appreciation for composure emerged under keen circumstances, when World War II took Wilbur to Anzio and the Siegfried Line. There he began to ‘’versify in earnest,'’ as he later put it, and to recognize in poetry a means of ‘’organizing oneself and the world.'’ Over the subsequent years, as his peers donned leather jackets or publicly fell to pieces, Wilbur maintained a courtly reticence. His few political poems — ‘’A Miltonic Sonnet for Mr. Johnson on His Refusal of Peter Hurd’s Official Portrait,'’ for example — are effective enough in their icy disdain, but fairly mild in their outrage; and his one exercise in appearing louche, ‘’A Voice From Under the Table,'’ while a virtuoso performance and an utter delight, in the end stays pretty upright. In short, throughout a career that spans some of the more contentious decades in American history, Wilbur has felt no compulsion to register dissent, horror, disgust or, really, neurotic perturbation of any kind. Over so well-adjusted a poet, suspicion is bound to hover. Can you inspire something more than our admiration?

Richard Wilbur and Robert Frost

What follows, then, is Wilbur, from his wonderful ‘’Seed Leaves'’:

Here something stubborn comes,

Dislodging the earth crumbs

And making crusty rubble.

It comes up bending double,

And looks like a green staple.

It could be seedling maple,

Or artichoke, or bean.

That remains to be seen.

Forced to make choice of ends,

The stalk in time unbends,

Shakes off the seed-case, heaves

Aloft, and spreads two leaves

Which display no sure

And special signature.

The debt to Robert Frost ('’Seed Leaves'’ is subtitled ‘’Homage to R. F.'’) is so unhidden, but so unanxious as to hardly count as a debt. Borrowing the strict trimeter of Frost’s ‘’To Earthward,'’ the poem’s short lines render it visually narrow, like the stalk it describes. Wilbur, however, takes Frost’s hardened Yankee pessimism, narcotic as it can be, and flips it on its head. In ‘’To Earthward,'’ the poet, having once ‘’lived on air,'’ slowly reclines toward death, to the earth. In ‘’Seed Leaves'’ the poet recalls the struggle of the still young, against the impulse to cling to their own untested promise, to flower into open air. But the poem is also, in its buttoned-up way, a confession. In English, as in most European languages, ‘’leaf'’ is a synonym for page; the two spreading leaves are meant to remind us of an opening book, in this instance one without any ‘’sure / And special signature,'’ and therefore surely Wilbur’s own youthful work. Throughout Wilbur’s poetry, one can pick up cadences and preoccupations from Frost, themes from Yeats and Stevens, Auden’s clarity of diction and purpose, and more distant notes from Marianne Moore, Rilke and Browning. The animus behind Wilbur’s writing isn’t originality, then; it is praise. What does Wilbur mean by praise? In the early sonnet ‘’Praise in Summer'’ from his first book, Wilbur had asked, ‘’Does sense so stale that it must needs derange / The world to know it?'’ He was querying the metaphor-making power of the poet: Why reach for outlandish imagery when the brute facts of nature appear sufficiently incredible unto themselves? Wilbur’s answer — phrased as a question — was beautifully, perfectly equivocal:

Should it not be enough of fresh and strange

That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,

And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

Only in metaphor do sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day, so the answer to the poem’s question is: Well, yes and no. If properly disciplined, our powers of metaphor-making help us see how fresh and strange the natural world really is. But if we become mere virtuosos, we are left inspecting our own talents, locked once again within the confines of language and the human ego.

Nature in Wilbur’s poetry

Praise, for Wilbur, then, is our freshest relationship to nature, to the creation, but one arrived at only through the delicate balance of vision and artifice. It is also a social, or a shared vision. In Wilbur’s melancholy recounting of the Beowulf myth, the hero’s ascension is so total, so heroic, as to void the natural world of its organic quality: ‘’The land was overmuch like scenery.'’ And in one of his finest poems, the masterly ‘’In the Field,'’ the poet recalls wandering through the dark the night before with a friend, talking about ancient constellations and the Big Bang, until the two have spooked themselves with the drift of their conversation:

It was the nip of fear

That told us when imagination caught

The feel of what we said, came near

The schoolbook thoughts we thought,

And faked a scan of space

Blown back and hollow by our spent grenade,

All worlds dashed out without a trace,

The very light unmade.

How like Wilbur to toy with the menace of the sublime, the mad unmaking of an imagination in overdrive, but to rescue the experience with amity. The following day, the same friends wander through the same field, amid flowers ‘’dense and manifold.'’ The great daylight beauty of ‘’daisy-drifts'’ and ‘’strews of hawkweed'’ rescue the two from their nocturnal fright, but only because they make a ‘’mistake'’; by believing the ‘’hearts’ wish for life,'’ and not the cosmic void, is the ‘’one / Unbounded thing we know.'’

Distinguishing Features of his poetry

"Let me try to list some of the virtues that distinguish the poetry of Richard Wilbur. First of all, a superb ear (unequalled, I think, in the work of any poet now writing in English) for stately measure, cadences of a slow, processional grandeur, and rich, ceremonial orchestration. His 'musicianship' is of so fine and conspicuous a kind that it has often been ignored, and sometimes even mocked by those who are militantly tone-deaf. Next, a philosophical bent and a religious temper, which are by no means the same thing, but which here consort comfortably together. Wit, polish, a formal elegance that is never haughty or condescending … And an unfeigned gusto, a naturally happy and grateful response to the physical beauty of the world, of women, of works of art, landscapes, weather, and the perceiving, constructing mind that tries to know them."

Imagery, Tone and Syntax

Once their fruit is picked, The cornstalks lighten, and though Keeping to their strict

Rows, begin to be The tall grasses that they are— Lissom, now, and free

As canes that clatter In island wind, or plumed reeds Rocked by lake water.

Soon, if not cut down, Their ranks grow whistling-dry, and Blanch to lightest brown,

So that, one day, all Their ribbonlike, down-arcing Leaves rise up and fall

In tossed companies, Like goose wings beating southward Over the changed trees.

These lines reveal a universal texture of growth through imagery, tone, and syntax. The final process of ripe corn is revealed through images of the corn stalks. A reader can even hear the crispy, scratchy sounds that the husks make. The image is of the time after husking. This gives a sense of reverence to the simple and earthly growth process.

The tone of the lines in each of the stanzas offers a sharpened, yet lingering sound of cornstalks in a field. Early in the poem, the stronger emphasis on every other syllable gives an effect of stiffness, while later in the poem, the emphasis changes with the use of words with longer sounding vowels. This creates the flow of swishing sounds; it also creates the pattern of growth of the cornstalks.

The syntax Wilbur uses in the poetry is easily identified with by readers despite their differences in age, culture, or creed. The syntax raises the symbolism of the imagery to another level, which is that similar patterns occur and can be understood by all. The symmetry of life can be revealed and discovered by all. Richard Wilbur demonstrates through his poetry that which he heralds as the common moments of anyone’s life.

Resonating Quality of his poetry

A Wilbur poem is written to resonate with universal experience - he writes that "the poet speaks not of peculiar and personal things, but of what in himself is most common, most anonymous, most fundamental, most true of all men." So, in 'A Barred Owl', "the wakened child" from the first stanza who is scared by the eponymous bird becomes, in the second stanza, "a small child" as the poem moves into a universal sense from the owl's call. Simultaneously, the poem's awareness of the owl moves from the ominous cry to both a domesticated, safer interpretation and an admission of the darker, natural violence.

Whether it is nature, as here or in 'Mayflies', or in Wilbur's observations of town life and recollections of childhood, it is this universal kernel of an experience that he aims to tease out. 'Transit', for example, finds the poet stunned by a moment of beauty as a woman leaves her home, and, wishing that moment frozen, finds his surroundings, buildings, even the sun collaborating in that wish. His openness to the things of the world is best expressed in his own description of what he might be (from 'Mayflies'): "one whose task is joyfully to see".

Poetic Style

Wilbur's elegant poetic style makes 'fears bravely clear'

It was an elegant opening for the 39th season of the International Poetry Forum last night in the person of Richard Wilbur.

The assistant dean of American poetry at 84 (100-year-old Stanley Kunitz still reigns), Mr. Wilbur embodies the formal, traditional and lyrical language of an era fast passing, a time when poetry was as much about the sounds as it was the subject.

His first book, "The Beautiful Changes," appeared in 1947 and since then, the poet said last night, he had always remained in the present.

"But, I have to admit that at last, I'm returning to a time and a place called the past," he said, prefacing his beautiful reading of "This Pleasing Anxious Being," a title taken from Grey's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," about his childhood, a time of "lap-robes and tire chains."

"The past," he said, "is where safety lies."

Much of his work last night had an elegiac quality to it, poems about the fall with barn owls, Indian corn, bare trees and crows' nests in those bare trees.

The language of his autumnal images -- "the moiled expanse of tossed hay" -- was carried throughout the reading of his own poems.

An accomplished translator, he also read works from Bulgarian and Brazilian poets and stumped the audience at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall with riddles in Latin.

Mr. Wilbur believes that "one of the jobs of poetry is to make our fears bravely clear" and by framing those concerns in his elegant style, he makes them beautiful as well.


According to Salinger, Richard Wilbur is known for having the “killer-diller line” (Padgett, 149) because he almost always finishes his poems with a line that causes the poem to reach a crescendo. Wilbur’s poems are about many things, but the main inspiration behind his poems is his life. He writes about his early childhood, which was spent on a rural farm. He also writes about his life as a soldier in WWII. Wilbur even writes about how he traveled across the country, hitching rides, during the great depression. Wilbur’s poetry was greatly influenced by personal friends Robert Frost and F. O. Matthiessen. Wilbur combines the use of meter and rhyme with complex yet understandable paradoxes. Babette Duetsch once commented, “Here is poetry to be read with the eye, the ear, the heart and the mind” (Padgett, 150). Wilbur also writes verse drama, and is known for creating a rhymed, English version of the French classic, the Misanthrope, by Molière.

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