Re-Reading Richard Wilbur
The spectacular poems of Richard Wilbur’s Things of this World will last long after his pleasant pastoral ballads have faded from memory. Published in 1956, the collection of form and structured free verse centered on the New England countryside made him a superstar, establishing a template for Wilbur and modern nature poetry as we know it. In subsequent decades, he would transform the book’s aesthetic conceits — traditionalism, naturalism, Emersonian sensibility — into a kind of brand; it must be said that Wilbur wrote enough superb poems to give that brand validity. Yet after rereading his work, I find that his finest and most lasting poems are in World, a book uncalcified by his repetitive themes and passions.
Along with Karl Shapiro, Thom Gunn, and James Merrill, Wilbur was at the vanguard of New Formalism, a school of writing adamantly against the excesses of modernism and for a return to traditional forms of literature. The leaders of New Formalism were young, eloquent, brash, and invested in clarity when so many Modernists had become psychotic or ossified in literary pretentiousness. What separated Wilbur from his peers is that you could see what he was for in his poetry, not just what he was against. A fine example of what he was doing is “John Chrysostom,” his lament against the Catholic saint famous for propagating the notion that Jews needed to be coerced into Christianity:
He who had gone a beast
Down on his knees and hands
Remembering lust and murder
Felt now a gust of grace
Lifted his burnished face
From the psalter of the sands
And found his thoughts in order
And cleared his throat at last
What they heard was a voice
That spoke what they could learn
Yet rang like a great choir
He having taught hell’s fire
A singing way to burn
And borrowed of some dumb beast
The wilderness to rejoice
–from “John Chrysostom”
If you piece together the hint of sarcasm in Wilbur’s account of Chrysostom’s conversion with the disbelief in his gospel, then add the context of the saint’s antisemitism, you have a very effective dig at Ezra Pound. As a poem, however, Chrysostom does more than giving Pound the finger. Religious, but without the anguished metaphysics of T. S. Eliot, the poem owes a debt to the thoughtful polemics of Gerald Manley Hopkins, whose sublime language mixed beautifully with his Episcopal stoicism. Structurally, it rhymes, but not for the sake of making William Carlos Williams angry, working within a serious of forgotten traditions and doing so in a mature voice.
“Chrysostom” establishes a tone for Things of this World, one of intellectual and moral seriousness at a time when intellectual and moral seriousness wasn’t in style. After reading the book, I don’t find it hard to see why it had such an appeal and why Wilbur was one of the most famous writers in America. Post-war poetry had been stewarded by old modernist icons that had declared America virtually useless and doing so in ways that were more often than not hysterical. On the other hand, Wilbur was a bright, responsible young man who told the reader what America did with a learned, common tongue. Few poems accomplished that better than Sonnet, his sketch of a New England farm:
The winter deepening, the hay all in
The barn fat with cattle, the apple crop
Conveyed to market for the fragrant bin
He thinks the time has come to make a stop
And sinks half-grudging in his firelit seat
Though with his heavy body’s full consent
In what would be the posture of defeat
But for that look of rigorous content
Outside, the night dies down like one great cow
Against his cast-off clothing where it stands
Up to his knees in miles of hustled snow,
Flapping and jumping like a kind of fire,
And floating skyward its abandoned hands
In gestures of invincible desire.
“Sonnet” is essentially Wilbur 101: organic in language, empathetic without being fey, lyrically expansive within the framework of form without sacrificing the form or the framework. As stunning as “Sonnet” and numerous other fixed verses are, I was surprised to find that the best poems of World were free verse, despite Wilbur’s frequently expressed distaste for the genre. The book’s finest form poems dazzle, but only in declaration; when Wilbur emphasizes landscape instead of his voice, the language becomes constricted. Yet look what he does with backdrop in the opening lines of “Marginalia”, his subtle ode to a New England creek:
Things concentrate at the edges: the pond surface
Is borne to fish and man and it is spread
In textile scum and damask light, on which
The lily pads are set; and there is also
Inlaid unruddy twigs, becalmed pine leaves
Air-baubles, and the chain mail of froth
And in one of his few non-pastorals, the sublime title poem of the book:
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing
–from “Things of this World”
Freed from rhyme, his scenery becomes richer, deeper, full of imagery that is uniquely his own. Even his lyric lines, the cornerstone of Wilbur’s great poetry, are more refined and natural, achieving more in a less ambitious format. “Marginalia” and the title poem are Wilbur at his absolute best, showing him not as a symbol against modernism nor as a gatekeeper for the old ways, but as a poet with his voice, as fine as any American poet in the 20th century.
Finishing World, I wanted to indignantly bristle against the criticism that Wilbur had devolved into a traditionalist Yankee dullard in the past 50 years. After completing his collected poems, however, I felt sorry that I couldn’t. In Wilbur’s later poems, he assumes the mantle of “man of the system,” a standard-bearer against the confessional works of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. His poetry suffered, retreating into well-worn form patterns with well-worn themes. Too often, he would fall back on easy ideas and lines, like the beginning ones in his ode to a tree:
You might not know this old tree by its bark
Which once was striated, smooth, and glossy dark
So deep now are the rifts which separate
Its roughened surface into flake and plate
–from “Black Birch in Winter”
and his benign paean to strikebreaking:
It is not yet the time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt
Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force
Let the new sound in our streets be the patient sound
Of your discourse.
–from “Response to the Student Strikers”
These lines are fine, full of moderate feeling and sentiment, but the dissipation in quality and craft is more than noticeable. This more recent Wilbur is a good, thoughtful person who, like many good, thoughtful people, mistakes his decency for artistic sweat. Both “Birch In Winter” and “Student Strikers” are gentle in temperament, yet affixed in tone and content even for the standards of the nature and polemical poem; lacking every one of the dark aspects about the personal poetry of Lowell, Plath, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton save the riveting, uncontrollable sense of the unexpected that made their best poems work.
But every Wilbur book is worth your time, containing more than a few flashes of brilliance and a commitment to the highest ideals in craft and ethics. For those who believe that American literature, for all its flaws, is worth studying and that craft in poetry means more than personality, background, or ability to shock, Richard Wilbur’s poetry is a balm. Things of this World is Wilbur at his finest, containing some of the most exquisitely crafted poems I have ever read. If one wants to understand poetry — American poetry in particular — Wilbur is required reading.