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The Poetry of Wilbur

Author Richard Wilbur (1921– )

It is difficult to assess Richard Wilbur’s lyric poetry in terms of a developing career, a linear working-out and discarding of certain ideas, in the way in which we organize the production of Chaucer’s or Wordsworth’s poetry. He has said that he turned from playful writing to serious poetry because of the experience of potential chaos in the war; but the war is not overpoweringly present in his first book, THE BEAUTIFUL CHANGES, although the European Theater seems to loom in the background of many of these poems and the possibility of war remains behind some of his later work.

A comparison of two of the best poems may reveal another kind of development, not of ideas but of poetic power. "On the Eyes of an SS Officer" is one of the few poems in the 1947 volume directly related to the war. The poem is a syllogism in shape; its first two stanzas compare the eyes to ice and glaciers, then to fire and the sun. Clever things happen within the poem. In the first stanza a metaphor within a metaphor refers to fresh snows at the frozen end of the earth’s spit. "Spit" is first a reference to barbecuing, a link to the fire stanza, then to sputum: it is a clue to the tone of disgust. The second stanza tells of one blinded by the sun. The blind saint is glorified, for he has seen the Platonic truth, but the SS Officer is called mindless. The last stanza concludes the statement and is filled with ambiguity with references to ice, fire, and eyes. The eyes are oases in a wilderness face. The eyes devise their fire, but the poet asks his God to consign the eyes to hell. This type of ambiguity is not exactly the kind Empson admires; first of all it is too rapid, too quickly understood; again it is not finally ambiguous, only ambiguous as we read.

One of Wilbur’s best poems is "Advice to a Prophet," the title poem of his 1961 volume. Where in the earlier poem we see a concern with the problems of tone, problems resolved by apparent syntactic ambiguity and puns, here we see much larger problems being handled. The advice is offered to a prophet of doom, of the Bomb. The prophet’s problem is to find a language by which he can communicate his message. He is evoking God’s name to cause us to feel self-pity. The advice is not to speak of the military power of weapons nor of the end of the people, for these ideas are inconceivable. Rather, he speaks of the changing world. The loss of nature would destroy humanity; animals and trees are things in which we ourselves are mirrored. They are the ground of our perception, our self-knowledge, as well as the elements of our language. Language and knowledge have merged; consequently the poet asks how we can communicate with nature when we can no longer speak. Wilbur’s use of concrete image and abstract noun is different. Finally adjectives themselves, bereft of nouns, must function in a bombed or otherwise emptied world.

The first poem solves the problem of how to express hatred in a poem by pressing language to its limits to equate and disequate traditional poetic subjects: ice, fire, eyes. In the second poem the language of association and the objects of the language are themselves examined. These are the poles of Wilbur’s poetry. This is not to say that language in itself is a new interest for Wilbur. His translations reveal him an expert in French. The poem "Junk" in ADVICE TO A PROPHET is written in the style of Old English poetry, in two-stressed half-lines linked by alliteration: the theme is that of the "Lay of the Last Survivor" in BEOWULF—the transience of artifacts. In Wilbur’s volume, CEREMONY, there is a poem "Beowulf" which interprets the old epic. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon shaper of the poem, Wilbur has momentarily shifted the viewpoint, at the end of the fourth stanza, to inside Beowulf’s head, and has confused the tenses of verbs, in order to comprehend heroism.

A study of the use of word play in the volumes shows one aspect of Wilbur’s poetic maturing. In THE BEAUTIFUL CHANGES, besides the complex business in "On the Eyes of an SS Officer," there are two poems selected by Wilbur in his collaboration for the Untermeyer anthology of 1955. In one, "Potato," the pun "blind" occurs twice, referring to the potatoes’ eyes. The first line of "Bell Speech," a poem which may have been suggested by the name of the bell being that of St. Paul, has a phrase playing on the tongue-like clapper. Both of these puns are based on physiological and colloquial association; neither has a powerfully serious function. The puns are inefficient.

In CEREMONY the case alters. For example, "Juggler" contains four puns which bear a good deal of meaning. The poem is about a juggler who is like God and who balances balls like the solar system, then hauls his heaven in and returns to earth to balance normal objects, such as tables, brooms, or plates. The problem is that the world falls from our hearts and is forgotten.

The three puns in this poem are "gravity," "lightness," and "sole." Gravity suggests our prejugglerian humorlessness as well as the state of the Newtonian world: lightness becomes that of objects, of the space around the sun, and of hearts: sole, is the juggler’s loneliness and the soul of worlds, the Neo-Platonic, Lucretian soul. The fall of the earth, "fall" being the fourth pun, is overcome by a light-hearted language. In "Still, Citizen Sparrow" there is a picture of a vulture rising over the office described as "rotten." "Office" is both his function as a carrion-eater and a suggestion of the modern office building, leading to the edge of the sky—a skyscraper. The poem is an anti-flyting, taking up the owl’s side in the ancient controversy of owl and nightingale, and the inversion is complete: contrary to Keats’s vision of his nightingale, it is the owl of this poem, the vulture, who eats death and derides mutability. The world of the grind, of Noah, will out. In the title poem "Ceremony" there is the line in which those who are familiar with Old or Middle English will recognize a complex series of etymological puns. Another poem, "In the Elegy Season," reverses cliches in the same way that "Advice to a Prophet" does, but this time the cliche is a modern one, the idea of a summer being unremembered in winter.

In Wilbur’s next volume, THINGS OF THIS WORLD, there is more play with words. "A Black November Turkey" contains word play of the sort we expect in the newer poems: the hens about the doomed turkey are "clocking," not clucking. They remind us of the bell Great Paul, the ticking of mutability, the winged chariot of Time.

ADVICE TO A PROPHET contains few puns in the better poems. In "Shame," a satiric poem, there is a pun which furthers the satire: "Scusi" is the capital city of the humble country, and its name reminds one of "Excuse me" in Romance languages. One of the best poems is "The Aspen and the Stream," in which the characters are the self-effacing, Faustian stream and the aspiring, Shelleyan aspen. Their languages help express their natures, for the aspen makes puns. The aspen tells the stream that he has lost the drift of what was being said. The language of word play has been transferred to the peripheries—satire, dialogue—of Wilbur’s vision.

Such attention to language on the part of the reader raises the question of why one should pay so much attention to the poem. Analysis too close, too deep, will make anything seem profound. There must be a surface brilliance to attract the attention, to make the reader want to go deeper. Wilbur’s method in his best poems is to force the reader’s admiration by his sounds. These tonal effects give qualities of excellence to "Tywater," "After the Last Bulletins," "Piazza de Spagna, Early Morning," and "The Undead." The sounds of poems such as these evoke the sense, assuring that such poetry will endure.