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Critical Review by Horace Gregory
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….
This section contains 1,590 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)