Richard Wilbur | Critical Essay by Charles R. Woodard

This literature criticism consists of approximately 20 pages of analysis & critique of Richard Wilbur.
This section contains 2,849 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Charles R. Woodard

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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This section contains 2,849 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Anthony Hecht
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