Richard Wilbur | Critical Essay by Mohan Ramanen

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Richard Wilbur.
This section contains 917 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Mohan Ramanen

SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'The Writer'," in The Explicator, Vol. 50, No. 1, Fall 1991, pp. 58-60.

In the following essay, Ramanen explains Wilbur's use of form and contrasting imagery to create a unified poem.

Richard Wilbur's "The Writer" (New and Collected Poems, 1988), a poem about his daughter writing a story, is an outstanding example of the poet's method of setting up a poetic debate within the terms of a single meditative voice. The debate becomes an occasion for the demonstration of the deft formal control the poet has over stanza and line, point of view, diction, and imagery, which are all forged into a unity clinched by strong poetic closure.

Wilbur sustains through the poems what Brad Leithauser, speaking of formal verse, calls the "prosodic contract" that a poet enters into with the reader. The nature of the contract is clear from the pattern of three-line stanzas that the poem compares. The first and third lines of each stanza are shorter than the middle line, and there is no rhyme. The absence of rhyme is more than made up for by a strong narrative joining the stanzas together. The plot in the poem is one aspect of its unity, and this plot has its climax in a turning point precisely in the middle of the poem. The turning point and the momentum in the argument are achieved through imagery.

Wilbur organizes the poem in terms of two sets of images—the one natural, the other that of the whistling bird, the starling. The opening stanzas speak of the girl at the "prow" of the house, "where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden," writing a story. The poet pauses in the stairwell and listens to the sound of the typewriter, which resembles the commotion caused by "a chain hauled over a gunwale." The poet passes a benediction on the young writer who has a heavy cargo to carry, dealing as she is with the very stuff of her life. We expect the poet to develop the nautical imagery but he does not, preferring to announce a change in his attitude to the subject by moving on to the starling image.

The starling (Sturnus vulgaris), according to the OED, is a bird of gregarious habit and often nests near human habitations. Indeed, in America it is almost a pest. Wilbur's starling, in fact, has been trapped in the very room where his daughter is writing and escapes after great difficulty. The suggestion of a friendly singing bird trapped and seeking freedom fits the young writer's situation. The fable of the trapped starling is very literary indeed. Wilbur was perhaps aware of Sterne's use of it in Sentimental Journey and of Maria Bertram's reference to Sterne's use of it in Mansfield Park, for both instance the idea of confinement.

In any case Wilbur explains the change in his poem. The explanation is part of his poetic procedure of helping the reader along in his reading. Wilbur suggests that the nautical imagery is too simplistic, for the writer "pauses, / As if to reject my thought and its easy figure." The writer stops work, and the whole house seems to be considering the poet's "easy figure" and its appropriateness as a description of the writer. By this strategy Wilbur focuses on his own craft and on the crux of the debate in the poem as to what figure or image is the adequate one to describe the writer. Thus the poem about his daughter writing becomes a poem about his capacity to write about his daughter writing.

The change of imagery also means a change of point of view, but the shift does not disintegrate the unity of the poem. Indeed it underscores its unity because of the sense of one voice speaking and considering options and weighing choices. The same experience is rendered differently, more appropriately, but this could happen only because the first set of nautical images was tried out and found inadequate. The poet remembers the "dazed starling" in the room and how he and his daughter "stole in, lifted a sash / And retreated, not to affright it." The starling, after a long hour, rose from its "humped and bloody" state and flew out of the open window, but not before it had shown itself to be a "sleek, wild dark / And iridescent creature." The mellifluous accents of the poet's language now contrast with the heaviness of the nautical images. Both in mood and in diction the poet has now found an answering idiom for the idea of creative freedom that the writer represents. Significantly, it also release Wilbur's creative energies, for he, like his daughter, has been moving from captivity to freedom of the imagination and to the creative jouissance of adequate expression. This poetic triumph is best seen in the resolution of the poem into satisfying poetic closure:

     It is always a matter, my darling,
     Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
     What I wished you before, but harder.

Wilbur's narration allows for this kind of decisive ending. The debate about creativity, about what images are best suited for a description of it, and the subtle infusion of the poet's own creative conflicts into the poem make for a "sincerity" that has nothing to do with the sincerity of confessional exhibitionism. Wilbur's is the true voice of feeling, arrived at through a painstaking charting of the experience in formal terms. Such a method prevents flabbiness of thought and enables a poetry of almost Augustan strong sense.

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This section contains 917 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Mohan Ramanen
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