August 4, 2007

FAIR THE FIATS (via Jerry Dodge):

The metaphysics of Richard Wilbur (Daniel Mark Epstein, April 2005, New Criterion)

It may seem unfair to accuse the good Anglican Richard Wilbur of heresies such as quietism and gnosticism when he has made himself at home in St. Paul’s Church. But remember that Wilbur is a poet and magician practicing an art that predates Christianity by several thousands of years. In his art the artist may be forgiven for transgressions that might not be tolerable in the man. In poems the Christian may be encouraged to throw off the old garment of repentance. And then, Wilbur’s actual religion is apparently a complex matter, as he once stated in an interview: “I’m afraid I’m not very catechistic,” and “what doesn’t particularly interest me is the Creed, although I find that I can say it.” Well. This doesn’t sound like T. S. Eliot or some other paint-by-the-dots Episcopalian, but a man with an idiosyncratic spiritual life.

Wilbur’s poetry has developed over the years. And one of the interesting ways it has changed is that divine forces such as grace and providence shoulder more and more of the burden of salvation. Wilbur has not neglected that other Gordian knot of metaphysics, namely fate versus free will. In his poem “The Proof,” he solves the dilemma with a typographic metaphor.


Shall I love God for causing me to be?
I was mere utterance; shall these words love me?

Yet when I caused his work to jar and stammer,
And one free subject loosened all his grammar,

I love him that he did not in a rage
Once and forever rule me off the page,

But, thinking I might come to please him yet
Crossed out delete and wrote his patient stet.

“Stet” is editor’s jargon for “let it stand.” The poet’s solution is characteristically irenic: within the strict grammar of God’s will (destiny) the poet remains a “free subject;” by God’s grace Wilbur may continue to act freely in the prospect that his will and God’s will coincide.

One of Wilbur’s finest recent poems, “Mayflies” (2000), presents “a mist of flies” that dance with such unified grace they “seemed the weavers of some cloth of gold.”


Watching those lifelong dancers of a day
As night closed in, I felt myself alone
In a life too much my own,
More mortal in my separateness than they—
Unless, I thought, I had been called to be
Not fly or star
But one whose task is joyfully to see
How fair the fiats of the caller are.

The great gift of Providence to mortals—the divine spark—permits them to recognize God’s goodness, and then charges them to rejoice in it.

Wilbur’s development over his long career has been subtle, deliberate, and distinct. His style emerged almost fully realized in his first book The Beautiful Changes (1947). There are only faint traces of his antecedents: the syllabics and enjambment of Marianne Moore, the blank-verse paragraph of Robert Frost; there are distant echoes of John Crowe Ransom’s feminine rhymes and mock chivalric tone, in these lines by Wilbur:


So sun and air, when these two goods war together,
Who else can tune day’s face to a softest laugh,
Being sweet beat the world with a most wild weather,
Trample with light or blow all heaven blind with chaff.

There are small debts to Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, but Wilbur seemed destined to make more plain sense than either of those students of Mallarmé. According to Ezra Pound’s useful taxonomy of poets (Inventors, Masters, Dilutors, Starters-of-Crazes, etc.) twenty-five-year-old Wilbur was a master. He took the invention of Marianne Moore’s syllabic stanza and imposed upon that flat grid the stress-metric of Ransom, Frost, and every other wizard of accentual verse and rhyme back to Alexander Pope and John Donne. The result was a powerful and commodious style that is at once traditional and completely his own. Like Brahms, he poured new wine into old bottles. With occasional enhancements that style has served the poet for sixty years.

What has changed is the voice. It is in this dimension that one marks an important difference between Richard Wilbur and Wallace Stevens. Allan Tate once said that there were “no people in Stevens’s poems,” and if I understood him correctly he meant that there were no people including Stevens. Tate was not judging the great author of Harmonium, he was making an innocent observation. The speaker of Stevens’s poems is a preposterous construct, a sophistical carnival barker, Parmenides on acid. He is not a human being and when he does refer to persons (with two very famous exceptions: “Sunday Morning” and “To an Old Philosopher in Rome”) they appear as no more human than Picasso’s late cubist portraits. This imposes severe emotional limits on Stevens’s verse.

Wilbur has admitted that his own poems are “not very populous,” but as any reader can see, there is always one warm body present at the center of the action, and that is Richard Wilbur himself. He is consistently generous, curious, fair-minded, and passionate. Sometimes he gets angry, as in his early poem “On the Eyes of an SS Officer:” “I ask my makeshift God of this/ My opulent bric-à-brac earth to damn his eyes.” He is easily amused: “We milk the cow of the world, and as we do/ We whisper in her ear, ‘You are not true.’” He is wide-eyed with wonder at the world around him, and eager to share it with us.

The philosophical rigor and urgency of the first four books gradually relax, as if the primary mission had been accomplished. The voice that had existed mainly in service of his ideas, becomes, in the late 1960s, more personal, more intimate and domestic. The poems become more open to whimsy, welcoming to other characters, and the philosophical problems, as I have noted, are more likely to yield to the persuasions of Christian theology.


Mayflies (Richard Wilbur, July 2004, Christian Century)
In somber forest, when the sun was low,
I saw from unseen pools a mist of flies
In their quadrillions rise
And animate a ragged patch of glow
With sudden glittering--as when a crowd
Of stars appear
Through a brief gap in black and driven cloud,
One are of their great round-dance showing clear.

It was no muddled swarm I witnessed, for
In entrechats each fluttering insect there
Rose two steep yards in air,
Then slowly floated down to climb once more,
So that they all composed a manifold
And figured scene,
And seemed the weavers of some cloth of gold,
Or the fine pistons of some bright machine.

Watching those lifelong dancers of a clay
As night closed in, I felt myself alone
In a life too much my own,
More mortal in my separateness than they--
Unless, I thought, I had been called to be
Not fly or star
But one whose task is joyfully to see
How fair the fiats of the caller are.


MORE:
-AUDIO: Excerpt: 'Collected Poems,' Richard Wilbur (NPR.org, 5/26/06)
-AUDIO: Richard Wilbur Reads From 'Collected Poems, 1943-2004': The author reads two poems, "The Reader" and "Blackberries for Amelia."
-Richard Wilbur (1921 - ) (Modern American Poetry)
-Richard Wilbur (Poets.org)
-Richard Wilbur (Wikipedia)
-Richard Wilbur: A Critical Survey of His Career (Dana Gioia Online)
-POEMS: Richard Wilbur (Poem Hunter)
-Richard Wilbur@The Internet Poetry Archive
-Richard Wilbur - Poetry Archive
-Richard Wilbur - Poet Laureate (Humanities Web)
-Richard Wilbur (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
-PAL: Richard Wilbur (1921- ) (PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide - An Ongoing Project, Paul P. Reuben)
-ARCHIVES: "richard wilbur" (Find Articles)
-FILMOGRAPHY: Richard Wilbur (IMDB)
-PROFILE: Former Freight Hopper Makes Good: Richard Wilbur on meeting Frost, writing in foxholes, and falling in and out of fashion. (D. H. Tracy , Poetry Foundation)
-ESSAY: The Overlooked Master: How poetic history conspired against Richard Wilbur. (James Longenbach, Nov. 29, 2004, Slate)

But the greatness of poetry has nothing to do with debates about poetic taste. Wilbur's poems matter not because they may or may not be stylish at any given moment but because they keep the English language alive: Wilbur's great poems feel as fresh—as astonishing, as perplexing, as shocking—as they did 50 years ago. There are no other poems like them. Forget anything you've ever heard about the emblematic Wilbur and listen to the last five stanzas of "For the New Railway Station in Rome."

See, from the travertine
Face of the office block, the roof of the booking-hall
Sails out into the air beside the ruined
Servian Wall,

Echoing in its light
And cantilevered swoop of reinforced concrete
The broken profile of these stones, defeating
That defeat

And straying the strummed mind,
By such a sudden chord as raised the town of Troy,
To where the least shard of the world sings out
In stubborn joy,

"What city is eternal
But that which prints itself within the groping head
Out of the blue unbroken reveries
Of the building dead?

"What is our praise or pride
But to imagine excellence, and try to make it?
What does it say over the door of Heaven
But homo fecit?"

These lines not only describe the station's weightless swoop of concrete; they enact that movement, winding two luminously clear sentences through four complicated stanzas. You can count the stresses and map the rhymes, but what finally matters is the way in which the consistent pattern of the stanza works against the variable grain of the sentences, forcing us to hear their sense in a particular way: Reading the poem out loud, the voice rises and falls not where we like but as the poem demands. For instance, in the second stanza we emphasize the new railway station's joyous "defeat" of the ruined Servian Wall because the word "defeating" dangles at the end of the long line, rhyming abruptly with "defeat" in the following short line: "The broken profile of these stones, defeating/ That defeat." And because the sentence doesn't stop there, we're torn between the satisfying closure of the sound (a word rhyming with a version of itself) and the need to rush forward, mastering the continuing sense.

"For the New Railway Station in Rome" was written in the decade following World War II, when there was a great vogue among American poets for poems about European travel. What distinguishes Wilbur's performance, beyond its sheer technical brilliance, is that he dwells not on ruins but on the modern Stazione di Termini, which opened in Rome in 1950. As a result, the poem comments powerfully on postwar culture, refusing to dwell on acts of destruction. At the same time, the poem floats free of its historical moment, ending with a hymn to the power of human imagination that honors heaven, the railway station, and the very poem we're reading. In less accomplished hands, this hymn could seem merely wise, but in Wilbur's hands it feels convincing because its virtuosity sounds so effortless.

Wilbur's great poems are always marked by this combination of the high wire and the homespun.


-ESSAY: Kid Gloves: On Richard Wilbur (Clive James)
-REVIEW: of Collected Poems, 1943-2004 by Richard Wilbur (STEPHEN METCALF, NY Times Book Review)

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 4, 2007 7:31 AM
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