The Overlooked Master
How poetic history conspired against Richard Wilbur.
"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. They usually begin in an occasional, almost off-hand manner: He notices something in the world (sheets hanging on a wash line), then invites us to notice it too. Immediately we're drawn into the poem by the movement of the language, and before we know it, the sheets have become angels, and we're swept up in a metaphysical conundrum that feels at once deeply serious and ridiculously human: Do we imagine angels because we do laundry or do we do laundry because of a higher purpose? The poem's title, lifted from St. Augustine, doesn't so much provide an answer as a challenge: "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World."
Even if Wilbur sometimes championed formalist poetry at the expense of free verse, his poems never congratulate themselves for their achievement. All of his great poems, in fact, are about living in ambiguity, about negotiating what might appear to be mutually exclusive alternatives—heaven and earth, elegance and violence, the thinking mind and the brute fact of the world. Unlike other poets who write in complicated stanzas and rhyme schemes, Wilbur never displays poetic form as an image of moral goodness. "There's nothing essentially good about a meter," he once remarked, and his poems remind us that all linguistic effort, whether we call it formal or free, is an attempt to make meaning of a world in which we are not inevitably at home. This is why Wilbur's poems feel playful when they're most serious. They live in their linguistic action; they don't want to offer the last word.
But the second Wilbur, the stick figure, has been forced to stand for causes both aesthetic and, in a loose sense, political. Writing about Wilbur in the mid-'60s, the poet Robert Bly (a poet who quickly equated free verse with other kinds of freedom) once said that his own work was a "fist" raised against "stuff like this, crystallized flower formations from jolly intellectual dandies." Remarks like these play on tired associations of formalist poetry with apolitical aestheticism, but Wilbur is in fact a lifelong liberal; during the Second World War, he was investigated by the FBI for associations with the Communist Party, and over his long career he has written poems addressing political issues (the McCarthy hearings, the Vietnam War) both directly and indirectly. His best poems approach such issues indirectly, refusing to separate them from less glamorous concerns that might be dismissed as merely domestic or spiritual.
Those poems came to Wilbur early on. "For the New Railway Station in Rome" and "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" appeared in Things of This World (1956), which after half a century remains his most thrilling book. The new Collected Poems adds five books written for children, the recent collection Mayflies, and a handful of new poems to the New and Collected Poems of 1987: The additions won't change what seasoned readers already know about Wilbur, and neither will they change what seasoned polemicists think they know. But the ear of the poet who made the indispensable poems is still at work, displaying to us the ragged beauty of a world that, in spite of poetry's great promise, is "not subject to our stiff geometries." There is only one Wilbur who matters, and his achievement is permanent.
James Longenbach's most recent collection of poems is The Iron Key. Graywolf will publish a new prose book, The Virtues of Poetry, next year.