The Overlooked Master
How poetic history conspired against Richard Wilbur.
There are two Richard Wilburs. One is the author of a half-dozen of the most perfectly made poems of the 20th century, poems whose quiet elegance is unexcelled by even the most illustrious names American poetry can offer: Stevens, Eliot, Moore. The second Wilbur is an emblematic figure—a poet whose steadfast embrace of meter and rhyme has made him seem (depending on who's making the call) like either a reactionary or revolutionary force. This Wilbur has been set beside other poets in order to represent one or another idea about American poetry—usually dull ideas, the kind embraced by people who enjoy poetry readings but rarely read poems.
Wilbur and Robert Lowell: While Lowell is the poet who transformed himself, liberating poetry from the modernist shackles of impersonality, Wilbur is the poet who stayed the same, continuing to write with the courtly manners he perfected in the 1950s. Wilbur and John Ashbery: While Ashbery is the poet of our postmodernity, constructing poems that mirror our disheveled mediascape, Wilbur is the poet who remained content with formalist procedures, composing poems Tennyson would recognize. These two debates are really the same debate—the cooked versus the raw, the aesthete versus the shaggy bard: Each new poetic generation finds a way to keep these controversies in place, and the emblematic Wilbur continues to be of service. Meanwhile, a half-dozen of the finest poems of the 20th century are dimly remembered and scarcely read.
Wilbur himself is not entirely innocent of responsibility for this injustice. Back in the 1980s, a group of mostly younger poets known as the New Formalists (Dana Gioia, Brad Leithauser, Gjertrud Schnackenberg) resurrected Wilbur as a kind of father figure. At the time, it felt exciting to reinvigorate the virtues of meter and rhyme, and Wilbur made his share of remarks disparaging the unkempt hoard of free-verse poets who dominated the American literary scene. Because the energy of the New Formalist movement was mostly polemical, the movement passed as quickly as it came, making the emblematic Wilbur seem like a more haplessly revered figure than ever.
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
Echoing in its light
And cantilevered swoop of reinforced concrete
The broken profile of these stones, defeating
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.
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.