Richard Wilbur's genius.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 29 2004 6:47 AM

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
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. 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.