Tuesday, March 01, 2011

`Not Subject to Our Stiff Geometries'

Today we celebrate the ninetieth birthday of the American poet Richard Wilbur, who reminds us that the world is a splendid place after all. I spent years acknowledging his gifts but denying myself the pleasure of enjoying them while permitting louder, coarser voices, including some among his prominent contemporaries, to drown him out. Wilbur’s voice is above all civilized – that is, witty, learned but not pedantic, musical, sensitive, attuned (though not abjectly) to tradition, even encouraging and entertaining. In a recent interview, Wilbur notes he has written and published only one free-verse poem in seventy years. He adds:

“I was just pointing out to a friend of mine that, in the dictionary, `formalism’ and `formaldehyde’ are very close; and I'm afraid a lot of people think of form that way. I have no interest at all, really, in meter, per se, or in rhyme patterns, or in received forms. It's all in what you do with them, or indeed against them. The great poets have always been violators of meter.”

This is bracing, and hardly a secret to readers of Milton and Pope. The notion of meter as a straightjacket to inspiration, a wet blanket thrown across sincerity, is self-servingly delusional. Meter and rhyme sing, in the proper hands. “It’s all in what you do with them,” as it is with every other good thing in life. Here is one of the new poems from Collected Poems 1943-2004, “In Trackless Woods”:

“In trackless woods, it puzzled me to find
Four great rock maples seemingly aligned,
As if they had been set out in a row
Before some house a century ago,
To edge the property and lend some shade.
I looked to see if ancient wheels had made
Old ruts to which the trees ran parallel,
But there were none, so far as I could tell --
There'd been no roadway. Nor could I find the square
Depression of a cellar anywhere,
And so I tramped on further, to survey
Amazing patterns in a hornbeam spray
Or spirals in a pine-cone, under trees
Not subject to our stiff geometries.”

Fourteen iambic lines, all but the ninth – the one on which the poem begins to turn -- with precisely ten syllables. “Amazing” is threadbare but the line ends with the lovely “hornbeam spray.” Despite the rhyming couplets, the poem defies the “stiff geometries” it might have calcified into. The poem touches, even formally, on a favorite Wilbur theme – the persistence of order in a disorderly world. The title of his third collection was Things of This World (1956), and he echoes it in the recent interview:

“Poetry is concerned with things, and with making them vivid, and what metaphor does is to render some part of the world more vivid by comparing it– sometimes violently– to something else….it makes the thing under consideration far more solid and it gives you a more intense and surprised perception of the interlaced objective world, of things as they are.”

[Richard B. Woodward has a fine appreciation of Wilbur in the Wall Street Journal.]


Cynthia Haven said...

Oh how wonderful (and perhaps predictable) that you share my enthusiasm for Dick Wilbur!

Just made my own post a few minutes after midnight, but it looks like you beat me to it:


Shelley said...

I was so glad to see this post because years ago as an undergraduate I went to a Richard Wilbur reading. The grace with which he carried himself impressed me permanently that as poets we do not have to be, or seem, uncivilized.

Maybe "amazed" is okay because it resonantes with the maze-like spirals on the pinecone?

Cynthia Haven said...

(Let me try that link again -- that's what comes of posting after midnight)


Helen Pinkerton said...

Bravo for Wilbur's ninetieth! In 2009 he published "Psalm," five stanzas of syllabics (5-7-5), in First Things, (collected in Jody Bottom's anthology, Grace Notes, in 2010). "Psalm" is a devotional poem of exquisite movement, assonance, and meaning.

Give thanks for all things
On the plucked lute, and likewise
The harp of ten strings.

Have the lifted horn
Greatly blare, and pronounce it
Good to have been born.

Lend the breath of life
To the stops of the sweet flute
Or capering fife,

And tell the deep drum
To make, at the right juncture,

Then, in grave relief,
Praise too our sorrows on the
Cello of shared grief.

Tim Murphy said...

This is written in the seven/five/seven, aba tercets Dick has used so often and to great effect in his later years. It is one of his few new poems that the New Yorker rejected, so I instantly pounced on it and got him to send it to First Things. Like Ms. Pinkerton, I think it the finest poem in the Grace Notes Anthology, and I also think it one of the finest in the slim collection, Anterooms, which Dick gave us last year.

Finn MacCool said...

Chesterton has a wonderful essay on "The Slavery of Free Verse."In it he says:

"I have always had the fancy that if a man were really free, he would talk in rhythm and even in rhyme. His most hurried post card would be a sonnet; and his most hasty wires like harp-strings... He would express his preference among the dishes at dinner in short impromptu poems, combining the more mystical gratitude of grace with a certain epigrammatic terseness, more convenient for domestic good feeling."

The essay is available online here:


J.D. Flanagan