“A section of our list might have read like this: Beauty, carburetor, sheepshank, pagoda, absence, chalk, vector, Amarillo, garters, dromedary, Tartarus, tupelo, omelet, caboose, ferrocyanide and so on. As you can imagine, we did not complete our list; we got tired of it. As in random compositions of all kinds — musical, pictorial, or verbal — it was possible to sustain interest for only so long, in the absence of deliberate human meaning.”
Without saying so, Wilbur casts out the surrealists, John Ashbery and the Language Poets from the company of writers who are even pretending to sustain a reader’s interest. But Wilbur, the most unpretentiously refined of poets, forgives his younger self: “Nevertheless, there had been a genuine impulse underlying our afternoon’s diversion, and I think that it stemmed from a primitive desire that is radical to poetry — the desire to lay claim to as much of the world as possible through uttering the names of things.” We understand the impulse, if not always the motive Wilbur assigns it. Rather than wishing to “lay a claim” to the world, the writer of such a catalog is celebrating its bounty and, in some cases, making fun of its profligacy. Consider Keats’ April 18, 1819, letter to his brother George, describing his sole meeting with Coleridge, a fabled gas bag:
“In those two Miles he broached a thousand things--let me see if I can give you a list--Nightingales, Poetry – on Poetical sensation – Metaphysics – Different genera and species of Dreams – Nightmare – a dream accompanied by a sense of Touch – A dream related – First and second consciousness—the difference explained between will and Volition…Monsters—the Kraken—Mermaids—Southey believes in them—Southey’s belief too much diluted—A ghost story—Good morning…”
Whenever I return to Keats’ Coleridge catalog, I’m heartened. Keats was twenty-three, a year earlier he had composed the great odes, and he was less than two years away from death. Coleridge was forty-four, had written most of his best poems years earlier and had another fifteen years to live. There’s sadness in this, and encouragement. You can sense Keats’ impulse to patronize the older poet, but it’s tempered by respect. Wilbur, writing of a passage in Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Doolittle, observes that “such a catalogue makes us feel vicariously alert.” He goes on: “That is what the cataloguing impulse almost always expresses — a longing to possess the whole world, and to praise it, or at least to feel it.” A primitive form of the impulse is rampant in Whitman (and Thomas Wolfe, and Carl Sandburg, and Jack Kerouac). More systematic and celebrative are the catalogs of the great English prose writers of the seventeenth century. Moved by impulses both spiritual and scientific, Burton and Browne seem to be praising creation by listing its components. As the epigraph to his novel The Dog of the South (1979), Charles Portis uses a passage from Chapter III of Browne’s The Garden of Cyrus (1658):
“Even Animals near the Classis of plants, seem to have the most restlesse motions. The Summer-worm of Ponds and plashes makes a long waving motion; the hair-worm seldom lies still. He that would behold a very anomalous motion, may observe it in the Tortile and tiring strokes of Gnatworms.”
But that is rigorously restrained by Browne's customary standards. His books amount to lists of lists. This comes several pargraphs earlier in Chapter III, and I suggest you read it aloud:
“The Æquivocall production of things under undiscerned principles, makes a large part of generation, though they seem to hold a wide univocacy in their set and certain Originals, while almost every plant breeds its peculiar insect, most a Butterfly, moth or fly, wherein the Oak seems to contain the largest seminality, while the Julus, Oak, apple, dill, woolly tuft, foraminous roundles upon the leaf, and grapes under ground make a Fly with some difference. The great variety of Flyes lyes in the variety of their originals, in the seeds of Caterpillars or Cankers there lyeth not only a Butterfly or Moth, but if they be sterill or untimely cast, their production is often a Fly, which we have also observed from corrupted and mouldred Egges, both of Hens and Fishes; To omit the generation of Bees out of the bodies of dead Heifers, or what is stranger yet well attested, the production of Eeles in the backs of living Cods and Perches.”
Wilbur says in his essay that “when a catalogue has a random air, when it seems to have been assembled by chance, it implies a vast reservoir of other things which might just as well have been mentioned.” Last month, on March 1, we celebrated his ninety-third birthday.