The Death of Richard Wilbur, A Difficult Balance

It was only days ago here that I was remarking that Richard Wilbur was still alive while talking about the roughly half-portion of dead white men in a collated list of the most anthologized modern American poems. His poem “Love Calls Us to Things of This World”  written in the middle 1950s was one of that list, and one of the few I had no memory of having read.

Richard Wilbur 1950s

The modest house, the pipe, the tweed jacket, the Brylcreem hair with the straightest furrow—
Richard Wilbur impersonating the 1950s so that we don’t have to


So of course I read it, and rather enjoyed it. You could do the same via the hyperlink. There are a few things in it that one might quibble about, the heightened language (even if that is undercut by its over-riding conceit, a meditation on hanging laundry) including words that stop the modern colloquial speaker, such as “halcyon,” and the brief but passing use of rape for an image which causes me a concerned pause and objection now. There need be nothing censorious about such thoughts, as they are about the writer with his peculiarities, his time, and his blinders. They might remind me of my own limits in these regards.

The obituaries point out a controversy over Wilbur that, like his poetry, I was not much aware of. He was increasingly thought out of touch with the later 20th Century with his, on the face of it, impersonal outlook, his wit in place of rage and heated vision, and his devotion to a classic verbal music of accentual/syllabic meter.

All that may be so. Like I said, I’m generally unfamiliar with Wilbur’s poetry. But let me bring up some possible approaches from our current century, now nearly matured to voting age, to query those opinions from the 20th Century. The first is, how much do we need our poets to act as the shaman and feel for us?  Does such a need say that we ourselves cannot feel or imagine adequately, or that we cannot validate or understand our feelings and visions until demonstrated by the artist? I do not know a complete answer for this. I know that artists expressions seem to have helped me clarify and understand visionary and intense things, but I also think that the lens of wit makes clear the limits of our perceptions and emotions. Is the ecstatic visionary who can make real and palpable the dark shapes outside the fire-circle the wise one, or is the wise one the one who sees clearly that we cannot see far into the darkness and are apt to stub our toes on rocks if we think otherwise? Can only the former move us to action, can only the later keep us from recognizing foolish action?

I don’t think I know the answers, though I do think I see some of the questions. Just yesterday I wrote about how one of the  Parlando Project mottos “Other People’s Stories” shows a paradox. I feel it’s interesting—no, I’ll go farther—it’s important for us to experience other people’s subjective experience, to inhabit it to the degree we can. To do that, I’ve chosen to predominantly present other writers’ self-expression here—but to do that, I rely on others who interestingly express their own subjective experience. So, in a sense, I require others to not follow one of the principles that my artistic project goes by.

That brings up another Parlando Project principle: “Various Words with Various Music.”  Does not soft and consonant music not sound softer and more consonant when considered in the context of loud or discordant music (and vice versa)?  To fully have either, you must have both. Wilbur may have seen enough darkness to look for truth where the light is, to try to see, as his poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” concludes, a “Difficult balance.”


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