Poetic Licence

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Tastes change over time.  Just as in popular music, or clothes, vehicles and smartphones, there are fashions in poetry. Very often, whatever it was we admired so fervently yesterday can seem quaintly outdated today.

I thought about this on hearing of the death last week of the American poet Richard Wilbur. Born in 1921, his career as a poet and teacher encompassed much of the 20th Century. His contemporaries and influences included Robert Frost and TS Eliot and, somewhat like them, his poetry is typified by close observation of ordinary, otherwise unremarkable, things both in nature and society. As with Frost, who famously described unrhymed poetry as ‘like playing tennis with the net down’, Wilbur’s work is almost always metric and rhymed.

As the New York Times’s obituary observes, “Mr Wilbur followed a muse who prized traditional virtuosity over self-dramatization; as a consequence he often found himself out of favor with the literary authorities who preferred the heat of artists like Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg.” (15 Oct. 2017)

In other words, he became unfashionable.

The same NYT obituary relates the story of how, responding to a derogatory review of one of Wilbur’s collections, a reader took immediate exception to the critic’s opinion that Wilbur’s poetry was merely ‘mild, amiable and bourgeois’, writing of the reviewer in a letter to the editor:

“Sirs, the man has had a feast set before him, the very best, and complains because it is not a peanut butter and ketchup sandwich.”

I tend to agree with the letter writer. No doubt Wilbur’s poems are touched by a gentlemanly urbanity that now seems rather old-fashioned, but he often has something quietly profound to say about what it means to be a fully rounded human being. The fact that he expresses it in his own (carefully crafted) voice and style is surely to be welcomed rather than derided.

In this poem, for instance, the strange optical illusion of watching frost-hardened earth appear to lift itself and move of its own accord as winter ends is concluded with a telling comment on what it can mean when arrogant human certainty – “a set mind” – finds itself “blessed by doubt”. Yes, blessed. I’m all for the possibility, especially in our present confused and terrifying world, of springtime returning to the minds of extremists everywhere.

 April 5, 1974

The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch, and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law?
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream.
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter’s giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.

Richard Wilbur
(from New and Collected Poems, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988)

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