Through all the social turmoil and fashionable change of the period since the end of World War II there were those who continued to ply their traditional craft quietly and well — Richard Wilbur, born in New York City in 1921, was one of those. Wilbur was educated at Amherst College, taking his B.A. in 1942. He served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1945; upon his discharge he attended Harvard University where he took an M.A. in 1947. He became an assistant professor there in 1950, moved on to Wellesley College in 1955, and settled into Wesleyan University two years later, remaining there except for academic excursions until his retirement.
Among his contemporaries, Richard Wilbur most consistently developed and maintained much of what was best in the post-Modernist academic style. He continued to be, through the 1960-80s, that rare phenomenon of contemporary literature, a man of letters. To many critics Wilbur appeared to be a poetic throw-back to the original mainstream of American poets deriving from the British tradition, representatives of which include Longfellow, Whittier, Poe, Robinson, and Frost — that is to say, the formal traditionalists. That this line of descent is still viable has been often disputed since 1960, yet Wilbur's reputation steadily rose over the years despite attacks on his formalism, the elegance of his diction and style, and the equanimity of his vision.
Wilbur's books include Ceremony (1950), Things of This World (1956) which received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; Poems 1943-1956 (1957); Advice to a Prophet (1961); The Poems of Richard Wilbur (1963); Walking to Sleep (1969); Seed Leaves (1974), and New and Collected Poems (1988). Essentially a poet of ideas, and therefore in one sense at least a classical rather than a romantic poet, Wilbur wrote poems constructed in such a way that his themes stood out clearly before they were transformed into, anchored by, the images of the poem "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World":
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
Keeping their difficult balance.
Another example of this method is his poem "The Aspen and the Stream" which is a dialogue between an idealist, the aspen (whose conversation is cast in stately heroic couplets) and a cynic, the stream (who speaks in quick iambic trimeter quatrains rhyming abab) (205). The tree addresses the stream,
Beholding element, in whose pure eye
My boughs upon a ground of heaven lie —
and the stream responds,
Why should the water drink,
Blithering little tree?
Think what you choose to think,
But lisp no more at me.
The verse forms themselves help to characterize the "persons" engaged in this argument, the optimism of the aspen showing forth in the stately measures of the long line, and the stream's pessimism in the quicker, livelier lines running through the debate.
Donald L. Hill wrote in his book Richard Wilbur that there were four overlapping qualities in Wilbur's work, "a speculative and logical temper, sharp and true observation, technical virtuosity, and a kind of amused good humor." (19) Each and all of these are clearly characteristics not merely of the poems, but of the poet who wrote them. A consummate craftsman and therefore, assumedly, almost totally a conscious writer, Wilbur nevertheless held to a neo-romantic notion that took possession of the poetry of the 1960s that "the poem chooses its own form," as though it were a living organism rather than an artifice of language whose development is controlled by the writer. In no contemporary poet did this split-minded position appear to be so anomalous; in none was the contradiction between theory and practice so obvious as in Wilbur who, in his best work, gave as much pleasure through skill and contemplation as through vision and "inspiration," for of all his peers Wilbur was consistently the most overtly formal poet.
Wilbur, like Auden, used many of the standard verse forms of the English tradition, ranging from alliterative, strong-stress Anglo-Saxon prosody in such poems as "The Lilacs" and "Junk" (pp. 118 & 185) —
An axe angles
from my neighbor's ashcan
It is hell's handiwork, ;
the wood not hickory,
The flow of the grain
not faithfully followed.
— to the "Sonnet," as in the poem so titled (235). In this formalism Wilbur defied the movement of most American poets since the 1950s toward so-called "organic" poetry, an extension of the undeveloped British tradition of lineated prose — that is to say so-called "free verse" — begun by Christopher Smart and William Blake in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and by Martin Farquhar Tupper who influenced the American Walt Whitman in the later 19th century.
The origin of English prose poetry lies in the 17th-century translation of the King James version of the Bible. It was developed to a degree in the mystical and prophetic books of William Blake, beginning with The Book of Thel (1789) and ranging through Milton and Jerusalem, (both published in 1804); in the posthumous Rejoice in the Lamb (1839), written from 1759-1763 by Christopher Smart; popularized in both Great Britain and the early United States by the English poet Martin Farquhar Tupper whose Proverbial Philosophy (1838) sold a million copies in this country, ten years before America's first major prose poem, Edgar Allan Poe's Eureka (1848), and seventeen years before Whitman's influential book of prose poems, Leaves of Grass (1855). Many of the Modernists claimed Whitman as a precedent unique to the New World. A century after Whitman, however, few of the Academic Poets, including Wilbur, were using his mode, though it would experience a resurgence beginning in the 1950s at the hands of other schools of poetry.
This essay is from Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry, by Lewis Putnam Turco, Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, www.tamupress.com, 2012, 336 pp., ISBN 978-1-936205-30-1, paperback. Copyright © 2012 by Lewis Turco. All rights reserved; may not be reproduced in any form anywhere without the written permission of the author.