Monday, May 22, 2006

Wilbur - a quick survey

Some online readings of Richard Wilbur's work:

Modern American Poetry
Academy of American Poets

And interviews and essays on his poetry:

Dana Gioia
James Longenbach at Slate

I especially like Longenbach's summation of Wilbur's importance with a quote from one of his poems:

"Wilbur's poems matter not because they may or may not be stylish at any given moment but because they keep the English language alive: Wilbur's great poems feel as fresh—as astonishing, as perplexing, as shocking—as they did 50 years ago. There are no other poems like them. Forget anything you've ever heard about the emblematic Wilbur and listen to the last five stanzas of 'For the New Railway Station in Rome.'"

Longenbach quotes these stanzas of Wilbur's:

See, from the travertine
Face of the office block, the roof of the booking-hall
Sails out into the air beside the ruined
Servian Wall,

Echoing in its light
And cantilevered swoop of reinforced concrete
The broken profile of these stones, defeating
That defeat

And straying the strummed mind,
By such a sudden chord as raised the town of Troy,
To where the least shard of the world sings out
In stubborn joy,

"What city is eternal
But that which prints itself within the groping head
Out of the blue unbroken reveries
Of the building dead?

"What is our praise or pride
But to imagine excellence, and try to make it?
What does it say over the door of Heaven
But homo fecit?"

Longenbach goes on to observe:

"Wilbur's great poems are always marked by this combination of the high wire and the homespun. They usually begin in an occasional, almost off-hand manner: He notices something in the world (sheets hanging on a wash line), then invites us to notice it too. Immediately we're drawn into the poem by the movement of the language, and before we know it, the sheets have become angels, and we're swept up in a metaphysical conundrum that feels at once deeply serious and ridiculously human: Do we imagine angels because we do laundry or do we do laundry because of a higher purpose? The poem's title, lifted from St. Augustine, doesn't so much provide an answer as a challenge: 'Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.'"

4 comments:

  1. thanks for this ;-)
    exploration in prog.

    cheers,
    d.i.

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  2. Happy to oblige. I'm exploring Wilbur's work too. Be interesting to chat about it after we've read more.

    Rachel

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  3. Wow. I just read "The Writer."

    Thanks for the links - looks like I have a new book to order.

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  4. Carl,

    The Writer is one of my favorites in Wilbur's Collected. Because he wrote for so many years, across so many decades, I find Wilbur challenging to approach. But the poems of his I like best contain a deep heart and deceptively approachable language, like The Writer. Deceptive because it's formally skillful without making you notice the devices.

    On this web site (http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/audio/wilbur/the_writer.mp3), you can hear him read it. The sonics stand out, as does the freshness of the imagery. I believe he wrote this more than 35 years ago, but it doesn't sound at all dated in style. Universal topic treated in a universal style.

    Rachel

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