You strove to leave some line of verse behind


When I saw that Slate was running something about the great Richard Wilbur, my first reaction was, "Oh shit, Richard Wilbur died!" I was glad to be wrong. Seemingly out of the blue, James Longenbach decided to give an appreciation of my favorite poet. Longenbach considers Wilbur's undeserved reputation as a reactionary (which was news to me), but also gives an alert reading of his work:

Even if Wilbur sometimes championed formalist poetry at the expense of free verse, his poems never congratulate themselves for their achievement. All of his great poems, in fact, are about living in ambiguity, about negotiating what might appear to be mutually exclusive alternatives–heaven and earth, elegance and violence, the thinking mind and the brute fact of the world. Unlike other poets who write in complicated stanzas and rhyme schemes, Wilbur never displays poetic form as an image of moral goodness. "There's nothing essentially good about a meter," he once remarked, and his poems remind us that all linguistic effort, whether we call it formal or free, is an attempt to make meaning of a world in which we are not inevitably at home. This is why Wilbur's poems feel playful when they're most serious. They live in their linguistic action; they don't want to offer the last word.

Samples of Wilburiana here and here.

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  1. For a very different view of Wilbur, see

  2. Yeah, I used to read stuff like that. John Berryman, etc. I wonder where that part of my brain went.

  3. That was a real treat, Thanks!

  4. David T, I checked out that Daniel Schneider site, just because I was surprised to find the owner of the Redskins doing literary criticism. Schneider dismisses Stephen King’s The Stand as “dull as shit.” Joyce’s poetry, on the other hand, qualifies as “dull as shit.” But he reserves an especially perceptive critique for feminist criticism, which turns out to be “dull as shit.” Doing slightly better is the movie Y Tu Mama Tambien, which rates “dull and hackneyed.” T.S. Eliot’s poetry comes in as “stilted & dull,” which still puts the bard of St. Louis ahead of the “stilted, dull, & mostly morose” Star Trek. So Wilbur, whom Schneider finds only “incredibly dull,” is doing pretty well even among his detractors.

    My conclusion: Schneider is dull.

  5. I keep a Pocket Book of Modern Verse I’ve had many years, up here in the attic for occasions such as this.
    First, I must admit to being underwhelmed by the entries (5) of Wilbur.
    In general, poetry is a minefield: one may be life-changing. All others are duds or untouched.
    I just finished watching the “Sixty Minute” piece on Adult Attention Deficit Disorder.
    I’m sorry to say AADD is mass hysteria on the order of the War on Drugs.
    But, sadly, even if we weren’t in the midst of an epidemic of AADD, I still wonder if there is much to be mined from poetry… and can the people who say there is be trusted? Nowadays, poets are stereotyped as those who can’t hack it on Blogs.
    We will be unable to assay poetry until after this Black Plague of AADD has run its course.
    Patience NOW!

  6. Tim, How many times do you think a Roger Ebert has used the words dull, or trite, or thumbs up or down, how many times a John Simon or Harold Bloom used the same phrase in describing something they felt not up to the Canonical snuff? I’ve also used boring, cliched, and other such words even more often. Would it not be better to try to bolster your ‘great’ assertion re: the rote, mechanical, lifeless, and narcoleptic verse of RW, rather than sidestep defending the claim by trying to find a flaw in something that is merely a part of any critical pallete? The attempt to do so seems ‘lazy’, the conclusion ‘forced’, and the result ‘silly’. Nor does it un-dull RW’s verse. Dan

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