Wilbur Wisdom

Let me introduce you to one of my dearest poets, Richard Wilbur.


At the University of Dallas, all the English majors participate in a Literary Study class during their junior year of a chosen poet. My chosen poet was Richard Wilbur, and so I have spent many hours and days with his poems.

I was thinking of him today thanks to a wonderful post on the power of labeling by Alexander at his blog, Retrievals. Yes, his post is on the new movie Monster’s University. To understand the connection that provoked my thoughts on Wilbur, you will have to read to the end of his post to where he makes the fascinating point about labeling. Go read it.

Anyway, I think it was Wilbur who really convinced me to love poetry in the end. For a long time, although I loved novels, I shied away from poems. They seemed purposefully and annoyingly difficult– or worse, [the ones I read in high school were] confessional. Poets seemed to be so preoccupied with themselves and their own feelings. It was Wilbur who convinced me otherwise.

I think his words on the dangers of confessional poetry apply to blogging as well:

I do feel that the truth, especially the truth about oneself, is hard to report, and that if you set out to confess, what you are likely to do is tell lies in addition to reporting some of the truth. And the fact that you are consciously part of the material of the poem may lead you to falsify in ways that are not good. There are good fictions and bad fictions. The kind of fiction that glamorizes you is not good either for your sake or for the reader’s, and I think that very often the confessional poet is drawn to glamorize himself, whether he is aware of it or not. (The Paris Review, The Art of Poetry No. 22)

I would venture to say that, similarly, the best bloggers are not confessional writers. Their blogs are not about their personal lives, although over time you get a pretty good idea of what they are like through their exploration of other things. The same is true with the best poets. Although intensely personal, the best poets are not exclusively so. I think this is largely what separates amateur poetry (even if it is technically brilliant) from masterful poetry– the great poet can write from and within his feelings but is not limited by them from comprehending, in some sense, the feelings of others. That is why I have always rather disliked Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.” This is no doubt involved, but if it stopped there we would only have confessional poetry.

Sylvia Plath

Consider Wilbur’s critique of Sylvia Plath’s work. In his frequently discussed poem, “Cottage Street, 1953,” Wilbur describes the first time he met Sylvia Plath:

Outliving Sylvia who, condemned to live,

Shall study for a decade, as she must,

To state at last her brilliant negative

In poems free and helpless and unjust.

Here is the full text of this (rather controversial) poem.

An interviewer, like many others, questioned Wilbur’s diction here. “Unjust?” Personal, yes. Painfully honest, yes. But unjust?

Wilbur responds this way:

Its helpless one-sidedness. I tried to sprinkle a whole lot of words around there that would add up to a kind of just estimate of her. That, together with the picture I had given of her as a slumped, pale, drowning person. Let the record show that I said brilliant: “her brilliant negative. In poems free and helpless and unjust.” I suppose she was freed by the onset of her desperate condition of mind to be brilliant in the way the poems of Ariel are brilliant. At the same time, she was helpless because it required that condition of mind to bring on those poems. She was unjust because a sick and prejudiced perception of things is—well, that’s the limitation on the usefulness of her poetry to any reader, I think. It gives you some insights into a desperate condition of mind that is not absolutely foreign to the rest of us, but that goes farther towards morbidity than I’ve ever gone, thank God. At the same time there’s a lot she can’t tell you. She’s all wrapped up in herself and her feelings about her children, and herself as a writer, and her fantasies about her dead father, and her arbitrary connections between her dead father and her husband. I don’t suppose we need to know that her father was not a Nazi in order to read that poem [“Daddy”] rightly, or do we? In any case, she’s rather unjust to him. She’s certainly unjust to her mother. (Ibid)

Unfortunately I think this tendency on the part of some writers toward confessionalism has seeped into the way we read poetry, and the way high school literature is traditionally taught as well. So many of my students find it difficult to read any work, and most especially poems, without resorting to the biographical explanation of details: “Well, Emily Dickinson was a crazy recluse so that’s why her poetry is so weird and hard to understand.” Or “Tolkien is saying that about the ring because he lived through WWII and was using the ring as a metaphor for the atom bomb” or other such nonsense.

The difficulty, of course, is that there can be a lot of truth in this. One’s history does influence one’s writing. But limiting writing of any kind to one’s history, to oneself, is either a mistake of the writer or the reader or both.

 Wilbur’s explanation of the true role of a poet is something I think bloggers and other writers should always aim for:

One of the jobs of poetry is to make the unbearable bearable, not by falsehood but by clear, precise confrontation. Even the most cheerful poet has to cope with pain as part of the human lot; what he shouldn’t do is to complain, and dwell on his personal mischance.

Read the fascinating interview at The Paris Review.

What writers and bloggers do you suggest achieve this “difficult balance” (a Wilburian phrase) or “precise confrontation” with reality?