PO­ETIC LI­CENCE

Grocott's Mail - - ARTS NEWS - HARRY OWEN

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.

RichardWil­bur (fromNe­wandCol­lect­edPoems,Harcourt BraceJo­vanovich,1988)

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