I saw yesterday that 85-year-old poet Richard Wilbur had received the Poetry Foundation's $100,000 Ruth Lilly Prize. Wilbur is a former US Poet Laureate and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1957, for Things of this World, which appeared the same year as Howl, Some Trees, and other notable books of poetry, and in 1989, for his New and Collected Poems, which edged out volumes by Donald Hall and Garrett Hongo. (No Asian-American or Latino-American poet has ever received the Pulitzer Prize in the poetry category.) The editor of Poetry magazine, a former colleague of mine whom I respect quite a bit, Christian Wiman, remarked of the winner that "If you had to put all your money on one living poet whose work will be read in a hundred years, Richard Wilbur would be a good bet." I have been thinking about this repeatedly since I read it, and have to disagree. Strongly. Do (m)any poets nowadays read Richard Wilbur's work? Did they do so 20 years ago? 40? Can anyone--any reader out there, without looking one up--name a book of Richard Wilbur's poems (The Beautiful Changes, his first volume, comes to mind)? Does anyone teach his work? Who would these potential readers 100 years on be?
At one point in a John Ashbery interview I came across years ago he remarked that back when he began publishing his work in the 1950s, Wilbur already was considered somewhat old-fashioned, and in light of the achievements of the American Modernist poets, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the Projectivists, the the Beat Poets and the writers of the San Francisco Renaissance poets, the Black Mountain School, the New York School poets, the writers gathered around Russell Atkins in Detroit, Lowell's dawning confessionalism and Plath's early work, and many other groups and individual figures who emerged by the late 1950s, one would have to conclude that Wilbur's formalist verse, while accomplished and graceful, was (and is) somewhat old-fashioned even half a century ago. I can recall a moment during a brief stay a few years ago that I had at Yaddo, the writer's colony up in Saratoga Springs, when I came across a book of Wilbur's poetry and found one poem, about bats, that enchanted me a bit. When I mentioned it to the poets at my dinner table, they scoffed, though gently, and took my enthusiasm as not unsurprising given that I was supposedly engaged in writing fiction. I found Wilbur's skillfulness with meter and rhyme instructive, but I wasn't intending to write a poem like it and when I do encounter a poem like, I usually skip right over it.
In fact, I would much rather read Wallace Stevens's poems than Wilbur's; the latter's early work shows the strong influence of the Connecticut versifier, but lacks Stevens's moments of inscrutability, silliness, rebarbartiveness, opacity--his strangeness and uniqueness that, at their best, make his poetry among the most important ever written by an American. From what I know of Wilbur's person politics (and attitudes towards Blacks and other people of color and women), I'll take them over Stevens's any day, but as for their poetry.... Donald Hall is quoted on the Modern American Poetry site saying back in 1961 that "The typical ghastly poem of the fifties was a Wilbur poem not written by Wilbur...a poem with tired wit and obvious comparisons and nothing to keep the mind or the ear occupied." It notes that "Hall added presciently: 'It wasn’t Wilbur’s fault, though I expect he will be asked to suffer for it.'" The article itself includes near its end the following appraisal: "Even though he is an outstanding example, he excels in a debased category. Among minor poets he is allowed to be most major, but among major poets he is not even considered the most minor."
Here's a Richard Wilbur poem, from Poets.org, the Academy of American Poets' site:
by Richard Wilbur
Your voice, with clear location of June days,
Called me outside the window. You were there,
Light yet composed, as in the just soft stare
Of uncontested summer all things raise
Plainly their seeming into seamless air.
Then your love looked as simple and entire
As that picked pear you tossed me, and your face
As legible as pearskin's fleck and trace,
Which promise always wine, by mottled fire
More fatal fleshed than ever human grace.
And your gay gift—Oh when I saw it fall
Into my hands, through all that naïve light,
It seemed as blessed with truth and new delight
As must have been the first great gift of all.
"June Light" represents a fine example of a poem that deploys a 14-line, sonnet-like form, with an conventional meter (iambic pentameter with variations) and rhyme scheme, and that also skillfully presents a progression of imagery and metaphoric language within a small frame. Wilbur demonstrates skill both with its surface and with the statement it contains--but there is an air of mustiness about this poem that all its linguistic beauty cannot dispel. "Pearskin's fleck and trace?" "Fatal fleshed?" "Mottled fire?" "Gay gift?" Interestingly enough, I do think that many poets who work regularly with rhyme could learn something from Wilbur, but beyond its instructiveness, who is going to turn to this poem first? Or even tenth? Today?
All of which is to say, what would lead Wiman to his assessment? Stepping outside the particular politics or aesthetic affinities of Poetry today, aren't there at least 50 living poets, especially poets alive from the late 20th century, including poets who Poetry publishes, who readers of 100 years from now, if there are poetry readers 100 years from now (and I think there will be), would be reading? If you look back to the work of most of the non-Modernist Establishment poets who were acclaimed in the 1940s and 1950s, who remembers them or reads their work? Who even teaches it? (Peter Viereck, who received the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 and is now 90 years old, is probably better known as a historian and influential conservative than a noted poet.) Even accounting as well for academic interests and the rehabilitation of lost or forgotten poets, will Wilbur's poetry be what future readers turn to, readily, willingly, easily? I don't think I'd bet my money on it.
Some readers may remember US Olympic sprinter Shawn Crawford (at right, photo Nick Krug), who'd made his name back in 2003 when he participated in a neo-Darwinian era race (racial) spectacle for Fox's (surprise!) "Man vs. Beast" TV show (I'm not making this up) against a giraffe and a zebra (he beat the first and lost to the second), received the silver medal in the 100 (after a bit of showboating in a prelim) and 4x100 meter races, and the gold in the 200 at the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics. (Al Campanis could be heard jumping up and down in his grave.)
Last year was tough for the stunning South Carolina native and Clemson alumnus. He suffered from injuries to both feet, and as a result had a sub-par year, but he's back on the track and as he told the Lawrence Journal-World and 6 News, "I’m just trying to get back up on the pedestal, getting in running shape and being at that elite level again." He races this weekend in the 100 m at the Kansas Relays. I can't wait for the track and field season to start up in earnest!