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This item is taken from PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3, January - February 2018.

News & Notes
Spoken Word  ·  The Verb, BBC Radio 3’s long-running poetry-centred programme, always ably presented by Ian McMillan, declared on 24 November – in a specially extended edition – that spoken word poetry is thirty-five years old. This announcement was made in a programme broadcast from Hull, the City of Culture, of course. John Agard declared (for those who might have thought him to be a dramatist), ‘Shakespeare was a performance poet’. New work commissioned for the occasion addressed urgent themes including ‘toxic masculinity’, ‘awkward teenage years’ and productions by grime artists and stars. As one Facebook sharer put it, ‘and John Hegley is a guest, what’s not to like?’

Answers on a postcard.

Pursuing Excellence  ·  In 2017 UNESCO declared eight new Cities of Literature, in Korea, South Africa, Norway, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, the United States and the UK. Manchester has achieved that dignity alongside previous UK winners, Norwich and Nottingham. The organisers were reported to have been stunned when the news came through, rather as the Cameron government was stunned when the Brexit referendum votes were counted. What would they do with an accolade that comes accompanied by more laurels than funds? ‘UNESCO Cities of Literature are dedicated to pursuing excellence in literature on a local level, engaging as many citizens as possible in a dynamic culture of words and encouraging the creation and sharing of stories.’ Civic expectation in ‘I HEART MANCHESTER’ is feverish. The case for the city was made especially strong by its great libraries, the numerous writing programmes, and a history of diversity. And the frayed classic cards of Mrs Gaskell and Anthony Burgess were dealt and played. A press release reassures us: ‘A programme of cultural events and community writing projects will be developed to celebrate Manchester’s City of Literature status.’ The language is loose: ‘Following extensive research and consultation, the bid’s steering committee has drawn up plans for a programme that includes a libraries festival, the establishment of a new writers’ hub and far-reaching initiatives to support new writing, promoting writing in translation, music and words, and the writing of Manchester residents. The programme will encourage collaboration – both internationally and within the city’s literary arts community.’ Another opportunity for readers to send suggestions, on another postcard.

Writing with Courage  ·  Michael Longley received this year’s PEN Pinter Prize on 10 October. The prize is awarded annually to a writer from Britain, Ireland or the Commonwealth who, in words Harold Pinter used in his Nobel Literature Prize speech, casts an ‘unflinching, unswerving gaze upon the world’ and displays a ‘fierce intellectual determination… to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’. One of his first duties was to name an International Writer of Courage, and he chose Mahvash Sabet, the Iranian dissident. The press release describes her in these terms: ‘Sabet was released last month after being imprisoned for almost a decade in Tehran, for her faith and activities related to the Bahá’í community. While in prison, she began writing poetry, a selection from which appeared in the UK as Prison Poems in 2013 (George Ronald).’ Longley declared Mahvash ‘at heart a lyrical poet who sings the beauty of the world. Her imagination is rhapsodic. Her poems want to soar. I rejoice that she has been released from prison. Her incarceration by the Iranian authorities was a sin against the light. The power of dictators to silence and imprison writers continues to “put all heaven in a rage”.’

Not Waving but Writing · David Ward on Richard Wilbur: Richard Wilbur, who died age 95 on 14 October, was the last of the major mid-twentieth-century American poets. He was a Second World War veteran, twice Poet Laureate, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a prolific author as well as a translator of French poets and playwrights, and an editor/publisher and a teacher and writer of children’s books. An honoured citizen of Poetry Nation, in other words. In announcing Wilbur’s passing, his college (Amherst, 1942) with the pardonable enthusiasm of the recently bereaved, said that ‘it is not hyperbole to say that Dick was one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century’. Wilbur, by all accounts modest and self-aware, as well as, of course, tremendously learned, would have blushed at this for what it is: hyperbole. Indeed, one feature of his career is how grudging other poets and critics were about his success. The judgement of Randall Jarrell that Wilbur ‘never goes too far, but he never goes far enough’ was much cited during the poet’s lifetime and is repeated in the obituaries. Similarly, Donald Hall, pivoting off Wilbur’s success as a teacher and mentor, said that the ‘typical ghastly poem of the 1950s was a Wilbur poem not written by Wilbur’, acknowledging the poet’s own facility but backhanding him for his deleterious influence on poetry as a whole. It’s not clear to me that a poem after Wilbur is necessarily any more ghastly than a poem after Ginsberg or even a poem after Randall Jarrell or Donald Hall. Lineage aside (the ‘sins of the fathers’ etc. etc.), poems need to be judged on their own but I suspect in the case of Richard Wilbur some other issues of temperament and outlook (and even class and privilege) are at work in the ranklings of his critics.

Jarrell’s judgement is a curious double negative (if you don’t go too far, you can hardly go far enough) for a critic known for his clarity and it must have been an intentional suggestion of Wilbur’s twin characteristics, characteristics taken as weaknesses by his critics. He was a formalist in an increasingly informal age not just in how he ordered his lines and stanzas but in how he ordered the world. The method of formalism matched his metaphysics; concluding ‘C Minor’, he writes:

There is nothing to do with a day except to live it,
Let us have music again when the light dies
(Sullenly, or in glory) and we can give it
   Something to organize.

A thought not too dissimilar from Stevens’s ‘Jar in Tennessee’ but expressed rather differently. Stevens’s jar represented a vernacular culture that all the world would organise itself around. Wilbur, contrastingly, is writing explicitly about high culture, Beethoven and the Western canon. There is a sense throughout his writing that Wilbur was very careful about his subjects: not only was he discreet and reticent about emotions but his domain is high culture written about on its own, high cultural terms. One can understand why he was attracted to the French: not just the formality of Molière’s verse forms and the challenge of untangling them into English but also possibly the whole structure of official French academic culture – the Academie, the rules about language and vocabulary, the sense of an artistic mission at odds with popular culture. After the Second World War, in America, this stance would draw fire not just in the interminable conflict between formal and free verse but also in the educational establishment in which Wilbur made his home.

Eligible for service during the Second World War, Wilbur apparently wanted to be a cryptologist – from Alexandrines to Ultra seems a logical step to me but the army thought otherwise and instead he served in a line unit that saw pretty heavy combat in Europe. Of course, he didn’t write about it. (Randall Jarrell, by the way, never got to Europe; which doesn’t make ‘Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ any less powerful.) Wilbur’s lack of emotional ‘availability’ seems to underlie much of the criticism of him. He was too reticent. He was too careful about the old-fashioned distinction between public and private. In an age in which authors wore their poems on their sleeves, Wilbur always kept himself at a remove from his poems and was distrustful of poets who did not; ‘Cottage Street’, his poem about Plath (he taught at Smith College), ends: ‘To state at last her brilliant negative / In poems free and helpless and unjust.’ The poem is really about Wilbur’s mother-in-law and her ‘grace and courage’, gently juxtaposed to the jaggedness of the young woman poet, but Wilbur also makes a rueful, rare appearance: ‘It is my office to exemplify / The published poet in his happiness.’ There’s a sense here of Wilbur’s consciousness of a duty that even he recognised, no less than his critics, could fall into self-satisfaction or complacency, the complacency also of class, gender and privilege. Yet self-deprecation should not dilute Wilbur’s honourable sense of vocation and responsibility to his occupation – his office – as poet. He could do no other.

Richard Wilbur’s Disappearing Alphabet, i.m. Richard Wilbur (1921–2017) · Maitreyabandhu writes: The poetry of Richard Wilbur is an antidote to at least one of the pernicious poisons of our time, and yet despite winning just about everything short of the Nobel – the National Book Award, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Pulitzer Prize (twice) – Wilbur’s achievement is still widely under-appreciated. Michael Longley, whom I interviewed for poetryEast, was mildly appalled when I suggested Wilbur as an influence. I was thinking of Longley’s via positiva, his instinct to say Yes to sea asters and cowslips. Wilbur, Longley retorted, said yes too often and too strongly; his work was ‘too dainty and affirmative’. Randall Jarrell – the poet and critic who was right about so many things but wrong about later Stevens and half-wrong about Wilbur – famously complained that Wilbur ‘never goes too far, but […] never goes far enough’. James Dickey felt that Wilbur’s ‘delicious aptness’ might mask ‘an unwillingness or inability to think or feel deeply’. The concern again and again is with over-affirmation and with a metrical ‘perfection’ that lacks poetic ambition and truth-telling. The result has been a muted, sometimes grudging appreciation for Wilbur’s formal skill, a suspicion of his popularity and a tendency to undervalue his gifts.

There are many reasons for this; one of them is his sense of humour. Wilbur wrote five books of very funny children’s verse (often with his own illustrations), including The Disappearing Alphabet:

The letter X will never disappear.
The more you cross it out, the more it’s here.

His poem ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ begins ‘In the end a / “The Prisoner of Zenda” / the King being out of danger, / Stewart Granger’. Modern poetry is all too often dogged by super-seriousness, intellectuality and obscurity. The assumption can be that poetry should be solemn, ironic or gritty. It shouldn’t be enjoyed! That can’t be serious. But to be serious in the right way means not being serious in the wrong way – grandiloquent, over-earnest, opaque. Wendy Cope is critically undervalued partly because she has the temerity to make us laugh.

Wilbur is also underrated because of his formal skill. Nearly all of Wilbur is in metre and a very large part of it is in rhyme – not just rhyme, but audible rhyme. He was a believer in what Frost called the ‘harsher discipline from without’. But we may no longer have a feeling for metrical poetry, and many poets are incapable of writing in it. W.H. Auden makes the point that nineteenth-century poets often exhibit ‘clumsiness and inadequacy’ in diction but ‘there is hardly a single [English language] poet, who, in his handling of metre, cannot do exactly what he wants’. He thought the situation was reversed in the twentieth century, with modern poets preoccupied with diction while exhibiting little interest or capacity for prosody. Writing badly in metre and rhyme shows up very sharply. It is like painting in watercolours – one often sees it done badly but it is very hard to do well. Shortcomings in free verse are much more difficult to spot.

Clive James, writing in praise of the Australian poet Stephen Edgar, says for those who ‘edit anthologies and staff prize committees… an apprehensible form is thought to be a repressive hangover from the old imperialism; and all too many poets think the same’. There’s still an assumption that metrical poetry is likely to be backward-looking, right wing and probably feelingless. I wonder if this is to do with our modern individualism in which our emphasis on the individual’s unique sensibility makes us wary of apprehensible, and therefore shared, forms? As Dana Gioia put it, ‘It has been Wilbur’s ironic achievement to excel at precisely those literary forms that many contemporary critics undervalue – metrical poetry, verse translation, comic verse, song lyrics...’

At the top of Gioia’s list of critically undervalued poetic forms is religious poetry. Wilbur was a practising Episcopalian. According to Gioia, at least a third of Wilbur’s verse contains ‘conspicuous Christian elements’ (light verse and translation aside). Given our nervousness about religion, writing with overt religious content is very unfashionable indeed. Even serious critics don’t always seem to be able to think about what religious feeling might be or judge its relevance. All this is made even more problematic in Wilbur’s case (oddly enough), because his religious-sense is so positive and celebratory. If he was a hard-bitten Christian like Geoffrey Hill we’d be less worried. The least he could do, we can’t help thinking, is agonise over his faith a bit more.

The accusation, however, that Wilbur doesn’t look at the dark side of life is unjust: he does, he just chooses not to go on about it. Wilbur is extremely tactful about suffering – his own and other people’s. This seems of a piece with the fact that he experienced a lot of it. He first came to prominence as a Second World War poet, having served as an infantryman at Anzio and Monte Cassino. Genuine suffering often makes us tongue-tied; it rarely prompts us to gush. Wilbur’s very late, very slim final collection Anterooms, which includes at least two masterpieces – ‘A Measuring Worm’ and ‘Ecclesiastes 11:1’ – also contains a short meditation, ‘Terza Rima’:

In this great form, as Dante proved in Hell,
There is no dreadful thing that can’t be said
In passing.

He then goes on to write (in terza rima) ‘How our jeep skidded sideways toward the dead / Enemy soldier with the staring eyes’ and how the jeep bumped a little as it struck the soldier’s head. This horrifying memory is held within that wonderful ‘In passing’ – referring to terza rima’s linked rhyme and its strong forward momentum. Wilbur’s poetry is full of expressions of suffering, ‘In passing’.

Of course we are right to feel uneasy about religious poetry. It all too easily leads down Mary Oliver Lane to feel-good verse and fuzzy spirituality. Indeed, reading Wilbur, we could think of him as a poet of affirmation. But why are we quite so alert to that particular danger? Certainly there’s plenty of school-of-misery poetry, or grim-as-heck poetry, or sheer impenetrable poetry – why aren’t we saying how one-sided that is? What makes us quite so allergic to expressions of joy or rapt appreciation, especially when it’s expressed so aptly, so elegantly? In his Paris Review interview Wilbur said, ‘I feel… that the ultimate character of things is comely and good. I am perfectly aware that I say this in the teeth of all sorts of contrary evidence, and that I must be basing it partly on temperament and partly on faith, but that’s my attitude.’ This faith, this attitude, is certainly unfashionable but surely we have so much to gain from it? Might then our concern with Wilbur’s work be partly to do with our cynicism? Cynicism is fundamentally about fear – fear of emotion, especially positive emotion. One of the many good reasons, therefore, for reading Richard Wilbur is as an antidote to modern cynicism.

This item is taken from PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3, January - February 2018.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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