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This review is taken from PN Review 71, Volume 16 Number 3, January - February 1990.

ENGAGING DISORDER Richard Wilbur, New and Selected Poems (Faber and Faber) £9.99

I first read Wilbur in the early 'Sixties. I read him in Dublin and Belfast, in some bootlegged anthology or single volume and in the company of other poets. As I recall, the attitude to him was composed of equal parts of pastel affection and an astonishing condescension.

With hindsight, this may be understandable. The reaction against formalism had already occurred in the United States. Wilbur's work, which had been acclaimed since the publication of his first book, The Beautiful Changes in 1945, had continued to be admired during the 'Fifties. In 1956 he won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for Things Of This World. But contrary winds were blowing. Lowell's Life Studies and Berryman's Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, with their adventures in syntax and tone, and their fractured personae, had come to be seen as exemplary. Ginsberg's Howl had altered the map. Hall, Pack and Simpson had brought out fighting anthologies. And even earlier than that, Randall Jarrell had commented, when reviewing Ceremony in 1950, 'Most of his (Wilbur's) poetry consents too easily to its own unnecessary limitations'.

These criticisms of Wilbur were part of a troubled discourse, which persists to this day, about the justification for certain types of poetic equilibrium. In one sense, of course, his critics can be said to have had an honourable doubt. The immediate post-war period was a moment of change and upheaval. The old forms, they believed, had degenerated into formalisms. The issue ...


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