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The Poetry of Richard Wilbur

Why read contemporary poetry?  Are there not, as Marianne Moore states, so many other “things that are important/beyond all this fiddle”?

 My brief answer (though I may develop this further in the future) would be there are at least three reasons people, Christians especially, should read present day poetry.

 First, reading poetry is, very simply, a personally enriching endeavor.  In poetry, we give ourselves the opportunity both to experience the familiar in a new light or with greater understanding and to be introduced to notions entirely new to us, all dressed in (and dependent on) the most delightful language imaginable.  I suggest that anyone willing to turn off network television (or the cable news channel) an hour early and invest that time reading serious poetry may find their new endeavor so rewarding he will soon begin turning his TV off two hours early, or never turning it on at all.

 Secondly, the reading skills essential to reading poetry well make us better comprehenders (if you will) of Scripture.  Michael Riley makes a great point here when he reminds us that God gave us His word, not in systematic form, but literary. One of the implications of this is that we, in order better understand the Bible, must be skilled in comprehending various literary genres and techniques, the former of which one is poetry and the latter of which abound therein.

It is a rare poem that can be completely comprehended in a single reading, and even the most skilled reader is unable to fully appreciate the nuance of device a poet brings to bear in the realization of her vision. And I can personally attest to the fact that the time spent mastering the understanding of quality poetry will directly strengthen abilities key to comprehending the meaning of Scripture more fully.

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The third benefit may seem somewhat theoretical. T. S. Eliot asserts that “mak[ing] a difference to the speech, to the sensibility, to the lives of all the members of society, to all the members of the community” is the central “Social Function of Poetry.” If he is correct, any writer insulated from contemporary poetry will, even in his own language, always speak in something of a remote dialect. This is as potentially crippling a handicap to would-be Christian poets and hymnists, whose desire must be to communicate timeless truth and perceptions in an authentic contemporary diction, as it is to the readers and singers of their work who wish to apprehend those truths and share those perceptions.

For these reasons I hope to periodically present here poetic voices from the present and past that will both enrich and challenge us, as well as teach us to be better speakers of our native tongue.

Richard Wilbur is one such voice. There is little I can say about this great writer that has not been said elsewhere by . Wilbur began writing verse while serving our nation in the European Theater of World War II. He published his first collection, The Beautiful Changes, in 1947, thereby establishing a reputation that has steadily grown in stature and solidity ever since. He has received nearly every honor devised for poets, including a National Book Award, a Bollingen Prize, and Two Pulitzers. He served as the U. S. Poet Laureate from 1987-1988.

Probably the best single volume in which to encounter Wilbur is his Collected Poems 1943-2004 in which, alongside several chapters of delightful children’s and light verse, appear all his major serious work, including the poem we will briefly discuss below.

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“The Undead,” a poem ostensibly about vampires, was first published at the tail end of the 1950’s Hollywood monster craze. Wilbur, however, makes sly use of his sinister yet ultimately harmless subjects (dwelling as they do solely in the imaginary realm) as metaphors for something truly frightening. The initial clues for this figuration come in the first stanza.

Even as children they were late sleepers,
Preferring their dreams, even when quick with monsters,
To the world with all its breakable toys,
Its compacts with the dying;

Here are no pasty wraiths with Eastern European accents. These are children, perhaps bearing a hint of damage, which might once have been one’s neighbors and “under the plums of summer/Drifted like winter moons.//Secret, unfriendly, pale . . .”

But rather than outgrowing such antisocial tendencies, these children “came, as all extremists do/In time, to a sort of grandeur.” Later lines reveal their true monstrosity. “Strange/That their utter self-concern//Should, in the end, have left them selfless.”

This selflessness, of course, is neither altruistic idealism nor Christian humility. In their quest to satisfy their solipsistic desires, these creatures have lost their personhood and seek to content themselves by siphoning delight from the lives of others, giving nothing in return.

In the interest of humanization, Wilbur, but for a couple of stanzas, avoids the trappings (such as capes and caskets) commonly associated with vampires, for it is indeed the human with which he is chiefly concerned. Rather than ending the poem with the driving of holly stakes or sunlight incinerations, Wilbur calls the reader to pity.

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Think how sad it must be . . .

To prey on life forever and not possess it,
As rock-hollows, tide after tide
Glassily strand the sea.

At least one critic has read “The Undead” as a satire of self-consumed artists, but I disagree. Rather, it seems to me, Wilbur presents here an updated (albeit secular) rendition of Jones Very’s sonnet “The Dead.” Note that Wilbur both plays off of Very’s title and echoes such imagery and sentiment as the following:

They mimic life, as if from Him to steal
His glow of health to paint the livid cheek;

and

. . . in their show of life more dead they live
Than those that to the earth with many tears they give.

Where Very presents life lived without the knowledge of God as falsely hollow, Wilbur imagines the plight of those who, afraid of giving themselves wholly to life and risking loss of happiness, relinquish any opportunity to attain either.

I will not take the time to explore other aspects of “The Undead” (such as the gentle iambics) that contribute to its success, rather I hope you will take the time to discover them and the entirety of the poem along with the many other delights resident the great bulk of Wilbur’s work, all of which combine to make him, arguably, our greatest living formal poet.

About David Oestreich

David Oestreich lives in northwest Ohio with his wife and three children. He is a maker of poems, photographs, fishing flies, and Saturday afternoon semi-haute cuisine. His poetry has appeared in various venues, both print and online.

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