Christianity and Literature, Vol.41, No. 4 (Summer 1992), 520-21.


Richard Wilbur

The CCL Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry is today being given to Richard Wilbur, in the view of many America's finest post-war poet. He has been writing poetry since childhood and published his first volume, The Beautiful Changes, forty-five years ago. One of the special pleasures of preparing for today's program was the discovery that Richard Wilbur and Cleanth Brooks have much in common. If you did not know, for example, that A Shaping Joy was a title by Professor Brooks, I might get away with listing it as a poem by Mr. Wilbur. And many of Mr. Wilbur's remarks on such matters as community, ceremony, order, and the religious foundations of great art are congruous with Professor Brooks's positions on these subjects.

One of the most interesting overlaps is that the negative comments on these two writers are strikingly similar. One of Mr. Wilbur's critics remarked, apparently in frustration, that "Richard Wilbur has all of the qualities of a great poet except vulgarity." Vulgarity is also, it seems, an essential quality for great critics, and thus we must toss out Professor Brooks. The most common negative comment on Professor Brooks, as you well know, is that he seals himself in a room without windows or doors with his beloved text, divorced from history and contemporary life. The most common negative comment on Mr. Wilbur is similar. He is caricatured as an aesthete with an angelic imagination who spins out gorgeous webs in his ivory tower, divorced from the human and political world. Such judgments are of course bizarre to anyone who has read these two thoroughly responsible and humane citizens of the republic of letters.

This evening at 5:15, in one of the ballrooms at the Hilton, CCL will sponsor a public reading by Richard Wilbur. My assumption is that each of you will be there, and I know that you do not want me to rehearse my full introduction now. Thus I will keep the background to a minimum and then move on to the reason why CCL has chosen to present this award to Mr. Wilbur.

After graduating from Amherst, Mr. Wilbur served in the war in Europe, and then upon his return did a master's degree at Harvard and commenced his long teaching career—first, at Harvard, then Wellesley, then Wesleyan, and finally Smith. Depending on how you count the collected poems, he has published seven or more volumes of poetry, and has won virtually every award except the Nobel Prize, including the Pulitzer (twice), the National Book Award, the Bollinger Award, and the Edna St. Vincent Millay Award. He has held all of the prestigious fellowships including the Ford, the Guggenheim (twice), and the Prix de Rome. In 1987 he succeeded Robert Penn Warren as the Poet Laureate of the United States. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which he has served as both President and Chancellor, and he has also served as Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets. He has numerous honorary doctorates, and since 1986 has been an Honorary Fellow of MLA.

Richard Wilbur is also one of the century's most distinguished literary translators, with five award-winning verse translations of Moliere's plays and two of Racine's. These plays have been greatly successful both on and off Broadway. To the theatrical work we must add his successful collaboration with Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein in the musical version of Candide. Mr. Wilbur has written a number of children's books, including Loudmouse and Opposites. Finally, it should be mentioned that he has made significant contributions to literary criticism, especial on Poe.

CCL has chosen Richard Wilbur to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award because his life and attitudes bear witness to Christian virtue and because his work springs from and enriches Western religious art. His love for and sensitivity to his fellow creatures, his humility before the natural world, and his openness to the supernatural are all marked by a Christian sense of grace. He has insisted more than once that all great art is religious, that metaphor and simile by definition move toward the perception of an underlying unity. But his work is religious in a sense that the work of Yeats, for example, is not. Though certainly not propagandistic or Christian in a defiant way, it reflects a specifically Christian view of the nature of human life and of reality. In an early interview he said that the philosophers and theologians who have influenced him most are Augustine, Thomas Traherne in his "Centuries," and Pascal. He also said that his "view of things, though not steady, is a Christian" view. He seems "called to praise," as he put it in "Praise in Summer," but he is also aware of evil and the irremedial duality of postlapsarian human existence, as shown by such poems as "On the Marginal Way," "For Dudley," "Children of Darkness," and even "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World." He enables us to hear the first birdsong and to realize our homelessness at home, for which we are grateful.

For the calligraphied award for Mr. Wilbur, I chose the following lines from "Someone Talking to Himself”': "Love is the greatest mercy, / A volley of the sun / That lashes all with shade, / That the first day be mended."

Mr. Wilbur, in honoring you we honor ourselves. Thank you for your poetry and your other work. We are confident it will endure, and as 1993 begins we wish you health and happiness and many more years of still beautiful changes.



[The following conversation between Jewel Spears Brooker, President of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, and Richard Wilbur took place at the Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association. The interview was held in the MLA Press Room at the New York Hilton from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. on 29 December 1992.]

JSB: Mr. Wilbur, I would like to begin with a personal question. In June of this year, you had your fiftieth wedding anniversary. Many poets, Eliot for example, seem to have sought the muse out of domestic desperation, but you, perhaps more like Lord Tennyson, have been deprived of the impetus of misery. I was wondering if you might have any reflections on marriage and on the difference it might have made in your poetry to have had a settled domestic happiness.

RW: Oh, undoubtedly, that has been a steadying and happy-making thing, to be married to the same woman for more than fifty years, to have existed in a state of enchantment for so long. My wife was the first person it occurred to me to marry, and I was really quite stunned that she felt the same about me. I know that I would be capable of great disorder and emotional confusion if I were out of my wife's orbit; she really has greatly steadied me.

JSB: You have often remarked in interviews that you show your poems to your wife, and then there is the interesting story about how she took the initiative and showed that first cache of poems to André du Bouchet and thus was at the center of the event which inaugurated your career as a poet (Amherst Literary Magazine 1964). You also say somewhere, in a forgiving tone of course, that she has been "bullying you" into doing more children's books {Paris Review 1977). I wonder if she has been primarily a general inspiration and facilitator or if she might have served in more technical ways, as a sort of critical, in more senses than one, presence—if on occasion she might have made suggestions which made a difference in specific poems.

RW: Well, she is not a specialist in poetry, I would say, but she is a very good reader of it. I always trust her responses, and I don't think I would publish a poem of which she stubbornly disapproved. She's invaluable to me when I'm translating fromthe French, because she had far better academic training in French than I. Her French is simply better than mine is, and so she can check, for accuracy of sense and tone, everything that I translate. That means that she has been very busy over these years, as I was doing Molière and Racine in quantity. She doesn't very much ride herd on me, and tell me to be about my business. I recall reading about Mrs. John Masefield that she would usher the Laureate into his study to get a little more work done every day. I've never really had to be urged to work, but I don't think my wife would be a taskmistress in that manner.

JSB: That's one sort of relationship. Another sort is the type in which the spouse will actually suggest lines. In The Waste Land, for example, Vivien Eliot added the line "What you get married for if you don't want to have children" to her husband's typescript, and as you know that line appears in the poem (The Waste Land: A Facsimile 15).

RW: Actually, she has come up with words on occasion. When l was doing a cantata for the Statue of Liberty with William Schuman, she improved one line of my text immeasurably. I undoubtedly owe her a good many other credits.

JSB: My next question is on inspiration. In describing the creative process, you have often spoken of an incipient poem as though it had a mind of its own. Consistently, you have used words suggesting that a poem coming into being has desire, volition, and the ability to choose. For example, you speak of being receptive "to what the rhythm of the utterance wants to be" and of letting "the words of a developing poem choose their own forms." You say that many ofyour poems "hung in the air three years, five years, before I could find out where they wanted to go" and of "poems choosing... to be fulfilled." You speak of yourself—the poet—as waiting in an easy chair "to see if anything wants to happen" (Trinity Review 1962; South Carolina Review 1970; Paris Review 1977). As you talk about these matters, it seems that in poetry as perhaps in ontology "essence precedes existence," that in some mysterious way the poem preexists the marks on your paper. This is a classical position, of course, aversion of which exists in Homer, Virgil, Milton, and Eliot. Are you saying that, at least in your experience, a poem is something discovered, something born (pun intended), ultimately something given? And that you are a vehicle? Would you mind commenting on the unarticulated theory of inspiration which seems to be lurking behind your comments on the creative process?

RW: I guess that I so often express myself in the ways that you have just quoted that I must truly mean it. And, of course, I can think of other poets who describe the process of writing and of approaching the job of writing in very much the same way. Frost's description of writing poems is very similar. He ascribes a kind of passivity to what other people call the creative state. A poem comes to him, and its development is like the melting of a piece of ice on a hot stove. It does it itself. I think probably there is a theory of knowledge and language behind these simple expressions of passivity I use when I describe the writing process. I think it is probably true that we know things before we have found words for them, and that when I'm writing a poem I already have in a cloudy way a certain knowledge which I hope will come to me by way of words I may find. That's the way it feels to me.

JSB: I would like to turn now to some of your published comments on the nature of the imagination. You have consistently emphasized that, to quote you, "the imagination is a faculty which fuses things, takes hold of the physical and ideal worlds and makes them one" (Paris Review 1977). You are in this notion the child of Coleridge, who says something similar in Biographia Literaria. But I wonder if this is the whole story about you. In reading your poems over and over this fall, I sensed in some of them that you were also the child of Hazlitt, who thought of the imagination as an act of radical sympathy, of creative sympathetic engagement. The concept was shared by Keats, of course, who flies on the invisible wings of poetry to sing "tender is the night" with the nightingale and who says in one of his letters: "If a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel" (Keats 366). Do you feel that Hazlitt's notion is germane to the operation ofyour own imagination? If so, how?

RW: The Coleridge definition of the imaginative process is one which of course I know, and I believe it applies to me. I do also recognize in myself the Hazlitt and Keats kind of imagination. I don't know whether I actually peck with every sparrow that comes within my ken, but I know that what I'm trying to get right in a poem is not merely my own thoughts but the nature of physical things and of other lives which I'm contemplating. I think that I'm probably in a rough way quoting Howard Nemerov, who said that poetry was getting something right in words. That of course is the way you feel when you write a poem; you're trying to get something right, super-right, lighter than you would trouble to get it in prose. And some of the Tightness has to be descriptive and participatory in the Keats and Hazlitt way. You go often out of yourself, seemingly out of yourself, in pursuit of truth to the subject.

JSB: Let me pursue that a little more. Take "The Writer, "for example, that wonderful little poem about your daughter Ellen sitting in her room trying to write a short story. You said once that the two basic images in the poem—that of your daughter writing and of the dazed starling trying to get out of the window—were separate events which came together in your mind and that then your imagination had something to work with (Paris Review 1977). I see your point here. But I must add that this poem seems to me to provide a striking example of Hazlitt's concept of radical sympathy. And I don't mean simply that you as a writer sympathize with your daughter or that the daughter is like the starling. It seems to me, though I may have it all wrong, that when this dazed starling flies into the window of your mind, you respond to it as Keats did to the sparrow pecking in his gravel. In battering against the brilliance with the sleek, wild, dark, and iridescent creature, in falling humped and bloody with this bird, you reveal through sympathy the danger and frustration and violence potential in art. And it seems to this reader at least that it is the sympathetic engagement with the starling which enables you to under- stand that making a lucky passage is a matter of life and death. Could you reflect on the way your imagination might have operated in this poem?

RW: I do see that the poem became possible to write because of the confluence in my mind of those two ideas—of my daughter's struggle to write, and of the trapped bird's struggle in the room. One does need, in order to start a poem at all, a somewhat surprising convergence of things, of images, and also of words that are worthy of them. I think also that that poem may represent, in a dramatic way, two stages of imagination. The initial figure in the poem, the figure of a ship setting forth on what may prove a lucky passage, is meant to seem somewhat perfunctory. It's the kind of figure that can be offered without any great degree of sympathy, without any great sense of identification with the person addressed. And then through the identification with the remembered bird, the poem goes into another kind of imagination, the Hazlitt kind, and arrives at a greater genuineness of sympathy with the daughter by the end. There is something sort of perfunctorily magisterial about the initial image, I think, and then all of that is lost in the latter part of the poem, lost or overcome.

JSB: I'm struck by the association of the girl-writer and the bird, and I think you may be revealing more here through sympathy than you were aware of at the time.

RW: Revealing the painfulness that the writing process can sometime have? Or perhaps, more generally, the effort of making a lucky passage?

JSB: Not just that. Revealing a sort of violence at the heart of what you do. The lucky passage of the bird is not easy, and it leaves him humped and bloody. In identifying first your daughter but ultimately yourself as a writer with this bird, you seem to be suggesting that the lucky passage is a passage through something dark, that a lucky passage is costly in human terms.

RW: Perhaps in the early stages of the poem I'm simply thinking on the level of writing, and not thinking what writing is. Writing is the effort to get out of oneself and into the domain of the common language, the language which belongs to everyone else; it's ultimately a kind of social act and an act of escape from the self. And I think the poem doesn't realize that in its early stages, but it realizes it by the time it's through. Writing in that larger sense, as escape from one's self into something that's social, can indeed be a life-or-death matter.

JSB: Yes, I see that. For this passage beyond the self, one does need luck. And in one way or another, perhaps as a person, perhaps as an artist, it's a matter of life or death. One more question on the imagination. Virginia Woolf maintained that the imagination was androgynous, that—to take her example—the imagination of Shakespeare was at once male and female and so was the imagination of Jane Austen. In Woolf s view, the fruitfulness of the greatest writers is inseparable from this mental in-dwelling of both male and female. A number of contemporary critics insist, on the contrary, that the imagination is gendered, that there is a distinct female imagination. You said in 1972 that you believe that men and women have "different sensibilities"(New York Quarterly), and in 1977 (Paris Review) you restated that position and went on to associate men with abstraction, with ideas, and women with the concrete, with experience. You added, "I don't believe in the possibility of a female Hegel." Could you comment on the imagination as androgynous or as gendered? And if, as seems to be the case, you think it is gendered, how has your own masculine imagination and epistemology worked itself out in your poems? Or if you think it is androgynous, what difference has that made in your work?

RW: I suppose what I have previously said on this matter may be over- simple. I know that if I tried to demonstrate the truth of my gendered proposition in the individual case, I would undoubtedly be unjust, to some degree, or imperceptive. I do in a general way think of women as being more capably in touch with things, with the concrete and the everyday, than men are, and I think of men as being more capable of a credulous use of abstract thought than women are. But good heavens, if I started talking about Elizabeth Bishop and applying my notions to her, I might very well grow impatient of myself. As for myself, I don't think of myself as an androgyne on any plane, but I know that I partake of some of the qualities I ascribe to women, and I wouldn't be without them.

JSB: You said someplace else that you could think of nothing that you are not, including Adolf Hitler (Paris Review 1977). I would assume that you can also think that there is a woman within.

RW: Well, I'm sure there is. That is, long before people began to talk about nurturing, I'm sure that the nurturing inclination had surfaced in me. It was always a pleasure for me to give the baby a bottle at 3 o'clock in the morning and to take care of all sorts of other activities which used to be considered the province of women. I like to cook, for example, and I even like to wash the dishes.

JSB: Your own poetry, of course, is not so abstract. Dickinson's, in away, is more abstract.

RW: Yes, she has more big nouns in her poems than I do.

JSB: Indeed. Presentiment, renunciation, hope, faith, circumference. And perhaps, then, she has a masculine imagination. Let's move on to another poet, another sort of imagination. You have mentioned on a number of occasions your course on Milton. Your awareness of him is evident in both your poetry and your criticism. "A Problem from Milton," of course, announces his presence, but to a careful reader he is almost omnipresent, stubbornly persisting in such recent poems as "Lying." Meditations on the Miltonic themes of innocence, loss, and redemption abound in your work. Your criticism also takes our great epic poet as a reference point, and on more than one occasion you have referred to his usefulness in teaching creative writing. More than once, you have quoted the magnificent passage in Paradise Lost on Satan's plunge from heaven to hell. In one interview you called Milton, quite rightly in my view, "the greatest verse architect in history," and you have expressed special admiration for "Comus" and "Lycidas" (Finding the Words 1985). What is your favorite work by Milton? Why do you like it? What is your general estimate of Milton as a poet and as a man? Finally, would you comment on the relation between his faith in God and his confidence in the social relevance of his work as a poet?

RW: That's a lot of questions.

JSB: Well, first, then, your favorite poem and your general estimate.

RW: My favorite Milton poem is "Lycidas." That's the one that people usually choose, and I choose it without hesitation. When I was teaching at Wesleyan, I found myself becoming the Milton man, and I used to teach "Lycidas" every year. I used to give "Lycidas" three or four classes of discussion and of reading aloud. There was always the danger of analyzing it to death, you know, but I found that every time, when the investigation of "Lycidas" was over, it was possible for me to read it aloud to the class and for it to seem fresh to me and fresh to them. It's an indestructible poem; it can't be damaged by any amount of thought or talk about it. I don't know that I can say precisely what its wonders are. Many people have investigated strands of the poem, such as the water imagery, and found his use of those things marvelous. I could, I sup- pose— especially if I had a copy of it here in front of me—distinguish many strands of that kind. I think that even though we have a fairly remote familiarity with the pastoral form, it's exciting to see Milton in this poem, as in so many of his poems, taking an existing form and topping all previous performances in it, and somewhat changing the nature of the form. He does the same thing with the sonnet, the same thing with the epic.

JSB: Would you comment on the relation between his faith in God and his confidence in the social relevance of his work as a poet?

RW: Well, I am greatly impressed by what we were speaking of last night, greatly impressed in Milton by his feeling for the mission of Christian poetry, the mission that his epic would be exemplary to a nation. He does seem truly to have believed that if he wrote a Christian epic that would top all of the pagan epics and exhibit a new and vivid kind of Christian heroism, it would improve his readers, improve indeed the English nation as the day of judgment approached. That means that Milton had a remarkable sense of purpose which I think no contemporary poet, no poet nowadays, can match. It's an enviable sense of the utility of poetry that he had.

JSB: I should say so. Being reminded that Milton is one's predecessor must bring on a serious feeling, to use Professor Bloom's term, of "belatedness." Does your intimate knowledge of such a magnificent and powerful precursor in some sense dispirit you, cause you to feel like a latecomer in poetry, like the latest in a tradition in which no child has equalled the father? In which there has been a generation-by-generation diminution? Do you feel this weight of greatness at your back, and if so what are its practical effects in your life and art? RW: I don't feel bullied by Milton. His dimensions are vast, and I don't expect them to be matched in my century. I think it is not by great poets of much earlier ages that we feel overshadowed. It is far more likely to be poets of the preceding generation, or of our own generation, who inhibit us, make us feel small, affect us with despair in our enterprises, make us nervously anxious to avoid conspicuous copying. I have none of those difficulties you referred to with Milton. In "Lying" I used a rather Miltonic blank verse. I hope that my paragraphs of verse are as muscular as his. And I come right out and use some of his words in italics. I think that shows that it doesn't really bother me that I'm putting much of what I have learned from Milton, much of what I admire in him, at the service of a contemporary utterance. I think if I felt that I were being old- fashioned through my imitations, through my evocations, then I would have my moments of being uncertain. I don't think he draws one into that.

JSB: I'm interested to hear how you as a working poet respond to another of Mr. Bloom's theories—namely, the "anxiety of influence." In your experience, does writing poetry involve willful and drastic distortion of the work of your forebears? In saying, as you have, that "art is prompted, in the first place, by other art, and…artists, however original, respond to other artists" ("Regarding Places"), you are granting Mr. Bloom's first premise. You have said some things about Frost that could be interpreted as pointing to the operation of this Freudian theory in your creative life. For example: "I know all my life I've been reading Robert Frost, and sometimes that is visible. I don't want it to be. I try to get rid of the signs that show." You also have said that you have most of his poems by heart, and "So there is someone at whose feet I have sat, although after a while I got up off the floor and we were just friends"(Paris Review 1977). Some critics would maintain that "getting rid of the signs" and "getting up off the floor" would involve a swerve, a willful distortion, an act of symbolic murder. What are your views on this chilling subject?

RW: I don't think that has been the case with my relations with Robert Frost. Frost's biographers, especially Lawrence Thompson, let us see a great deal of the unhandsome side of Frost's nature, but he could be, and was always to me, a very kindly and generous man. He encouraged me from the beginning, and I have never felt that I had to be violent against Frost or against the idea of Frost in myself in order to write my own things. I never thought that I had to misunderstand him. I think I understand him fairly well and accept and admire what I grasp in him.

JSB: In general, then, you would say that Mr. Bloom's theories don't seem to describe what you as an artist are doing, what you are thinking.

RW: That's the way I feel about it.

JSB: Your poetry and prose exhibit a real familiarity with the Bible, both the basic doctrines and the stories—and not in a vague way, for you often echo and sometimes directly refer to specific verses. I remember a number of references to Genesis, to Isaiah, to the Pauline epistles, the Gospel of John, and then there is your Audenesque poem "Matthew VIII, 2 8 ff." about the devils being cast out of the Gadarene and going into the swine. That poem, with its suggestion that possession by devils is organically related to dispossession by love, points unobtrusively to a biblical fundamental, or so it seems to me. How did you come to know the Bible? At home as a child? In school? In church? Independent study? And was your knowledge of the Bible gained from reading the Bible itself or was it mediated through literary texts, such as Paradise Lost, or the poems of Hopkins, both of which I know you enjoy?

RW: Well, I think that my experience of the Bible is probably very comparable to that of many other Episcopalians. Episcopalians, like many Roman Catholics, don't read the Bible very much. The Prayer Book is more central to their experience than the Bible. When I was sent off to Sunday School as a child, I remember almost nothing in the way of Bible instruction. I recall that one of my Sunday School teachers compared the religious emotions to the feelings she had when out on camping trips or when viewing a beautiful sunset. There was a lot of that sort of thing, though not all of it so silly as that. I felt that the kind of training I got in the Episcopal Church was mostly geared to the Prayer Book and to the progress toward confirmation. I heard, of course, the daily and Sunday lessons read from the Prayer Book.

JSB: Yes. And the Old Testament and Gospel and Epistle readings directly from the Bible. RW: Yes. And sometimes sermons dealt in an enlightening way with certain lessons and fixed them in my mind. I know that in my later years, in my adult years, I often came at the Bible through the writings of people like Hopkins, through the writings of almost anybody who might have biblical references or notions in his work. So it has been a fitful and sometimes roundabout acquaintance that I've had with the Bible. When I was a lay reader for a time in the Episcopal Church, I of course did become more familiar with it. Still, more through the Book of Common Prayer than the Bible itself.

JSB: Which edition of the Prayer Book do you use?

RW: Well, we use the revised Prayer Book.

JSB: Then not the 1928 Prayer Book?

RW: Unfortunately not. My preference is for the 1928 Prayer Book. There are certain advantages in the new one, but there is also a lot of confusion. It bothers me at any rate to experience an interweaving of liturgies in one of which God is addressed as "Thou" and in another of which he is addressed as "you." I can't help—because I experienced the 1928 Prayer Book for so long—I can't help hearing the newer liturgies, even when they are good, as a succession of mistakes.

JSB: I do understand. And, yes, this is most frustrating for one's ears! I would like to ask a follow-up on the Bible. We did not need Northrop Frye, of course, to tell us that the Bible has had an incalculable influence on English literature. On this subject Eliot once said that the "Bible has had a literary influence... not because it has been considered as literature, but because it has been considered as the report of the Word of God." He went on to predict that the desacralization of the Bible, its classification as literature, would be the end of it as a literary influence ("Religion and Literature," Selected Prose 98). Do you think that the fact that the Bible seems, like Brady's soldiers, to have been "subdued beyond belief will lead to its demise as an influence on Western literature? And if so, should we care?

RW: I'm sure that the Bible is being secularized, being treated as literature, in many of the academies. I remember that as long ago as the 1930s an edition of the Bible was offered to the general public under the title The Bible Designed to Be Read as Living Literature, something like that. Well, I know that it's happening, that many people read the Bible without any notion that it is in some sense the Word of God.

JSB: Do you agree with Eliot's basic premise? That the reason for the Bible's enormous literary influence is not that it has been considered as literature but that it has been considered as the Word of God?

RW: I'm trying to get my mind around that. I haven't encountered that opinion of Eliot's. I'm sure that the Bible had enormous authority and literary influence for precisely that reason. At the same time I suspect that, without discussing its divine authority, one can simply say that we are now very much less exposed to it—we hear it less often than we used to do. For that simple reason it's likely to be less of an influence on literary style. Walt Whitman's poetry, if you want to call it poetry—I'm not denying it genius, but I'm wondering whether in a formal sense he writes poetry—Walt Whitman's style of writing derives in great part from the Psalms.

JSB: You mean his parallelism.

RW: Yes, grammatical parallelism is his principle, yes, and I think there are still some people whose work reflects the influence of the Psalms as much as it does the influence of Whitman. But I daresay that this will happen less and less if the Bible continues to become just another book. But I'm simply thinking in terms of exposure to it. I think that in my church anyone would be indulged in his doubts about the Bible as a divine book, and I imagine there are creeping doubts in other denominations as well, doubts as to what the expression the "Word of God" might mean as applied to the Bible. We say a lot of things in a sort of conditional way, simply because they have been said in the past.

JSB: There are, of course, different understandings of "inspiration" and "divinity," and there are some relevant and sophisticated theories of language.

RW: I think that in a church with a rather fully set liturgy, like the Episcopal Church, a large part ofwhat one does is to find in what way one can accept the words of the liturgy. It involves quite a lot of clever adjustment in saying the Creed, for example. I remember that one of the priests of my childhood went through a crisis of faith in which some phrase in the Creed became impossible for him to say, and he simply announced to the congregation that that phrase he wasn't going to be able to say. This was respected by everyone in the congregation, I think, because we were all used to searching and searching for ways in which to say these words with conviction.

JSB: It's an old problem. I know that Robert Southwell, back in the days of Elizabeth I, was hanged, drawn, and quartered for recommending that English Catholics "equivocate"—in a technical sense, that they say one thing but reserve a special and different meaning of those words in their hearts.

RW: Yes, the Jesuitical technique. It involves lying with purity of intention. JSB: Remembering the situation of European Jews just before and during the War, we can certainly understand the moral dilemma here. RW: Indeed.

JSB: In your essay on Housman's "Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries," you remark that Housman's allusions to the Bible, Paradise Lost, and Greek myth are easily spotted and "to some degree familiar to every educated reader." Referring to Housman's line they "took their wages and are dead," you say that "the poem assumes that the words 'wages' and 'dead' will suffice to suggest St. Paul, and I think that a fair assumption" ("Round About a Poem of Housman's"). You offered that judgment in 1961.1 am wondering if you still consider it a fair assumption, and if not what are the implications for the future of poetry? If "tact," which you define in the Housman essay as understanding not merely what is said but what is meant—if tact is important, what can we do to nourish and facilitate tact? Isa tactful reading of even modern poetry (say, Housman's or Auden's or Eliot's or yours) possible for a reader who has had no contact with the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer? If not, is this a situation which we as educators should try to remedy, and if so how?

RW: Well, I'm all in favor of core curricula myself, and of societies in which people in general may be expected to hold certain texts in com- mon, in which people are capable of understanding certain common references. I don't know whether Bible references are now harder for people to catch or easier, because I really don't know what shifts in American religious life may have occurred in the last several decades, whether there are more or fewer Bible readers amongst us. In general, of course, if you think back a long way, it is obvious that Bible reading is much on the decline in our society as elsewhere, so that St. Paul's remarks about the wages of sin are less easy to refer to with confidence now than they would have been a hundred years ago.

JSB: What are the implications of this for the future of poetry?

RW: I suppose it means that the poems of the future, unless they abandon the privilege of being widely referential, are going to have to have more footnotes. I'm afraid that we can't make the suppositions about readers that we used to make even twenty-five or thirty years ago. It used to be that references to Don Quixote, for example, would be understood by almost everybody even without Man of La Mancha intervening. I think that sort of thing can't be counted on now as much as it could several decades back. Perhaps the catastrophic time was in the sixties when the idiotic idea of relevance came into all the academies, and many students were told that they didn't have to read this, didn't have to read that, didn't have to read anything indeed which didn't conspicuously pertain to them.

JSB: You mentioned in one interview that you have read Wordsworth "with goodwill" but that you "found much of him damnably earnest and still do" (New York Quarterly 1972). I hope, then, you will be able to accept the following as the compliment I mean it to be. So often in reading your work I am reminded of Wordsworth, the great poet of joy. He believed that the Divine Spirit moving through all things is a Spirit of Joy, that the ability to be pleased is life-sustaining, and he believed that bitter people sin just by the way they look on the world. Now I am not saying that you believe such old-fangled things, but I notice that the "you" in your poems moves in this direction. I notice too the sacramental element in your approach to nature, as in "October Maples." And I simply cannot read your poem "Running" without noting the structural and thematic echo of "Tintern Abbey." Like Wordsworth's great ode, "Running" is a poem about memories of memories, at once a lament and a celebration of the passage of time, the stages of life, of the journey from, to use Wordsworth's phrase, the "pleasures of my boyish days "with" their glad animal movements" to the "aching joy" of early manhood to the sober philosophic joy of maturity. And as Wordsworth observes the earlier stages of his own self in his sister, your runner observes them in his sons, running with their dog. In some ways you are not at all like Wordsworth, of course, but am I simply seeing what is not there? Could you reflect on this congruence I see and perhaps comment on your experience with Wordsworth's poetry?

RW: I'm utterly surprised by your comparison of "Running" to "Tintern Abbey," and yet I think that you make a just case for a number of resemblances. My piece, of course, is more presentational than Wordsworth's extraordinary poem, which is so overtly philosophic. When I think of "Tintern Abbey," I think of much more subtle argument about nature, imagination, and the ages of man, all of it brilliantly motivated by the scene, the situation, the presence of Dorothy. For some reason I have very little of Wordsworth by heart, but when I go back and read the "Immortality Ode" or "Surprised by Joy," it's as if I were revisiting beloved houses in which I've lived. They are deeply familiar. My guess is that I've never specifically echoed Wordsworth, but that—as many con- temporary poets could say—he has inescapably shaped my sense of things. What Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Emerson suppose about the relations of mind, God, and nature are part of my inheritance and lexicon. As is Frost's critique of those suppositions.

JSB: In an interview back in 1964, you were discussing poetry as a way of talking seriously. You quoted Joseph Beach as saying that one "never tells lies in poetry." And you immediately added, "I think that's right" (Amherst Literary Magazine, 1964). Now it seems from the context that you and Beach were not talking about claiming, "at a dead party, to have spotted a grackle," nor were you talking about "the great lies told with eyes half-shut / That have the truth in view." Nor were you insisting, Oscar Wilde fashion, on metaphor as moral imperative. By "lying" Beach seemed to have meant using language in a way that distorts or perverts or falsifies. Do you in fact believe one "never tells lies in poetry?" Are you suggesting that when we turn on our aesthetic sense, we shut down our ethical and moral sense? Would it not be an ultimate betrayal of Pound to read the Cantos as though they were aesthetic objects, divorced from history and ethics and morality? And what about Plath's "brilliant negative"? What about her lack of perspective, her lack of fairness to her parents? If "one never tells lies in poetry," then is truth related to aesthetics and not to morality and ethics and love? What are your views on the relation between poetry and truth, and about whether or not it is legitimate to bring one's ethical and moral norms to bear in aesthetic judgment?

RW: Maybe people have told lies in this poem or that. I really can't be certain. But I think that the kind of care, the kind of endless polishing that goes on, the searching and polishing that goes on in the writing of a poem, would be strange—it would be very strange to take such care in order to tell a lie. It seems to me that one is trying, as Howard Nemerov said, to get it right, and the "it" one is trying to get right is what one feels about some matter. A lot of what constitutes a good line is precision, elegance in the expression of an idea. I do think that we do wrong to say that when ugly attitudes are honestly expressed in poetry, they are perfectly transmuted by the poet's technique and are somehow no longer to be judged in moral terms. I think Ezra Pound sometimes expresses unattractive ideas in an excellent and compelling way. He does as well as he can by certain bad ideas. So it is legitimate to that extent, I think, to distinguish between the aesthetic value of a poem and its moral statement.

JSB: So by "truth" you seem to mean a sort of truth to self, a purely subjective lightness, and not "truth, " as you have defined it elsewhere, as a fit between the subjective and the objective, the inner and outer worlds. Are you saying that if one truly feels something that is vicious or that is blatantly inconsistent with things as they are, one tells the "truth" by expressing that?

RW: Yes, I think so. It's hard to say the acceptable thing ifyour thoughts are truly unacceptable; at any rate, it's hard to do this when you are writing a poem. Why should you take all the trouble that a poem amounts to in order to be dishonest about your true feelings? It's to find a way of unburdening yourself with precision that you write a poem. But I also think that faithfulness to what is "out there" is an aspect of the general truthfulness at which the poet aims.

JSB: Plato, of course, is the great reference point in discussions of truth and poetry. And in Book III of the Republic he argues that art which is technically excellent and aesthetically pleasing is capable of the greatest harm. Plato would consider the modern argument that poetical charm redeems heinous content as hopelessly decadent. RW: Yes. Yes, that's so.

JSB: In your 1966 essay "On My Own Work," you say that your poems do not "begin as the statement of a fully grasped idea; I think inside my lines and the thought must get where it can amongst the moods and sounds and gravitating particulars which are appearing there." I am wondering if "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" might be an exception to this general principle. Did you encounter this lovely idea and in reflect- ing on it come to write the poem, or did you write the poem and only gradually connect it with St. Augustine?

RW: Oh, you are speaking there of the title, aren't you? Yes. Do you know for a certainty that that comes from St. Augustine?

JSB: I know for a certainty that you yourself said so. You are my authority on this.

RW: I have said so in the past. I have said I thought it came perhaps from his commentary on the Psalms, but I have never been able to find it. I've never been able to find it, and for years I have been expressing uncertainty about where I got that title, and even authorities like all the fathers at Notre Dame have failed to come up with it.

JSB: Perhaps it's your line; maybe you just made it up.

RW: I don't think I made it up. Howard Nemerov thought it might have come out of the Convivio, and I haven't really hunted through that for my title.

JSB: There must be a concordance to Augustine's works.

RW: There probably is, and that's something to look into. I should hunt it down. But I know that it was a phrase that I encountered in Rome in 1956 because that is where the poem was written. I'm sure that it's a phrase that rang a bell with me as soon as I saw it. I don't think it begot the whole poem. I think it sort of converged with the poem once I got to writing about laundry. Before I went to Europe, I really didn't know what baroque meant. I think I had associated it with rococo mirrors in beauty parlors, quite incorrectly. I became an instant convert to the baroque aesthetic.

JSB: Milton's style, of course, is baroque, as is Bach's.

RW: Indeed, indeed. Well, I so much enjoyed making the acquaintance of the churches of Borromini and Bernini, of baroque sculpture too. You can see how the treatment of draperies in the sculpture of the baroque artists would have gotten into my perception of laundry, and that really is how that poem came about.

JSB: Interesting. Your angels and your draperies. I remember all of those angels in draperies in baroque art.

RW: Oh, yes, lots of angels. And angels interestingly, energetically, draped. That's the general background of the poem which was written in Rome in, when did I say, I think it was 1954, 1955 actually.

JSB: I see. Now the thing I was curious about is that it seems like a phrase that has generative power rather than one that would suddenly appear as a conclusion to a poetic process.

RW: Well, I cannot swear. There must be some use for those worksheets that accumulate in the Amherst library, and maybe if I looked back at the worksheets for that poem I could see whether the title was there from the start. I can't guess whether that was so. The thing l'm sure about with that poem is that my general excitement about the baroque and about what the baroque means is behind the poem. The expression of spiritual things strongly through the senses is the baroque program, and this ties in very well with what the poem demands. A bringing down of the angels into this world.

JSB: Yes, you bring them down, but in such a way that you don't tie them down.

RW: No. Right. I hope not.

JSB: What about "A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness?" Was that passage from Traherne a beginning point, an inspiration?

RW: It's possible that that line from Traherne's prose led me toward a poem. I can't be sure. I'm afraid I have lost that. I know that my usual behavior is not to think of a title for a poem until well into the writing of it and perhaps not until I'm through with it, but I'm not confident about either poem. I would say that my usual practice would incline me to say no.

JSB: Titles of poems, for me as a reader at least, are very important. They hang in the mind while one is reading and keep deepening as one goes. Some of your titles are quite magical. "The Beautiful Changes," for example, is so simple and yet so endlessly suggestive, so philosophically rich even if one has not read Heraclitus and Plato. Is there anything you would like to add on this matter of your titles?

RW: I think that as a rule I'm looking for something which won't say everything that is in the poem, but which will sort of grease the track for the reader.

JSB: So it's a matter of greasing the tracks, of making it easy for the reader to get going?

RW: Well, yes. When I read to audiences, I try to offer some preliminary chat which will make it simpler to take in the poem by ear. I think that titles should perform a similar function—facilitate the reading, give some oblique notion of what's coming.

JSB: A number of people have asked you if you think your work will endure, and judging from your answers you seem guardedly optimistic. In a recent interview you said, "The hope that something may endure is based on a sense that it is well-made and useful. A good boot or hammer is capable of lasting; so is a good poem"(Esprit 1988). My question has to do with the existence of some factors totally unrelated to a poem's craftsmanship or beauty or truth, but relevant in striking ways to a poem's endurance. Last week I read an article on Tennyson in the Japan Times, occasioned by the 100th anniversary of his death. The essay contrasted Tennyson's popularity in the nineteenth century, not only among the intellectual elite but among ordinary readers, with the situation today: "A hundred years after his death, his place in Britain's consciousness has dimmed to a flicker.... Today, Tennyson's works are not even part of the curriculum in most British schools." And, indeed, his poetry is not even encountered by many English literature majors. I am wondering about the extent to which a good poem's endurance may be tied to its being assigned in schools, to its inclusion in the curricula of literature or cre- ative writing majors. American literature used to be a requirement for all undergraduates; now in many colleges it is not even a requirement for literature majors. And creative writing majors routinely substitute poetry workshops for American poetry. As you are both a poet and an educator, I think it would be valuable to know your reflections on the extent to which the poetry which is to be read tomorrow, including your own meticulous verse, is related to our education of the students who will be tomorrow's readers.

RW: I retired as a teacher in 1986, and so I don't have a clear sense of what's happening to the curriculum in American colleges. I do have a general impression that the requirements are fewer every year in spite of the expressed desire of many people to get back to a core curriculum. When I was going to college at Amherst in the later thirties and early forties, I think that there was just one course in the whole coursebook in which modern poetry was read. There was also just one course in writing, both taught by the same man.

JSB: By "modern" do you mean twentieth-century?

RW: I do mean twentieth-century. I suppose that nowadays, when people say "modern" poetry, they often mean American poetry since Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. That sort of thing you could only study in one course, which was a quite popular course, to be sure, but was just one. Since those days, since the early 1940s, I think that the consumption of contemporary literature has vastly increased in the academies, and I think it has seemed at times that contemporary American poets, poets of this moment, were writing largely for a student audience, an audience of transient readers who, once they left college, might never read a poem again but who were required to read poems by their curricula for a four-year period. I don't know that this phenomenon of the past few decades—the large transient student audience—is something that need return again to us in order to make us feel that poetry of the present might have some staying power.

JSB: Do you think your poems will endure if they are not in the college curriculum?

RW: I trust that several of them are emotionally useful enough so that people with no prodding or assignment may want to continue using them. I hope that's true. I can't be anything but very vaguely predictive. I just hope a few of mine are as well made as a good shoe, and that they won't so rapidly date as to cease to be useful in the next century. To how many people in our population? I have no idea. All I can say is that I'm forever surprised at what people do actually read my work. People write me letters. I get letters from the most unlikely people on either coast and in the middle telling me how this or that poem has been of use to them. I'm especially happy when there is no academic experience involved.

JSB: When Thomas Wentworth Higginson finally met his half-cracked poetess in Amherst, he returned to his hotel, you remember, and wrote to his wife giving his impressions of Dickinson's singular personality. And he jotted down for his wife's amusement some of the things Dickinson said to him. She asked him this question: "Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our minds?" (Letters 2:475). Raised to a cultural level, that question might be relevant to our discussion of the survival of poetry after it has passed out of the school curriculum. What do you think? When Milton has passed out of our collective mind, will it be oblivion or absorption, and if absorption how will it matter?

RW: I suppose what she means by "absorption" is the absorption of the mind in other things. Rather than an act of forgetting, it's an act of shelving. Is that how you understand that? Oblivion or absorption. When we forget things, is it that they simply drop out of the mind, or is it that we are concentrating on something else? That's what I take her to mean.

JSB: I don't know for sure. Maybe she is being slightly ironic, suggesting that gone is gone no matter what big name you put to it. Or maybe, as you suggest, she is making a real distinction. But take Milton. When Milton is no longer in our collective mind, no longer read, will he have been absorbed, and if so what does that mean?

RW: I can't imagine a total disappearance of Milton. I think it will be a loss if people cease to commune with his work, and so enjoy his powerful proofs that good comes out of evil. This is a message to be found elsewhere in Christendom, but I think Milton is one of the strongest expressers of the idea, one of the most joyous of our poets. I don't think he is associated with joy by many people, but that's the essence of his great message in Paradise Lost. I think he proves it; aesthetically, at any rate, he proves it.

JSB: Most students who do encounter Paradise Lost get it in snippets. They don't know the structure of the argument or experience the great baroque architecture.

RW: Yes, even the best summaries of the omitted books can't give a strong sense of the structure. They always leave out those interesting books about the war in heaven which make a good many points. I think it is the angel Abdiel who runs all night to the encampment of God to let him know that there's a rebellion under way, and of course, when he gets there, he finds that God knows already, has known all along. But there's no futility in it because, as Milton says elsewhere, although God doesn't

JSB: God doth not need either man's work or his own gifts; who best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.

RW: Yes. Yes, that's it.

JSB: My next question is related to the authority and presence of the poet in poems which have been published. Yeats, as you know, insisted on inserting his present self into his published poems, revising them each time he republished them; he considered them always in the making, with the poet retaining authority throughout. Eliot, on the other hand, insisted that the poet is just another reader of his own poems. In "The Music of Poetry" he claimed that "the reader's interpretation may differ from the author's and be equally valid—it may even be better" (Selected Prose 111), like Auden, Eliot accepted the idea that poems are modified in the guts of the living and that, far from being a bad thing, this is a process essential to the survival of poetry. How do you feel about these matters? Do you feel at all possessive or protective toward your early work? Do you regard yourself as a privileged reader of, say, "My Father Paints the Summer" or "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra"? And how do your public readings fit into all this? I remember that in your 1978 conversation with W. D. Snodgrass he remarked that when he read one of his poems, he was always trying "to sell an interpretation." You did not protest (New Virginia Review 1979). Even if you are not trying "to sell" an interpretation, the very act of reading forces you to offer one; and, because you are you, even sophisticated listeners "buy" your reading. What are your views on this subject?

RW: That's a very interesting question. Now I know that in the process of writing I'm trying to be as exact as possible. One is juggling so many things at once in writing a poem that it isn't just a matter of coming out with an italicized statement of some kind. It's precision of every sort, exactness of every sort, but one's hope is to have produced a contraption which will compel the reader—the qualified reader, at any rate—to take it in a certain way. That's one of my approaches to the question. I try for maximum exactness, and so it's obvious that, at the moment I write a poem, I'm trying to speak with authority to the reader about what it is that I'm meaning. But now—of poems of forty years ago, poems of fifty years ago, I don't know that I'm a very good authority on things that I've written so long ago. Because I have so changed, I'm so far away from those poems. I would respect the surprising observations of almost any intelligent reader about my early poems.

JSB: Eliot' s theoretical point does not seem to be related to how long ago a poem was written or to how well you remember the circumstances surrounding it. If his point is valid, your status as an interpreter would not be related to whether you wrote a poem last year orfiftyyears ago.

RW: I'd be a little disappointed if a poem of mine of last year were just as much the property of some interpreter as it was mine. I think that I would trust my own instincts about most of my things done for, let's say, three decades. But as I get farther away from those poems, I will gladly commence to yield them to any interpreters who want them. I do like the idea of poems separating themselves from the poet and becoming useful in any way that they can.

JSB: And this would be essential to their survival. It's not just your reading of "Running," but my Wordsworthian reading of it that contributes to its endurance.

RW: I'm delighted to have you take that poem in the way in which you did. Sounds to me like an extremely valid comparison. "Tintern Abbey" is less alive in my mind than it is in yours, and so I can't do that to that poem. But I think your doing it is completely legitimate and enlivening.

JSB: Did you see the PBS series on the Civil War?

RW: No, but I understand it was wonderful.

JSB: It was wonderful, and in watching that series I felt that Ken Burns must have taken his inspiration directly from your "Looking into History." That television project took Brady's photographs of our spell- bound fathers and used those faded still shots to resurrect the waiting past and, at least for me, to arrange Brady's eye, your eye, Ken Burns's eye, and my own in a live formality. Well, if you didn't see it, this question, as Eliot' s Sweeney might say, just don't apply. But my next and last question does apply. It has to do with the relation between poetry and religion. You have said that "all poetry of the highest quality is religious... [in that] it affirms the roots of clarity in the world. " In the same interview you suggested that the poetic imperative of seeing likeness indifference is at bottom a religious affirmation. To use your own words, "If anything may be compared to anything else, the ground of the comparison is likely to be divine" (Amherst Literary Magazine 1964). Such statements enable us to see that the poetry of Stevens and of Pound is deeply religious, for without question it affirms the roots of clarity and order. Some great poetry is religious in another sense, of course, in that its morality, its ethics, its epistemology, its ontology, its affirmation of God, can be associated with a specific religion. One thinks of the poetry of Dante, Milton, Herbert, Hopkins, Christina Rossetti, Eliot, and Auden not only as religious but as Christian. Your own poetry is not blatantly Christian, nor is it in a technical or defiant way theological. But it seems to me that it is Christian poetry, informed by a Christian understanding of the world and of what it means to be a creature, in the sense that the Book of Common Prayer uses that term. I am not referring primarily to pieces like your "Christmas Hymn," nor even to the subtle and beautiful "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," but to your entire poetic corpus. Would you please comment on the extent to which you yourself feel that your poetry is informed by Christian faith and doctrine? I am interested both in ways that your faith might have enriched your poetry and in ways that your vocation as a poet might have deepened your Christian faith.

RW: Well, I do feel that I'm right in those things that I say about the tendency of poetry itself to assert the ultimate unity of all things. And I do think, though my poetry is not obtrusively Christian, that the feelings of it have been shaped by Christianity. I suppose that the sort of insistence that you have in "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" on the ordinary, the everyday, the need to redeem those things, belongs more to Christianity than it does to other faiths. That's one respect in which I suppose that I might well be called a Christian poet. Did I say that clearly?

JSB: Are you saying, for example, that the doctrine of the Incarnation as understood by Christians has made a difference in your grasp of the spiritual within the things of this world, has made a difference in the poetic clothing you create for the material world?

RW: Yes, yes, I think so. The desire to see the so-called spiritual in the ordinary is especially sanctioned by Christian thought and feeling. The Incarnation is the heart of it. I know that I have some religious vision and that it is not the world-renouncing kind; it's a vision that hopes for reconciliations of the kind that Christian literature has always encour- aged us to hope for.

JSB: I wonder if there are one or two specific doctrines or beliefs which have been intimately nourishing in your work as a poet in the late twentieth century.

RW: Let's see what I can come up with there.

JSB: What about St. Paul's command to rejoice in the Lord? Has this been especially meaningful to you?

RW: Oh, yes, yes, indeed. I think it is probably a strange thing to feel commanded to rejoice, because we associate joy with spontaneity; but I do think of making a joyful noise as an obligation which it would be distressing to fail. I think that one thing poetry needs to be, whatever it's talking about, one thing it needs to be is celebratory. So you really have put your finger on something that I've always consciously felt.

JSB: And also, at least to this reader, the doctrine of the Incarnation seems absolutely central to your vision.

RW: Very much so, very much so. Another argument for the essential religiousness of poetry has to do with the aesthetic pleasure it confers regardless of the subject, regardless of what is being said.

JSB: Thank you, Mr. Wilbur, for your thoughtful responses. I hope that 1993 will bring abundant blessings to you and your dear ones. And I hope, for the sake of literature and the pleasure of your admirers, of whom I am one, that it will be a year of fruitfulness in your art. 



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