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Richard Wilbur’s Contribution to American Culture Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 15th, 2021


An American regionalism that defines itself through combat with the European metropole and its antitype, openness to the heritage of Europe, are not, however, irreconcilable. Both Frost and Wilbur show that these apparent contrarieties can be resolved in synthesis. Both are blessed with a bifocality that keeps a steady eye on the regional object and yet feels no sense of cultural betrayal or compromise in mediating these perceptions through “international” form. In Wilbur’s poetry, signs of recurring impatience have been traced with the materialism of the metropolis and the redemptive vision of a regionalist culture wedded to the soil. Wilbur is a poet acutely conscious of both poles in the argument. In an essay entitled “Regarding Places,” he gives an account of a walk in the New England countryside with a friend, a friend so caught up with his internationalist art that he cannot respond to the local detail before him. (Snodgrass, 122-26) Wilbur’s vision is by contrast a covalent one–he is able to respond to his immediate setting as well as to the abstractions that obsess the cyclopean artist walking with him.

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Wilbur has regionalist sympathies as vivid as the English poet’s, however different his conception and practice of poetic form. Wilbur’s mediate position between the extreme and finally impractical regionalism of poets like Williams not to mention the multicultural critics who succeed him and the geographically unrooted position of exiles like T. S. Eliot can perhaps be ascribed to his New England heritage, the mediateness of which is apparent in the very name “New England.” Frank Wells has characterized its nineteenth-century culture as something based on the “curious marriage of provinciality and cosmopolitanism whereby they remained provincials in heart and cosmopolitans in mind.” (Wells, 87)

Strict poetic forms are unlikely to be yielded by regionalist culture, if only because the folk art that produces, say, an artless ballad is not an art concealing art by any Horatian sleight of hand. (Oliver, 318-30) Nor are more self-conscious artists forging new forms as an act of anticolonial faith likely to manage much by way of strictness. Self-evolved laws will fit the contours of the self instead of challenging its habits and velleities. Yet at the same time, Wilbur’s creed has little bearing on that of Wallace Stevens, even in spite of the points of contact between them. Form imposes pattern on the world, and yet the world is there tractably or reluctantly to receive it, not to be displaced by the artifact that denatures its materials as it admits them to the alternative permanence of art.

We are all to some extent culturally regionalists, conditioned in crucial ways by circumstances of birth and culture. However, because many poems in Wilbur’s first collection record his experiences as a soldier in Europe, his native accents of heart and mind sound for the first time in an alien milieu. One might have expected laments of dislocation and puzzlement, and yet even the earliest poems testify to his knack of adapting and adopting, of naturalizing his responses by acts of sheer attention. John Reibetanz has claimed that in his early poems Wilbur “assumed the ideals of a culture, but one that was urban and international rather than rural and local.” (Reibetanz, 67)

Wilbur at first creates a sense of respite but, by using the perfect tense, implies that this is only temporary. The absence of soldiers, as he later explains, does not necessarily entail an absence of the war that has permeated the whole landscape. Hills are theologically associated with divine help, but here they, are as gray and threatening as gun metal. And even the birches, traditionally sinuous and feminine, turn into the panoply of a porcupine. Being and seeming have thus been pulled apart. Wilbur’s stanza seems at first to comprise dull, non-rhyming elements, but in a way that represents the delayed detonation of the mines themselves; the rhyme-explosions are suspended until the second stanza, where they are set off line by line. Wilbur is not ordinarily a vehement poet, and his use of vigorous assertions has here an unsettlingly harsh effect. The distress of the speaker emerges in the rawness of the diction, a distress at the loss of innocence and of the Edenic myths that support it.

While cicadas survived the blast of cannon by Virtue of being impervious, humans lack this resource of indifference, the more so since the mines have cut to the roots of culture: landscape and civilization are always inter involved. The American soldiers sweeping the country have potentially differing responses to it, but all are finally subverted and equalized by the presence of death beneath the surface. For those whose sense of Europe extends to the culture it engenders, it is Greek myth or Spenserian fancy, whose charm is destroyed; for others more intractably wedded to the native culture, it is the stereotypes of calendar photography that have been undermined. Whatever the cultural projection, it is skewed by the presence of death. Et in Arcadia ego. Reconstituting nature in terms of mortality, the Germans have given new force to Augustinian conceptions of the fall.

Richard Wilbur used rhyme, rhythm, and vivid description to implant colorful, clear, and almost interactive images. He is a post-modern writer who had a direct, formal and yet light-hearted and playful writing style. In order to be called a great American poet one would have to write award winning pieces, which Richard Wilbur has done more than once? Richard’s third collection of poems titled Things of This World, won him the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. While Walking to Sleep was awarded the Bollingen Prize two books later.

Back in the early and mid nineteen-hundreds there were a number of major events happening. Richard Wilbur saw action in World War II where he held a front-line infantry position. Wilbur also filled in the place of the Army cryptographer when the one in his company died. I can tell this affected his writing because he wrote many poems about human nature and sometimes even ended his poems with morals. (Stern, 926-28) Most of the poets born around the time he was born underwent dramatic changes in their writing styles, Wilbur, though remained someone who mastered a style early and made it a permanent one.

Richard Wilbur grew in the postwar years of the 1921 which is the post-modern literary period. In the postwar years, when poets born between 1920 and 1935 often underwent radical changes in their writing styles, Wilbur remained someone who mastered a style early and continued to work within it. He chose not to follow those who changed with the literary period, but, he retained a familiar style of those before him. Richard Wilbur’s style was interpreted differently by different people, while one person might think it was light-hearted and playful another person could think it was formal, direct, and well rather dry. Maybe it was his choice of topics that gave his poems a drier, uninspiring mood to them. Even though his poems, at times, can put people to sleep, the meanings behind Wilbur’s poems are clear and easily perceived by the reader. (Michelson, 245-61)

His meanings were easily picked up and not hard to understand. That phrase simply means that security, while usually a good thing, can often give off an unwelcome or alarming feeling. Despite the all of the former evidence still some believe that his style is light-hearted and playful. Richard Wilbur has used rhyme in a unique way, he rhymes the last word in the first sentence of a stanza with the last word of the stanza. (Boyers, 77-82)

Along with using rhyme Richard Wilbur used rhythm, and description to create imagery. If one was to keep a steady beat in his head then some of Wilbur’s poems seemed to flow even smoother and open than before. (Littler, 53-55) In this passage from the poem Hamlen Brook, “Beneath a sliding glass, crazed by the skimming of a brace, of burnished dragon-flies across its face, in which deep cloudets pass.” As you can see from that passage Richard Wilbur substitutes rhyme, for rhythm and getting the same effect. You can almost see the surface of the water in the brook, and feel the warm wind as the clouds pass by. Wilbur has a way with words that can produce any image he aims for and insert it in the readers mind. In the next two excerpts Wilbur’s excellent usage of descriptive words in order to form an image in our heads. “At the alder-darkened brink, where the stream slows to a lucid jet, I lean to the water, dinting its top with sweat, and see, before I can drink.” The phrase, “dinting the top with sweat,” you can picture yourself bending over on a hot day to take a sip of water from a crystal clear brook. “To where, in a flicked slew, of sparks and glittering slit, he weaves, Through stream-bed rocks, disturbing foundered leaves, and butts then out of view.” In this passage there is something moving under the water that is shiny, it moves between some bed rocks and then ducks out of view.

Wilbur is not a poet whom we ordinarily associate with satire, perhaps because he lacks that essential nasty streak, as Cowper lacked it before him. The result is amiable, but a touch bland, since the satiric blade always seems to be sheathed in the charity of the poet. “To an American Poet Just Dead” (New Collected Poems (NCP), p. 329) is, all the same, a well-turned mock-dirge, two-pronged in its attack. There is the mismatch of the unnamed poet’s Anacreontic fervor and the squalor of his addiction; and there is the indifference of the suburbs, so caught up in their own consumption that heaven itself is conceived in monetary terms. Neither commands Wilbur’s loyalty, but then neither evokes his savage loathing, and saeva indignatio gives way to playfulness. This is best illustrated by the stanza that parodies the syntactic and thematic rhythm of deprivation in Gray Elegy: “For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn, / Or busy housewife ply her evening care.” Deep-freeze units and Studebakers replace these domestic details in Wilbur’s version.

Clearly, then, it is not through satire that Wilbur expresses his urgent sense of values awry and purpose lost, but rather through meditative and essayistic poems like “Giacometti” (NCP, p. 330), one of the most profound in the collection. While he acknowledges the greatness of the sculptor, Wilbur cannot help noting the human diminishment his art records. Sartre, with all the enthusiasm of an existential humanist, exults in the way the figures of Giacometti “shoot up into existence,” (Hohl, 138) but Wilbur, who puts the statues detects no such energy–only weariness and lassitude. The sculpture of rock is heroic and combative: it challenges the will and embodies it, and it belongs to an era of human culture in which art and life were purposive.

Again, as in “Conjuration,” the waters of evolution seem to have run backward, but instead of the multifarious life they offer there, here they present only a reduced form, spare and mean enough (in both senses) for us to grasp. The heroisms of public sculpture have become both physically and spiritually inaccessible to our impoverished sensibility–indeed the whiteness and infertility of chalk provide a metaphor for twentieth-century humankind. (Duffy, 176-86)

Wilbur points out that a culture insular enough to view enrichment as invasion is a culture as insecure as a faulty spider web. Taking the web as the type of other reticula, he uses synecdoche to note the impoverishing effect of Allied action in Europe. There is the destruction of the leaden web that holds the stained glass of a rose window in position (spiritual institutions) and of the metal web of railway lines (commercial infrastructure). The damage to both is reparable. Even the destruction of rose windows, horrifying though it might be, reminds us that the church ought not to be identified with its physical structures. Should any fall, their fall ought by rights to fertilize a growth of churches to replace them. (The regeneration of Coventry Cathedral, arguably more impressive than the Perpendicular church it replaced, was already underway when Wilbur wrote this poem.) These concessions notwithstanding, he implies that the victors in Europe, having made the place uninhabitable, should show greater generosity to those who wish to leave and should welcome the opportunity to enrich and fertilize their native culture with influences from abroad. (Benedikt, 101-5) Such influences would help forge a composite web (both regional and international), a web of the spirit.

Wilbur ends by doing honor to the holy fool, whose resurrection he images as an apple tree in blossom. At the same time, entertaining an altogether more cautious view of nature, he acknowledges the need to hybridize with scions of grace the unregeneracy of the stock. Only those artists who, acknowledging the stubborn, entrenched, resilient root and yet ready to use resources richer and more varied than those the native culture by itself can offer, can produce a hybrid both beguiling and strong.


Conscious as he is of the inexhaustible variety of creation and aware that no single mind can encompass it, Wilbur is led to document what he knows. It is from this narrowing of attention that his regionalism derives, though, as we have seen, it is not a regionalism that closes itself to the resources of cosmopolitan culture. (Bixler, 1-13) Anyone who has read the New and Collected Poems will have made the acquaintance of New England’s birds and trees and flowers, will have experienced every nuance of its seasonal change, and yet will also have encountered Baroque fountains, French painters, and troubadour verse forms. Wilbur’s secret lies in his attentiveness.

Works Cited

Benedikt Michael. “Witty and Eerie.” In Richard Wilbur’s Creation, ed. Wendy Salinger, pp. 101-5 Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Bixler Frances. “Richard Wilbur: ‘Hard as Nails.’” Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association 11 ( 1985):1-13.

Boyers Robert. “On Richard Wilbur.” Salmagundi 12 (1970): 77-82.

Duffy Charles F. “‘Intricate Neural Grace’: The Esthetic of Richard Wilbur.” In Hohl Reinhold. Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, Painting, Drawing. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971. p.138.

Littler Frank. “Wilbur’s Love Calls Us To The Things Of This World.” The Explicator 40 ( 1982): 53-55.

Michelson Bruce F. “Richard Wilbur: The Quarrel with Poe.” The Southern Review 14 ( 1978): 245-61.

Oliver Raymond. “Verse Translation and Richard Wilbur.” The Southern Review 11 (1975): 318-30.

Reibetanz John. “What Love Sees: Poetry and Vision in Richard Wilbur.” Modern Poetry Studies 11 (1982): 60-85,” p.67.

Richard Wilbur’s Creation, ed. Wendy Salinger, pp. 176-86. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Snodgrass W. D., Richard Wilbur, and Aidan C. Matthews. “Writers and Wrongs: W. D. Snodgrass, Richard Wilbur and Aidan C. Matthews in Conversation.” Crane Bag 7 (1983): 122-26.

Stern Carol Simpson. “Richard Wilbur.” In Contemporary Poets, ed. James Vinson and D. L. Kirkpatrick, pp. 926-28. London: St. James Press, 1985.

Wells Frank W. The American Way of Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943. p. 87.

Wilbur Richard. New and Collected Poems. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988; London: Faber, 1989.

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