RICHARD WILBUR BATTLES ALICE OSWALD IN ROUND 2 NORTH ACTION

 
Richard Wilbur—about 75 years ago.
 
According to G.E. Lessing (1729-1781), painting depicts one moment with many bodies, while poetry depicts one body in many moments, and each genre fails if they attempt to invade the other’s territory. Homer, Lessing says, did not waste energy trying to be a painter; action was paramount, description limited. Lessing goes so far as to say painters should depict soft rather than stiff clothing to better infer bodily movement in the immediate past or future. For Lessing, the poet who describes, or paints, is didactic, and the didactic is not poetic.  The poet should describe one body, or one part of a body.  Prose is better at mere description—poetry is concerned with illusion. The eye can take in many parts simultaneously—for the poet to attempt this with description is a waste of labor. Action, sequential action, is the poet’s domain. Lessing’s theory, to the moderns, must seem hopelessly narrow (as Poe, the anti-didactic critic and poet, is often viewed).

 But it can be argued that the eclectic and highly sophisticated modern temper has lost the ability to understand nature’s simple truths or grasp the common sense argument of a rigorous scientific mind such as Lessing’s.

 It cannot be denied that modern poetry has lost both the innocent public and the objective, scientific reader.  The freedom of the modern poet has led to a cul-de-sac of obscurity, the ‘everything’ of the modern poet has turned to ‘nothing’ in many eyes, and the moderns’ touted ‘difficulty,’ to hopeless looseness, even to its many sophisticated followers.

 What if Lessing’s common sense is generally correct?

Richard Wilbur may be the last living classical poet.  We don’t know if Lessing is an influence, but reading Wilbur’s poetry, one almost senses he must be.  Rhyme can be used for all sorts of things; Wilbur is known for his rhyme, but the respect he’s earned is for more than rhyme, though it might be difficult to separate that out.  It might help to read Wilbur with Lessing in mind.
 
Wilbur has three poems in Dove’s anthology, but one of our readers, Robert Bagg, pointed us to the grand “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra.” 
 
“Love Calls Us To the Things Of This World” (in the Dove’s anthology) is always anthologized and it is not, we think, one of Wilbur’s best.  It’s good, but it has a lot of flaws.  So we are breaking our Penguin Anthology rule (a silly rule, we admit)  in honor of this still living poet born in 1921, by including a poem not in the anthology.
 
Wilbur does write  Homerically—he never describes something but there is some kind of action involved. Lessing would probably say that “Love Calls Us To the Things Of This World” is not a complete action—and is thus a failure.  “Baroque Fountain” succeeds partially by Lessing’s classical rules—too meditative, too busy, Lessing would probably say.
 
Wilbur is the favorite here against Alice Oswald, who is a sentimentalist—for those kinds of poets are still given respect in Britain. (Billy Collins is a funny sentimentalist, which is not the same thing.)
 
Here is Wilbur’s poem:
 
A BAROQUE WALL FOUNTAIN IN THE VILLA SCIARRA
 
Under the bronze crown
Too big for the head of the stone cherub whose feet   
      A serpent has begun to eat,
Sweet water brims a cockle and braids down
 
            Past spattered mosses, breaks
On the tipped edge of a second shell, and fills   
      The massive third below. It spills
In threads then from the scalloped rim, and makes
 
            A scrim or summery tent
For a faun-ménage and their familiar goose.   
      Happy in all that ragged, loose
Collapse of water, its effortless descent
 
            And flatteries of spray,
The stocky god upholds the shell with ease,
      Watching, about his shaggy knees,
The goatish innocence of his babes at play;
 
            His fauness all the while
Leans forward, slightly, into a clambering mesh   
      Of water-lights, her sparkling flesh
In a saecular ecstasy, her blinded smile
 
            Bent on the sand floor
Of the trefoil pool, where ripple-shadows come
      And go in swift reticulum,
More addling to the eye than wine, and more
 
            Interminable to thought
Than pleasure’s calculus. Yet since this all   
      Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall,   
Must it not be too simple? Are we not
 
            More intricately expressed
In the plain fountains that Maderna set
      Before St. Peter’s—the main jet   
Struggling aloft until it seems at rest
 
            In the act of rising, until   
The very wish of water is reversed,
      That heaviness borne up to burst   
In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill
 
            With blaze, and then in gauze   
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine
      Illumined version of itself, decline,
And patter on the stones its own applause?
 
            If that is what men are
Or should be, if those water-saints display   
      The pattern of our aretê,
What of these showered fauns in their bizarre,
 
            Spangled, and plunging house?
They are at rest in fulness of desire
      For what is given, they do not tire
Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse
 
            And riddled pool below,
Reproving our disgust and our ennui   
      With humble insatiety.
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow
 
            Before the wealthy gate
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this   
      No trifle, but a shade of bliss—
That land of tolerable flowers, that state
 
            As near and far as grass
Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand   
      Is worthy of water: the dreamt land
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.
 
Wilbur does not merely describe the fountain.  We follow—perhaps not always perfectly—a movement of sorts. 
 
Wilbur has not reached major poet status; he’s an embarrassment to most moderns and  post-moderns, perhaps with good reason.  There used to be a public for Wilbur, but it was killed around the time he was born. Or maybe Wilbur’s work is too ‘busy’ to appeal to a wide audience.  In poetry circles, WC Williams is mentioned 1,000 times for every mention of Wilbur. Williams’ one advantage?  He’s not as ‘busy’ as Wilbur. “The Young Housewife” has a certain Homeric quality in terms of action, clarity and emotion, but Williams doesn’t pass the Lessing test, either.
 
Alice Oswald’s poem has movement, but its delight is miles away from Wilbur’s Homeric grandeur.  “and when” propels the poem and it is sweet the way “and when” becomes “which is” at the end.  When ideas make the poem move, this only makes the poem move closer to didactic prose—at least this is what Lessing would say.  Moderns make ideas so central so often in their poems, they are probably not conscious of how unlike the old poetry, the poetry Lessing would have admired, they are. 
 
Can Oswald’s humble poem, like David, slay Goliath?
 
WEDDING
 
From time to time our love is like a sail
and when the sail begins to alternate
from tack to tack, it’s like a swallowtail
and when the swallow flies it’s like a coat;
and if the coat is yours, it has a tear
like a wide mouth and when the mouth begins
to draw the wind, it’s like a trumpeter
and when the trumpet blows, it blows like millions . . .
and this, my love, when millions come and go
beyond the need of us, is like a trick;
and when the trick begins, it’s like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.
 
Wilbur 89 Oswald 66

4 Comments

  1. BrandonJetLee said,

    May 31, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    Why don’t you just call Alice Oswald a Republican? Because, you know, clearly she is.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    June 1, 2012 at 2:05 am

    This comment on that Guardian article on Oswald backing out on the corporate prize committee is the sprit of Foetry.com in a nutshell, Brit-style…

    “Top work Alice.

    This sponsorship issue cuts right to the black heart of Po-Biz(UK) – a world where gongs, prizes and professorships count for so much more than the actual poems.

    These corporate swine don’t stump up for the love of poetry (or art,or opera et cet) but rather because it gives them some up-market, high culture cachet to cover their grabbing and greed.

    But worse than this,it’s poetry that actually suffers Alice is bang on the grubby little pile of money wheen she suggests, “poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions”. Poetry is increasingly corrupted by those brazen enough to keep their snouts in… this Prof. bigging up myoldmate that Prof. CBE, judging that Queens GM winner, reviewing this year’s DirtyMoney prizewinner who happens tobe appointing next year’s visiting Professor… and what a thin lot of old tripe they actually write!

    Time to run all the sponsoring business fat cats, asset strippers, hedge-fund chancers and wreckers -t ogether with their running-dog po-biz lackeys (you know who you are) – right out of our culture.

    Don’t want you,don’t need you.”

    But of course a little voice is always going to whisper: what’s this got to do with good poetry?


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