I did. When Richard Wilbur died in October at 96, he left behind a body of work that rivals that of the great modernists. (Robert Frost is his closest kin.) Wilbur has long been praised for his formal accomplishments. Often there has been some condescension in the praise, since we live in a time that prizes innovation, and Wilbur is one of those artists who perfected rather than invented a style. The entire argument misses what is truly revolutionary in his work, though: the light.
“Obscurely yet most surely called to praise / As sometimes summer calls us all,” Wilbur wrote in his 20s. The wonder here is not simply the pure gift on display — the music and memorability of these two lines! — but the gift given over to wonder. It never flagged. Well into his 80s, Wilbur still attended to “the blind delight of being.”
Blind delight is not the same as willful blindness. Wilbur saw shocking combat in World War II, which was when he began to write in earnest. As his biographers Robert and Mary Bagg reveal, he experienced serious depression and addiction, and he suffered that private apocalypse known only by the very old, who lose everything they ever loved, slowly. That poem celebrating “the blind delight of being” is in fact about the final years of his wife, Charlee, whose death would rock Wilbur as nothing ever had.
Wilbur’s work repeatedly raises two inextricable questions: How much does the imagination have to do with one’s experience? And how much does one’s will have to do with one’s imagination? Many artists claim not to choose their subjects. True enough, but they do choose the range and focus of attention through which those subjects may come. “Try to remember,” Wilbur writes in this regard, “what you project / Is what you will perceive; what you perceive / With any passion, be it love or terror, / May take on whims and powers of its own.”
This dynamic has obvious artistic implications. A poet who feeds on pathologies eventually becomes their food. But the issue is larger than that. A culture, too, is a work of imagination, or a failure of it. We are meant to be in a golden age of the television drama, and perhaps we are. But just consider how thoroughly so many of these shows equate misery with authenticity, and how many rely on violence and degradation (usually toward women) to establish character and intensity. And now consider the broader culture we have found ourselves in for the past year or so. Does it not seem as if reality has begun to take on whims and powers of its own?
But poetry can hardly be compared to television in this regard, I can hear someone arguing. Quite right. Poetry is much more important. Poetry is the deepest expression, and the best hope for survival, of a culture’s very soul.
I don’t intend a strictly dichotomous argument. Lowell and Bidart are not only influential but also deeply affecting. Of course we need art to explore the darkest recesses of our lives and minds. But we also need art to tell us why this world is worth loving, and therefore saving. I was heartened when Ross Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” swept onto the scene a few years ago, since it seemed to have, though in utterly different form, something of Wilbur’s vitality and vision. Praise, too, is part of any whole artistic and existential vision. Joy is one kind of courage.
I met Wilbur only once, long after I had fled my cave of pain, both literally and figuratively, using his poems as a kind of torch. It was 2006, and Wilbur came to Chicago to receive the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Charlee was already too ill to travel, and it was obvious that, though he was gracious and kind, his heart was elsewhere. But he read beautifully, and though he didn’t say a word to the audience about what he and his wife were undergoing, he made sure to end the evening with his famous poem “For C.,” which links the mundane sustaining of a relationship with the blazing creation of a world. This life is worth its grief, both his words and his silence were saying that evening. They still are.