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Kill your fathers! Kill your mothers! Faster, pussycat. Kill! Kill! (But leave your grandparents alone.)

Of course I’m talking about your most-poetical fathers and mothers, the ones who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s (and maybe even the ’80s at this point) and whose writing has become indistinguishable from your own because you haven’t found your own unique voice yet because you haven’t killed your fathers; killed your mothers.

Richard Wilbur is one of mine and I’m in the process of slaying him like a cheap dragon sock puppet. 

Wilbur has been writing the poetry of a 70-year-old man for a very long time. His first book was published at the age of 26 and was a critical success and bore the marks that would go on to establish him one of the best poets of his generation: meticulously crafted formal verse, often clever and witty, often on classical and religious themes, and more likely to engage your intellect than tug at the lump of coal at the center of your chest. He’s been a mature poet from day one. Some claim he’s never written a bad poem. There’s also a legend he has never had a poem rejected.

But I’m beginning to wonder what’s behind his shining coiffure and if what lies there matters. There’s no doubt that he’s unmatched in his use of meter and rhyme; it’s freaking brilliant. And the arguments that lie within each poem are smart and well-wrought. But what concerns me is his style; it may be too perfect, too burnished: almost mechanized.

Now let be backtrack with a huge generalization that I for certain cannot backup with any hard data: American poetry is currently under the spell of the LOUD and BRASH and ELLIPTICAL, many of whom are producing work that’s all surface and scratch. I fall for it too: I like cotton candy and shiny things. Wilbur, and his New Critical buddies, Anthony Hecht and John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren, demand that you pay the fuck attention. They’re the strict taskmasters at the head of the class, tapping a ruler against their wool trousers. They’re saying “eat your potatoes” when all you want to do is find the center of the nightclub floor. But what you find there can sustain you.

That is, if you can stay awake

But the seeming stillness of Wilbur’s poetry usually is a thin cover for teeming hoards of life that can be found beneath the surface. Much of what Wilbur writes is figurative and he’s been doing it for so long that most of his audience who knows how to read figurative works are literally dead. For me, that’s where the fun is. So a baroque Roman fountain can, in Wilbur’s own words, become:

“It is, in the first place, a minutely descriptive poem, in which I portray a wall-fountain in one of the public gardens of Rome, and then proceed across town to describe the celebrated fountains in St. Peter’s Square. At the same time the poem presents, by way of its contrasting fountains, a clash between the ideas of pleasure and joy, of acceptance and transcendence. It may be that the poem…arrives at some sort of reconciliation between the claims of pleasure and joy, acceptance and transcendence; but what one hears in most of it is a single meditative voice balancing argument and counterargument, feeling and counterfeeling.”

O.K. I’m not ready to figuratively kill Wilbur yet. I’ll just ingest and regurgitate like a Roman soldier until the form is gutted and my voice is inserted, burrs and all.

Now on to Wilbur’s poem appearing in the December 8, 2008, issue of the New Yorker. The poem is titled, employs, and is about terza rima, the Italian poetic form made popular by Dante in his Divine Comedy. Terza rima, is essentially a three-line stanza where (after you get it going) the middle line of the preceding stanza provides the end-rhymes for the first and third lines of the subsequent stanza. (For example: aba bcb cdc ded efe, ad infinitum.) It is a difficult form to sustain in the English language (because English is poor in rhymes). Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” (which holds my all-time favorite line of poetry: “I fall on the thorns of life! I bleed!”) is probably the language’s premier example.

“Terza Rima” is a pretty good example of a Wilbur poem: manicured, witty, intertextual, and funny (in the way your fusty uncle is funny after a few belts of Scotch). Nothing is overt or forced, not even what seems to be a political statement: war is hell (and not just any war, but the current one). 

The poem effortless moves from noting that the form is capable of holding all sorts of grotesqueries (like in Dante’s Inferno), and then smoothly moves on to another grotesque: a jeep bouncing off the head of a dead soldier. It’s really a stunning and effective image and the ending, at least for me, recalls the ending of Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Again, not a stitch out of place.

So what’s up with it only being seven lines long? This isn’t a poem in terza rima; it’s more like a contained fragment. If it weren’t title Terza Rima, would we be able to claim it as one? It’s just aba bcb c. Really, that could be anything; a nonce form. Remember how terza rima is hard to pull off in the English language, I think this is Wilbur’s wry humor coming through. Bada-boom.

Further Reading

Four poems from Harvard Magazine. 

Dana Gioia’s critical survey of Wilbur’s career.

A 1999 interview from the Atlantic Monthly.

The NPR review of his Collected Poems.

The genius of Wilbur.


The Author

D.S. Loney is a poet and writer living in Washington, D.C.


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