from FIELD, Fall 2010: Richard Wilbur: A Symposium
Love Calls Us to the Things of this World
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
"Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world's hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
"Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance."
from Collected Poems 1943-2004 by Richard Wilbur.
Copyright © 2004 by Richard Wilbur.
Imagine someone saying to you, as a statement of fact, "love calls us to the things of this world." Possible responses include, and may in fact be limited to: How nice! or Deep, man! or Amen! or Isn't it pretty to think so. How little, it seems, this sentiment demands from us. And how, well, pleasant to have wandered into the manicured park of such sanity and benignity. Admiring the topiary, how untroubled we are by noise of distant terminologies, those of passion, sublimity, judgment, and sin. And who is to say that we should be troubled? Surely not Richard Wilbur, most amiable and equable of writers.
It is true enough: what distinguishes Wilbur at first from his more scandalous contemporaries is his very scandallessness. Repudiating the Dionysian temptations of lurid display and spectacular self-immolation, Wilbur's poetry embraces a purely Apollonian ambition, to usher into being moments of realized perfection. One appreciates the optimism of this project, but suspects it of no frivolity. Behind the joyfulness of Wilbur's tone, and the infinite jest of his playfulness, one discerns with awe the severe demands of the most exacting formal discipline. Who among his contemporaries, even with greatest exertion, can manage once what Wilbur has managed so often, with so little apparent effort? Who else has brought so many of his poems to such a warmly incandescent shine, while remaining at every instance so cool? When achieving such success is so rare, is it not misguided, even obscene, to ask for more?
After all, what more demanding master is there than such craft, not merely for its practitioners, but for the lovers of such art as well, not those who seek the fusion of passionate identification, but those who require for their satisfaction an encounter with absolute clarity and overmastering authority? The moment of perfection is so fleeting, so elusive, so impossible to predict, its pursuit invites the wanderer into a forest of obsession. Whether best described as junkies or monks, devotees give up everything to follow the evasive gleam. It cannot be trapped or anticipated. Adepts of differential calculus or Sufism are helpless to summon it. Whether it electrifies Callas's tone with a transfixing darkness or suspends Michael Jordan or Mikhail Baryshnikov above the floor a millisecond longer than gravity permits, whether it captures in a photograph by Ralph Meatyard or Robert Frank an unknown isotope of anguish, or entrusts to a single syllable in the throat of Elis Regina the only satisfactory definition of the Porrtuguese word saudade—nothing, literally nothing, can compare to it. Nothing could be given in exchange for what such a moment offers and just as quickly withdraws.
For those who seek such moments in poetry, the moment has made itself known in the work of George Herbert, or Elizabeth Bishop, or W. H. Auden, or James Merrill, to say nothing of Wilbur himself. What the moment itself conveys is a sudden, galvanic conviction of inevitability. Such a poem could bring together this—and only this—encounter between form and content, logic and melody, the grip of thought and the release of feeling. Rather than exulting in a triumph of ingenuity, such a moment professes a stainless realism: this is how things have to be. The moment glows not with the hedonism of invention, but with the Stoics' amor fati, the embrace of things as they are, the "terrible perfection" that achieves "illusion of a Greek necessity," as Plath described it.
The poet addresses himself to his materia poetica as one imagines a gem-cutter addressing herself to a priceless stone. Faced with its implacably absolute hardness and the fixity of its invisible grain, only an unfaltering hand on the blade and a coldness of nerve approaching absolute zero can make the required cut, the stroke to ignite in the diamond its permanent flame. Any other stroke, any other angle, the slightest flutter of hesitation, and all is lost. And as for the stone, so for the poem; any other word, any other form, any other rhythm, and the whole structure must shatter. And why? Because (the poem says) the world itself is an implacable absolute. Because it is what it is, I am what I am. There is nothing to be negotiated.
The achievement of this conviction, this authority of the absolute, is one of the great miracles of artifice. Because the artifice is miraculous, it is priceless, limitlessly seductive, and alluring. Because the miracle is artificial, however, it is treacherous, limitlessly seductive, and threatening. Plath's perfection is terrible because it is the expression not of a necessity but the illusion of necessity. The hatred of such illusion gives, in turn, an entirely different poem its raison d'être, one which sees in perfection of surface a prostitution of the truth, and hears in its lucid, inescapable rhythm the blandishments of the siren. It believes by contrast that any paradise is a mirage, and that what purports to be its impenetrable enclosure demands to be breached and stormed. Whether signed by Blake, Whitman, Ginsburg, Plath, or Bidart, such a poem's art is not a mirror held up to nature but a siege gun leveled at things as they are. And so here too, there is nothing to be negotiated. If there is a veil, then rend it. Are there scales? Overturn them. The king? Off with his head.
The primary conflict here opposes an avowedly aesthetic criterion, perfection of artifice, against an insistently ethical one, the liberation of truth from illusion. This conflict is not a territorial dispute between free verse and fixed form, classicism and romanticism, New York and California, America and Europe, or between two baboons fighting over a banana; in these disputes, the object in question (whether banana, credibility, or fame) is presumed by all parties to be worth the struggle. Instead the conflict arises from a fundamental jurisprudential incompatibility. The rules—or rather the laws—that govern artistic practice are in each instance held to be fundamentally different. The basic question is not evaluative and quantitative, an assessment whether this or that poem is better or worse, more or less deserving of the banana. Instead it is foundational, the primary question of what constitutes the purpose of art and the good that it serves.
Wilbur seems—and seems to have always seemed—to fall into the first camp, the party of those for whom perfection of craft is paramount. In his work the criterion for success, the conception of the Good, seems so patently to be the criterion of what is most fitting, of all that dulce et decorum est, of all that radiates luxe, calme, et volupté. For "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" to work at all, it must work perfectly as a whole, every part in concert. And this perfect concert must include the response of the reader as well. The success of the poem is the delight of the reader, and the reader's delight is the delight of poem and poet both, all parties delighting together in the achievement of such effortless, bravura felicity. Come on, everybody, let's hear it for the "spiriting" of the soul from sleep! Delightful! For the spiritualization of the mundane, hung laundry turned into angels, borne aloft or sinking as the light wind lives or dies, let's hear a loud huzzah! How in their swooning, nobody seems (but only seems!) to be there: huzzah huzzah! Such beings may be clothed in sheets, blouses or smocks, but "truly there they are." Which nobody can deny! Which nobody can deny! They hover as truly over the poem as do Wilbur's other angels, his tutelary poets: Herbert is there in his singing pulley ("The Pulley"), Frost is waving from his white wave ("West-Running Brook"), Donne hovers as weightlessly over the poem as his ethereally disembodied lovers ("The Ecstasy"). Together, shades, angels, poets, and readers alike raise in celestial harmony their chorus of assent. Upon this uplifting the poem achieves its "pure floating," borne on the updrafts of such "halcyon feeling."
But is this a just description of what Wilbur is doing? I affirm that it is not. Were my description hitherto accurate, the poem would stand as unassailable evidence against Wilbur's integrity as an artist, and argue aggressively in favor of those who maintain that his verse is too exquisite, too polished, as fussily sugared and shellacked as a French tart, or a French tart. Instead, the genius of "Love Calls Us to the Things of this World" is accomplished in the mortification of the very weightless ecstasy in which it appears to revel. Such a weightlessness, the poem says, such an infatuation with a condition contrary to fact, is precisely that which must hand itself over "to be undone." The soul—furloughed from the body, entranced by its substanceless singularity, released from worldly constraint—experiences in this incorporeal state not an ecstasy of freedom but, in fact, an ecstasy of distress. Why can't it withhold itself, like Blake's Thel, from the world of experience? Why can't the hard labor of living be transformed into the Homerically mythologized "rosy hands" of dawn itself, with its stealing glow and its rising mists? Why can't it dance naked before God's altar (like King David) and never have to descend (like King David) to our corrupted, murderous affairs?
Such is the soul's cry. Facing what it describes as the "punctual rape of every blessed day," its Keatsian longing is "to fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget" its embodied life. The rescue the soul pleads for is the rescue promised by the weightless "viewless wings of poesy," whose faery power can turn sheets into angels, a load of laundry into a cloud of rapt witnesses. But while the vision is true while it lasts, the promise is false. And herein lies the rub. The greater force in the poem, greater than the soul's dread, is the force of the"call," the call that leads the soul downward "in bitter love / To accept the waking body." The poem, in short, conceals within the surface of lyric exultation a wrenching drama, the psychomachia of the soul struggling to embrace its own embodied destiny. What the weightlessness of the poem conceals is the heaviness and darkness that shadows the verse's deftest caprice. One discovers with a sharp sudden shock how the reverie of weightlessness is itself merely the negative image of a world held together by gravity, and that it is this gravity, this gravitas, and not a weightlessness or levity, that is the action of Love.
While this struggle and the pain of this struggle is the animating force of the poem, the poem makes no theater of its unease. Rather than affecting torment or studied disarray, it works with secret intensity to give a new meaning—or rather, to restore an old meaning—to the term exquisite, a term which seems to describe all the damning limitations of Wilbur's tidy successes. It is true that Wilbur's verse is exquisite, but not in the limiting sense of a precious aestheticism, of bejeweled, primped, or daintified effects. The exquisite in Wilbur is that heightened condition of awareness as it is brought toward the frontier of the unbearable, a term less suited to describe artworks or technique than to give voice to extremes of distress. After all, the heaviness of the world weighing down the nuns is a world of thievery and rape, and corruption and violence are the "dark habits" compounded in our earthly frame. If their presence in the poem remains largely theoretical, obliquely invoked, as indeed they do in many of Wilbur's poems, it is precisely this obliquity that rings the work round with such hauntingly otherworldly overtones. If Wilbur's harmonies are celestial, they are so because they articulate human passion in counterpoint with the dispassionate fixity of the stars. Just praise of his work acknowledges that for Wilbur, true love is a bitter passion, and the passion to express it requires a difficult art. To hold both the possibility of felicity and the reality of suffering in view, to falsify neither, and to conceive within this tension a love both grave and merciful, is to keep, with exquisite grace, a difficult balance indeed.FIELD
Editors: David Young, David Walker
Associate Editors: Pamela Alexander, Kazim Ali, DeSales Harrison
Editor-At-Large: Martha Collins
Managing Editor: Linda Slocum