In his essay “Poetry and Happiness,” Richard Wilbur asserts that poets cannot achieve artistic fulfillment until their “vision fuses with the view from the window” (136). Wilbur’s examination of the tension between imaginative vision and concrete reality stands central to his writing. He frequently traverses this terrain through poems that probe the relationship of people to works of art, human-made objects, and performance-based representations. In such pieces, he both courts and resists the blurring of distinctions between reality and imitation, immersing readers in illusion while tugging us back to the world. When it comes to the interplay of life and art in Wilbur’s writing, some critics have argued, as Henry Taylor notes, that Wilbur’s “well-wrought surfaces” risk containing “little more than themselves,” possessed of a consummate artifice that keeps reality away (94). However, a close reading of Wilbur’s poetry reveals that, in his view, artifice performs the paradoxical function of helping us more fully see reality. Art that engages this paradox, Wilbur’s work insists, is essential to our lives if we wish to avoid personal, political, and cultural ruin.
As we consider how Wilbur merges his poetic vision with the world beyond the window, we might find it useful to borrow Taylor’s observation about the critical response to Wilbur’s “well-wrought” surfaces and to superimpose it on the latter’s conception of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. For Wilbur, who maintains in his essay “On My Own Work” that his own writing can be understood, in large part, “as a public quarrel with the aesthetics of Edgar Allan Poe,” Poe’s poetry reveals the hazards inherent in language so overwrought that its surfaces sever the reader from reality (160). If Poe, as he states in his essay “The Poetic Principle,” sees poetry’s purpose as providing an “elevating excitement” through which both poet and reader can escape the real and make contact with an ideal defined by “supernal beauty,” Wilbur regards such elevation with wariness (71-92). He believes that the “excitement” Poe strives to create derives not just from subject matter emphasizing the supernal above the earthly, but also, perhaps more dangerously, from sonic effects that announce their artificiality at too high a pitch. Contending in his essay “Edgar Allan Poe” that Poe sees the writing process as “casting a spell” and therefore imbues his poetry with the “repetitiveness, sonority, and impressive rhythmic monotony of a charm or incantation,” Wilbur argues that he demonstrates an overreliance on “incantatory techniques” that “further the general effort of his poetry to nullify—in a logical and denotative sense—the words with which it is made” (89). Because Wilbur worries about what can happen when sound drowns out meaning in a poem, he sees Poe’s work as embodying an aesthetic value system that estranges us from words and, by extension, from the world.
Given Poe’s much-studied impact on French literature, it seems salient to assay some of Michel Foucault’s central ideas in our examination of Wilbur’s poetry. Of particular pertinence to our discussion are those ideas of Foucault’s that relate to Wilbur’s self-proclaimed “public quarrel” with art that fails to root itself sufficiently in the physical world. In The Order of Things, Foucault traces the evolution of literature from the classical period to the modern age. He characterizes the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes as “the first modern work of literature” because the language in it “breaks off its kinship with things and enters into that lonely sovereignty from which it will reappear, in its separated state, only as literature” (48-49). Whether or not one agrees with Foucault’s reading of Don Quixote in specific and modern literature in general, we can arrive at a greater illumination of Wilbur’s work by considering how, rather than regarding language as a medium uninterested in a “kinship with things,” Wilbur champions linguistic expression that connects readers to material reality. Bonnie Costello quotes Wilbur as stating that when “words cease to be a means of liaison to the world” and instead “take the place of the world,” the result is “bad art” (146). We can see this belief enacted throughout Wilbur’s poem “L’ Etoile,” in which he animates the movements of a dancer in a Degas painting:
A rushing music, seizing on her dance,
Now lifts it from her, blind into the light;
And blind the dancer, tiptoe on the boards
Reaches a moment toward her dance’s flight… (1-4)
Wilbur tests the boundary between life and art by presenting the painted dancer as a flesh-and-blood woman caught up in a swirl of “rushing music.” As the poem progresses, though, he draws a firm distinction between the dancer’s performance and her experience as a human being. After finishing her arabesque, she departs the stage and walks “to where some ancient woman will ummesh / her small strict shape, and yawns will turn her face / into a little wilderness of flesh” (line 10-12). Rather than leaving readers amidst the dance’s illusion, Wilbur shifts the poem’s focus to the world beyond the frame, a realm in which the “wilderness of flesh” exists in contrast to the control of artistic creation.
The fact that “L’ Etoile” describes a performance rendered in a painting, instead of a live ballet, reinforces Wilbur’s suggestion that, though art’s mimetic properties can exalt us, we must remain careful not to let illusion separate us from reality. In both his poems and his critical writings, Wilbur presents a conception of the literary arts that contrasts Foucault’s understanding of modern literature as a realm in which meaning lies “not in the relation of words to the world but in that slender and constant relation woven between themselves by verbal signs” (48). Though Wilbur celebrates the richness of Modernist poetry in his essay “On My Own Work,” he also argues that the cleaving of words from reality comprises a core failure of certain Modernist experiments. He highlights Gertrude Stein’s “efforts to reduce words to pure sound” as an example of the kind of literary approach against which he posits his own beliefs about the necessity of keeping art tethered to the world (157).
Wilbur’s statement about Stein resonates with his reaction to Poe’s work. He concludes in his essay “The House of Poe” that, because Poe seeks to “repudiate” the “human and earthly” and “disengage the mind from reality,” Poe’s aesthetic “points toward such impoverishments as poesie pure” (342). The term poesie pure has largely been understood in English as describing poems that function, to borrow Wilbur’s phrase for Stein’s work, as pure sound. Significantly, as we have already noted, various critics trace a line of influence running from American letters via Poe into the French literary sphere through practitioners of poesie pure (with Baudelaire and Mallarmé among the most prominent) and back again into American literature. Doubtless Wilbur treads on highly contestable ground in his assessments of Stein and Poe, and in his conclusion that writers of poesie pure created work that resulted in an “impoverishment” of the language. But we are perhaps best served in our attempt to attain a fuller comprehension of Wilbur’s artistic vision by setting aside potential arguments against his convictions in this regard and instead concentrating on how he characterizes his own aesthetic values in relation to such figures. Given Wilbur’s contention, as expressed in his essay “Edgar Allan Poe,” that Poe seeks to “annihilate” the meaning of words and thus “verbally” destroy “the concreteness of earthly things,” we can see why he believes that Poe’s impact on modern consciousness helped shaped literary approaches in which meaning lies, according to Foucault, in the relationships woven between words by verbal signs rather than in connections between words and the world (87).
In Wendy Salinger’s view, the “word-and-world correspondence in Wilbur’s poetry” highlights the serious stakes of mimesis in his work, which she stresses as a crucial element of his “moral vision” (17). We find these stakes at play in Wilbur’s poem “Playboy.” He describes a young stock-boy who studies a naked girl, “the subject matter of one glossy page,” in a skin magazine (line 3):
Nothing escapes him of her body’s grace
Or of her floodlit skin, so sleek and warm
And yet so strangely like a uniform,
But what now grips his fancy is her face,
And how the cunning picture holds her still
At just that smiling instant when her soul,
Grown sweetly faint, and swept beyond control
Consents to his inexorable will. (line 21-28)
Throughout the poem, the boy longs for a sense of closeness to the posed and photographed girl. Wilbur depicts this longing as both sexual in nature and rooted in a deeper yearning for connection, which we see bristling under the surface when the boy’s left hand, “like a mother-bird in flight, / brings him a sandwich for a sidelong bite” (line 6-7). The “mother-bird” detail implies that, rather than merely experiencing arousal at the girl’s exterior appearance, the boy craves love and nurturance. Yet despite the picture’s grip on the boy, Wilbur makes clear that the “floodlit” artifice of the photoshopped image ultimately falls short of meeting the boy’s needs. Though the girl’s skin appears “sleek and warm,” like that of a living human, the fact that it is also “strangely like a uniform” points to how mimetic representations can sunder us from the truth in jeopardous ways. Wilbur prompts us to see a threat present for both the boy, whose interaction with the image may give him a faulty understanding of intimacy, and the girl, who may become a falsified object devoid of individual identity. The word “soul” in the final stanza spurs us to recognize the dissonance between the boy’s fantasy communion with the one-dimensional photograph and his desire for union with a human being.
The themes explored in “Playboy” find expression throughout many of Wilbur’s other poems as well. He continually asks readers to consider the human costs of a society in which representations, whether artistic in nature or commercially motivated, may eventually supplant what they represent. When art does not connect people with the world around them, Wilbur asserts in “Poetry and Happiness,” “it is little more than an incitement to schizophrenia” and it causes a propagation of the “corporate myth” that dominates much of our cultural narrative (141). We can see such notions at play in the commodified reality sold to the boy in “Playboy,” and also throughout Wilbur’s poem “An American Poet Just Dead,” in which the speaker reads a poet’s obituary in the Boston Sunday Herald:
It is out in the comfy suburbs I read you are dead,
And the soupy summer is settling, full of the yawns
Of Sunday fathers loitering late in bed,
And the sssh of sprays on all the little lawns. (line 9-12)
The poet’s obituary contains a brief three-line write-up that hardly compares to several much longer obituaries marking the deaths of people who, unlike the poet, have contributed in a measurable manner to the economy: “Also gone, but a lot less forgotten, / are an eminent cut-rate druggist, a lover of Giving, / A lender, and various brokers…” (line 5-7). Through the “sssh of sprays” on the lawns, Wilbur suggests that there is something about this place full of “deep-freeze units” and “Studebakers” that wishes to resist or silence the truth-seeking imperatives of an artist (line 9-12). After the penultimate stanza, in which the speaker questions whether the inhabitants of suburbia will mourn the poet’s death, Wilbur arrives at a grim answer:
They won’t. In summer sunk and stupefied
The suburbs deepen in their sleep of death.
And though you sleep the sounder since you died
It’s just as well that now you save your breath. (line 17-20)
Wilbur layers “An American Poet Just Dead” with such heavy alliteration, assonance, and rhyme, among other sonic effects, that we are invited to see a parallel between language’s ability to lull readers into a sleep-like trance and the cultural forces that have created a society of people who sleep “sounder” in the deceased poet’s absence. Wilbur’s strategy here relates in illuminating ways to his quarrel with Poe’s work, most notably the argument he ventures, in his introduction to Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Poetics, that “the content or meaning” of Poe’s poetry is too “often muffled by the repetition, sonority, and hypnotic rhythm of his technique” (xiii). “To An American Poet Just Dead” possesses a high-amplitude aural artifice that simultaneously mirrors and critiques the “sleep of death” into which the suburbs have sunken. Wilbur’s conviction that Poe’s aesthetic mode separates words from their meanings, thus spurring readers to eschew the real in favor of a supernal ideal, connects in pertinent ways with the criticism of consumer values that we encounter in “To An American Poet Just Dead.” Just as language that seeks to cleave readers from the world risks “destroying the concreteness of earthly things,” Wilbur suggests in “Edgar Allan Poe,” so too does capitalism risk replacing reality with mimetic representations of an idealized life (87).
Here again we may find it constructive to make a brief segue, by way of Poe’s association with French literature, into the work of a theorist who, much like Foucault, examined varying forms of mimesis in relation to modernist developments. In The Society of The Spectacle, Guy Debord presents modern existence as a “spectacle” composed of images that “detach themselves from every aspect of life” and “fuse in a common stream where the unity of life can no longer be reestablished” (2). He argues that “the spectacle is the guardian of sleep,” a belief that resonates in haunting ways with “To an American Poet Just Dead” (21). For both Wilbur and Debord, a society defined by profit-driven imitations of reality threatens to induce mass somnolence among the population. Considering Wilbur’s “An American Poet Just Dead” in light of Debord’s ideas about the “spectacle” can help us better grasp how sleep figures not only in the poem but also in Wilbur’s larger vision. If we understand the “spectacle” of modern society, in Debord’s configuration, as comprised of mimetic images that detach us from reality and lure us into a slumberous passivity, we recognize a striking parallel between Wilbur and Debord with regard to how they perceive mimesis in relation to human consciousness. In “An American Poet Just Dead,” Wilbur invites us to see the human mind in a commodity-driven society as gripped by a torpidity that resembles sleep, and he conceives of such suspended consciousness as analogous to death. Contemplating Wilbur’s work in relation to Debord’s assertion that “the spectacle is the guardian of sleep,” then, we might discover that viewing the word “sleep” as interchangeable with the word “death” brings us to a more coherent cognizance of Wilbur’s artistic vision. For him, the “spectacle” is the guardian of death because, when we exist at too large a remove from reality, we are no longer fully alive.
Notably, one of Wilbur’s main misgivings about Poe’s aesthetic centers on the role of sleep and dreams in the latter’s work. He argues in “The House of Poe” that Poe’s “fundamental plot,” everywhere underscored in both the form and content of his writing, is the “effort of the poetic soul to escape all consciousness of the world in dream” (318). Poe’s efforts to fulfil this plot, Wilbur continues, frequently rely on an excess of artifice that enchants readers into a “hypnogogic” state akin to the brain’s descent into sleep, an “exclusion from consciousness” of the “real world” that leads to “the isolation of the poetic soul in visionary reverie or trance” (319). Because alienating oneself from the real to achieve a supernal ideal depends, in Poe’s formulation, on a depletion of consciousness, Wilbur believes that the ideal can never be worth what must be sacrificed to attain it. If Wilbur employs a technique throughout “An American Poet Just Dead” that calls to mind the artifice-heavy sonic patterns of Poe’s verse, he does so ironically in order to enact a hypnogogic effect that contains an implicit warning against itself.
To understand why the loss of full consciousness represents, for Wilbur, a form of death, it is necessary to take into account the time period and cultural milieu into which he emerged as an artist. In his twenties, he served in the army during World War II, and critics and biographers have often explored the impact of the war on his literary development. Of recent note, in their 2017 biography Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur, Robert and Mary Bagg observe that Wilbur’s work frequently centers on his “awareness of how war disrupts its victims’ relation to reality, each other, and ultimately divinity” (94). They see this awareness on Wilbur’s part as particularly evident throughout “Mined Country,” a poem in which, as they describe it, he offers a “deliberately, monstrously cartoonish” image of cows exploding in the sky as the result of detonated landmines (94):
Cows in mid-munch go splattered over the sky;
Roses like brush-whores smile from bowers;
Shepherds must learn a new language; this
Isn’t going to be quickly solved. (line 17-24)
The “cartoonish” cows here bring to mind Wilbur’s assertion in his essay “The Bottles Become New, Too,” a statement also emphasized in the Bagg biography, that “paradoxically, it is respect for reality which makes a necessity of artifice” (277). When considered in the full context of “Mined Country,” the cows stand out as a purposefully exaggerated artifice that casts the truth of war in sharper relief. The fact that Wilbur views war’s ability to obstruct people’s relation to reality as one of its chief evils, among the many ruinous aspects of armed conflict, reveals the centrality of his conviction about the importance of art remaining tethered to the real. Poets of the World War II generation, much like the shepherds in Wilbur’s “Mined Country,” faced the necessity of learning a “new language” that would allow something as surreal as modern global combat into their conception of reality.
Several of Wilbur’s poetic peers, including X.J. Kennedy and Anthony Hecht, also examined the tension between the real and the artificial in their work. In Kennedy’s “Nothing in Heaven Functions as It Ought,” we encounter a virtuosic metrical mimesis that serves to underscore the poem’s vision of heaven as nothing like the realm of halcyon artifice so often presented in literary renderings throughout history, while “Hell, sleek Hell, hath no freewheeling part” (line 9). Similarly, in his poem “It Out-Herods Herod, Pray You Avoid It,” Hecht invites readers to see the dissonance between the false reality conjured in a TV Western and the actual universe inhabited by the show’s viewers. These poems offer just two examples of the many ways that Kennedy and Hecht, along with numerous poets who produced significant work in the wake of the war, explore the hazards present when overly idealized versions of truth threaten to replace reality. In contrast to Poe, who regards art as a means of moving toward a pure ideal of perfect supernal beauty, Wilbur and other poets of his generation confront notions of purity and perfection with abiding skepticism. In a world where the rise of the Third Reich, driven by a desire to purify the race, resulted in millions of deaths, it is not difficult to see why Wilbur defined his artistic vision as antithetical to Poe’s aesthetic. While Poe champions language’s capacity to offer an escape from reality via a process similar to the mind’s descent into sleep and dreams, Wilbur associates such a dwindling of consciousness with the cessation of life. The “sleep of death” that overtakes the suburbs in “An American Poet Just Dead” lingers as a threat along the edges of many poems by Wilbur and his contemporaries.
If Wilbur’s oeuvre confirms the notion, as articulated by Robert and Mary Bagg, that his wartime travails shaped him into a poet whose work contains “a continually enlarging range of earthly experience,” we can find his commitment to the “earthly” equally present in poems that do not deal directly with war (91). In “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” Wilbur casts the human emergence from sleep as a journey toward discovering the spiritual significance of the physical world, a compelling reversal on Poe’s figuration of sleep as a means of attaining a higher spirituality through the eschewal of reality. Wilbur describes “eyes” opening “to a cry of pulleys” as “the sun acknowledges / with a warm look the world’s hunks and colors” and “the soul descends once more in bitter love / To accept the waking body” (line 1-27). He also insists on the primacy of the waking world, in contrast to the realm of dreams, in “Thyme Flowering among Rocks” as he details a landscape in which “things are / what they are” (line 7). As the poem approaches its finish, Wilbur quotes Basho’s assertion that the “world is a dream” and ventures that Basho held this view “not because that dream’s / a falsehood, but because /it’s truer than it seems” (line 41-45). In “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” Wilbur asks us to reconcile the “dreamt land” of imagination and artistic representation, as embodied in the ecstatic stone creatures carved along the wall-fountain, with the complexity of our actual lives in the world (line 59). He further complicates the poem’s exploration of mimesis through a rhythmic and stanzaic structure that mirrors the motion of the fountain’s cascading water. Robert and Mary Bagg discern in “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra” a thematic arc similar to the one we encounter in “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” They note how the poem’s concluding lines “condense the hunger for spiritual life into a brilliant, exuberant testing of itself against the law of gravity” (172). Just as the water in Madera’s fountains outside St. Peter’s in Rome must always fall after it rises, Wilbur suggests, so too must we seek spiritual fulfillment through a continual return to the world.
Touching briefly on “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” “Thyme Flowering among the Rocks,” and “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra” offers us an expansive sense of Wilbur’s career-long engagement with the tension between artifice and reality. Given how much critical attention all three poems have received over the years, though, we may find it more illuminating to focus our continuing discussion on work by Wilbur that has not occupied such a central place in the critical spotlight. For instance, in “She,” a poem that examines the position of women in society, Wilbur raises the possibility that humankind may have entirely lost the ability to distinguish the true from the artificial. He traces the beginning of this loss all the way back to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden and their entry into a universe dictated by labor and production. As Donald Hill writes, “She” explores the fact that man “has never since Adam known woman as she is” but instead “knows only the ideal form in which she has appeared in response to his desire” (148). After Adam and Eve were banned from Eden, as Wilbur describes it, woman “became a shape of plenty with a mop of grain” and “took on the look of every labor and its fruit” as she navigated a system of commodification that denied her a full selfhood (line 13-14):
Tree, temple, valley, prow, gazelle, machine,
More named and nameless than the morning star,
Lovely in every shape, in all unseen,
We dare not wish to find you as you are… (line 25-28)
Given the history of carved female figures as prow-heads on ships transporting goods and the relationship of machines to economic progress, Wilbur’s decision to compare women to “prows” and “machines” underscores the implication that females exist as products within a commercialized society. As we have seen, Wilbur traverses similar themes throughout his poem “Playboy,” in which he suggests that the simulacrum created by false representations of women has an equally detrimental impact on men. The final image of “She” presents women as living “in the ruins” of men’s will, decking the “broken stones like saxifrage” (line 31-32). Both genders in “Playboy” and “She” end up estranged from themselves and each other.
Yet as much as Wilbur spurs us to question whether we can adequately discern artifice from reality, he demonstrates a sustaining faith in the possibility that art can temporarily puncture the illusions surrounding us. As Reed Whittemore notes, Wilbur holds that “the ideal is to be found in the real” (44). For Wilbur, because he regards the artificial as a persuasive means of reaffirming the real, the route to achieving “the ideal” comprises a careful mixture of truth and artifice. In keeping with our use of texts by Foucault and Debord as lenses through which to examine certain elements of Wilbur’s poetry, we might find it elucidating here to consider the ideas of another French theorist, Roger Caillois, who writes about a condition that he terms “legendary psychasthenia.” According to Caillois, legendary psychasthenia, which embodies a central danger of mimesis, occurs when a living organism fails to discern between imitation and reality and thus experiences “depersonalization by assimilation to space” (30). Though Caillois discusses this phenomenon mainly in the context of insects and animals, he uses various examples, including a reference to the protagonist of Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, that prompt readers to extend “psychasthenia” to the human realm as well. If we contemplate Wilbur’s poem “Leaving” in light of Caillois’ notion of legendary psychasthenia, we can perhaps gain an even clearer view of the poem’s most consuming implication: the idea that mimesis, a behavior ingrained in all of us at birth, can lead to an erasure of the self if practiced in excess.
“Leaving” details the social interactions of guests at a garden party. As dusk falls, the poem’s speaker prepares to leave the party with his romantic partner at his side. When he glances back for one last look at the festivities, he finds himself struck with a sudden awareness of the way that the party guests, many of them friends he has known for years, appear to perform their identities like actors in a play:
There were the hostess’ hands
Held out to greet
The Scholar’s limp, his wife’s
And there was wit’s cocked head,
And there the sleek
And gaze-enameled look
Of beauty’s cheek. (line 17-24)
The speaker no longer sees the people as idiosyncratic beings, but instead as a series of types—the hostess, the scholar, the scholar’s wife, the wit, and the beauty—who occupy roles defined by expected tropes. The situation described in “Leaving” possesses similarities to the chief potential dilemma that Caillois assigns to mimesis: When a living creature becomes overly enmeshed in mimetic processes, he or she loses a clear distinction between self and environment. The speaker of “Leaving” observes how “even the wheeling children” playing on the lawn at the party appear to move “in a rite / or masque, or long charade,” on their way to becoming like the adults who have “blundered into grand / identities, / filling ourselves as sculpture / fills the stone” (line 27-34). Wilbur draws a parallel between the children’s play and the potentially dark implications of the selves we perform later in life. The speaker frets about the ways that we can become trapped in the identities we imitate, blundering toward an adulthood in which we are doomed to inhabit roles we have adapted through a combination of cultural inheritance and conscious construction. If Caillois believes that mimesis enacted to the point of total self-negation causes a “decline in the feeling of personality” and results in life taking “a step backwards,” Wilbur presents us in “Leaving” with a speaker who takes a metaphorical “step backwards” to reflect on the significance of imitative play at the start of human life (30). As he watches the children, his mind returns to the days when the grown-up guests were kids themselves: “We had not played so surely, / had we known” (line 35-36). These final lines point to the speaker’s sadness that he cannot go back in time and warn the child-versions of the party guests, himself included, to be careful about their innocent games.
However, rather than championing an interpretation of mimesis as entirely bad, both Wilbur and Caillois believe that it can yield positive effects when kept in balance with a lucid vision of life. Kevin Jessar views the pursuit of such balance in Wilbur’s work as resulting from a combination of “ekphrastic hope” and “ekphrasitc fear” (11). Jessar characterizes “ekphrastic hope” as Wilbur’s desire to animate artificial images in way that illuminates reality, while the “ekphrastic fear” that Jessar identifies centers on what he perceives as Wilbur’s concern about “the damage that would occur if the poem were to succeed in its attempt to make the image come alive” (10). Wilbur always makes sure, after immersing readers in the art he describes, to highlight the truth that vibrates beyond the illusion, as we have seen in “L’ Etoile,” “Playboy,” and “She.” His poem “Museum Piece” places us in contact with yet another painted Degas dancer and invites us to witness her static dance urged into motion by his language: “See how she spins” (line 9). Yet, after she finishes her pirouette, Wilbur brings our attention to Degas himself:
Edward Degas purchased once
A fine El Greco, which he kept
Against the wall beside his bed
To hang his pants on while he slept. (line 13-16)
Not only does Wilbur shift from detailing the dancer’s movements to focusing on the human maker behind her creation, he adds another layer of nuance to our awareness of the distinction between artifice and reality by describing Degas’ purchase of art by a fellow painter. Through the image of Degas using the El Greco painting as a place on which to hang his pants, an unexpectedly banal function for work by such a masterful artist, Wilbur at once blurs and emphasizes the line between art and life.
“Museum Piece” affirms the accuracy in Wendy Salinger’s assertion that, throughout Wilbur’s oeuvre, “it is artifice that is the essential expression of the artist’s relation to reality” (9). We can see this notion evidenced not only in Wilbur’s engagement with the ekphrastic tradition but also in his use of poetry’s traditional formal elements, such as rhyme and meter. In an interview with John Ciardi, Wilbur draws a figurative parallel between form and visual art: “The use of strict poetic forms, traditional or invented, is like the use of framing and composition in painting: both serve to limit the work of art, and to declare its artificiality: they say, “This is not the world, but a pattern imposed upon the world or found in it” (qtd. in Hill 90). Wilbur’s emphasis on writing poems that “declare” their artificiality, thus acknowledging that art “is not the world,” illustrates one of the core characteristics that Salinger ascribes to his work: He values life too much to believe that art can replace it, and as such, he sees artifice as a tool whose primary purpose is to make reality assume clearer contours.
In order for art to avoid usurping the world it represents, Wilbur’s work suggests, readers must remain aware of the creator’s shaping hand. In his poem “Juggler,” he embodies this idea in a performer who captivates the audience: “It takes a sky-blue juggler with five red balls / to shake our gravity up” (line 6-7). As the entertainer juggles increasingly challenging items, including a broom, a plate, and a table, he holds viewers in a thrall that removes them from their immediate environment until “the drum booms / and all comes down, and he bows and says good-bye” (line 23-24). Wilbur does not leave readers suspended in the performer’s artful chimera but instead, just as he does through the image of falling water in “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” beckons us back to our lives of ordinary gravity:
If the juggler is tired now, if the broom stands
In the dust again, if the table starts to drop
Through the daily dark again, and though the plate
Lies flat on the table top,
For him we batter our hands
Who has won for once over the world’s weight. (line 25-30)
Here Wilbur enacts what Kevin Jessar describes as one of his signature aesthetic modes, that of “revealing the limits of the image” and exposing “its artificial quality” (12). “Juggler” also reveals Wilbur’s view of poetic form as an artifice that, much like the juggler’s show, lets us depart the world for a short time. The strict ABCBCA rhyme scheme, symmetrical stanzas, and iambic rhythm contain a mimetic connection to the poem’s content. Much as the juggler must work within and against gravity’s pull to give the illusion that he can defy it, Wilbur must operate inside of his imposed formal strictures to convince the reader that he can transcend those limitations. Through the form and content of “Juggler,” Wilbur demonstrates a conviction, as stated in his essay “Regarding Form,” that though poems may give us temporary release from the quotidian, poetry fails “when it does violence to outward reality” (304). “Juggler” abounds with alliteration, assonance, and rhyme, a densely layered aural artifice similar to that of “To An American Poet Just Dead.” Wilbur’s language in “Juggler” serves not only to mirror the technical mastery of the juggler’s highly crafted performance but also to enhance our awareness of the difference between that performance and the world in which it occurs.
If Wilbur believes, as discussed earlier, that “it is respect for reality that makes a necessity of artifice,” the formal and sonic elements of his poems frequently suggest that the opposite is also true: It is respect for artifice that makes a necessity of reality. After all, far from seeing Poe’s emphasis on the incantatory properties of language as harmlessly inert, Wilbur regards his own poetic vision as antithetical to Poe’s aesthetic precisely because he recognizes the great power in Poe’s artistic mode. Language’s capacity to hypnotize us in a manner that both detaches words from their meanings and severs us from the world, in Wilbur’s view, poses a serious threat to humanity. In poems that court the seductive effect of linguistic incantation without fully succumbing to it, Wilbur acknowledges the intricately twined pleasure and peril inherent in artifice that very nearly overtakes reality. The last line of Wilbur’s “Juggler” offers a compelling encapsulation of his approach, aesthetic and moral, to the relationship between life and art. The audience members clap because the juggler has “won for once over the world’s weight,” an experience that only possesses importance, Wilbur implies, because it cannot last (line 30).
Contrary to critics who have maintained that Wilbur’s passion for the artificial, both in terms of structure and content, places his work at too great distance from the world, his poetry insists that art can temporarily unmask the truth of lived experience. Central to this insistence is Wilbur’s drive to reveal the artifice behind artistic representations, an ambition fed by his belief that an excess of mimesis can result in a negation of individual identity. Wilbur takes this notion even further by suggesting that mimetic representations of human existence, if not held in clear tension with reality, also imperil the culture at large. Ultimately, Wilbur’s work defies the claims of critics who have argued, according to John Hougen, that his poems are “removed from real life” and that they indicate “an inordinate need to control internal and external chaos” (4). Such critics have failed to see that Wilbur’s methods serve to achieve the inverse effect. He heightens our experience of reality by bringing us into contact with a self-proclaimed artifice that always yields, in the end, to the world around us.
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