Thursday, August 27, 2009

New Yorker Poems Aug 31 2009 : Wilbur

Because these poems by Richard Wilbur come from someone respected as a master, whose impact (such as it might have been) has already been felt, they perhaps shouldn’t be expected to advance the art further. But they don’t take any risks that I can detect. And for the New Yorker to dedicate all the poems in an issue to him is striking because the implication is that he has a lot to say to us and to the art. Here goes:

The House is a sonnet, with those awkward word choices that often accompany the need to rhyme. Wilbur has vast experience rhyming, but he gives us a house she “had not entered yet, for all her sighs,” to rhyme with eyes. The words chime, but “for all her sighs?” She never entered the house despite having sighed a lot? Sighs normally would have allowed her to enter? Sorry to be obtuse, but it doesn’t make sense to me.

The description of the house takes up the middle of the poem. There’s “a widow’s walk above the bouldered shore,” which I enjoy very much. The other couple of lines about it are perfunctory, a death-knell for such a short poem.

Then a reference in the fourth to last line implies that the woman at the center of the poem is dead. The piece states that the house was a “haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.” I think I’m supposed to be moved by that fact that the house isn’t real, but I’m not. O, you are men of stones!

The poem finishes with a line that comes out of nowhere, “Night after night, my love, I put to sea.” I like those words and hate them at once. They’re not connected to the rest of the poem in imagery, or in voice, which shifts from third to second person. But I like them because they remind me of To the Harbormaster by Frank O’Hara.

There’s an undeniable gravity to lines about putting to sea, as it’s a momentous and life-risking endeavor even when it’s a daily (or nightly) thing. To be at sea is a phrase that’s stuck in the language because it’s evocative. But the fact that he’s putting to sea... what does that have to do with the house? I think the sea belongs in this poem more than the house does. I don’t really care by its end what her relation to the imaginary house was particularly, because I’m more interested in his reaction to her non-presence, and his being at sea. He loved her because she loved the house? Why?

Like many poems I read, this one is a tease. It tries to sidestep its own main thrust and get at subtlety that way. A cop-out. Maybe I’m being deliberately dense because I think we excuse much elision in the name of not being too direct. I want confrontation. A poem is not considered on-the-nose unless it confronts its subject without invention. With invention, it’s brilliant to address a subject directly.

I’m a stickler for making poems about precisely the essential, most significant subject matter in it and not surrounding something meaningful with the extraneous.

Flying, the second of the three Wilbur poems in this issue, is just terrible. Rhythmically awkward, not inventive in language or idea, barren of striking images. It does present a risk to us: read it and risk boredom and annoyance. Apologies but I don’t want to dissect it further.

A Reckoning seeks to be Yeats. Incidental Yeats, almost. Rhythmically, in its subject, and in its structure it harks back to the great Irish master. The poem’s very direct about its matter, which I appreciate, and it’s somewhat funny. I forgive that the first stanza portends a poem of much greater heft because of the effort at comedy. But it rhymes forgiven with shriven. It contains the lines “Well, I shall put the blame/On the pride that’s in my shame.” Not sure what pride in shame means. It says what it means to in a way that is awkward (again), and its argument contains no risk or surprise. It is simply regular and metrical and a poem only because of that.

To publish these pieces indicates to my mind an editorial choice uninterested in advancing the art. This editorial choice has preferred saying something to us, in particular with the putting to sea image. I appreciate that. I only wish there was more on offer.

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