Tension between Nihilism and Pollyannaism


A Round-Table Discussion



The views of Bruce Michelson in “Of Wilbur and Wit” and Nicholas Ruddick in “Dickinson’s Minimalism Versus Wilbur’s Impasto” have generated exchanges between the two scholars and elicited responses from our readers. Michelson is a leading authority on Richard Wilbur. Ruddick, who specializes in Emily Dickinson, appreciates RW’s poetry although he finds flaws, especially what he calls the “Pollyannaish aspect” in the poet’s otherwise masterly achievements. Michael Ross, who notes “a resistance to pessimism or nihilism” in RW’s writing, says that it may be “relevant to remember that early on Wilbur did the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s Candide--which of course satirizes facile optimism, or if you like, Pollyannaism!” Upon request, Wilbur joins the discussion. Highlights:


Professor Bruce Michelson, University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign: The conversation with Ruddick is lively and illuminating--not so much about Wilbur and Dickinson, or Wilbur versus Hopkins, Frost, Berryman, or Jarrell, but rather about a set of conditioned tastes and expectations that constrict our thinking about art of many sorts.

Professor Nicholas Ruddick, University of Regina: I have greatly enjoyed your interview with Professor Michelson. My comments are going to be only a pendant to Michelson’s very useful definition of wit vis-à-vis Wilbur.


Michael Ross, Professor Emeritus, McMaster University: I’m very impressed by both interviews; the questions seem to me probing and provocative, and the responses by both Ruddick and Michelson are thoughtful and extremely interesting. The interviews mainly make me feel that I ought to go back and refresh and expand my knowledge of Wilbur’s work.


Professor Tristanne Connolly, St. Jerome’s University: I read those two very interesting interviews. I’ll ask, even with only one woman on the “top ten” list given by Ruddick, why Dickinson and not Barrett Browning? Does female desire have to be unsatisfied or sublimated to make good poetry?


Richard Wilbur: Thank you for letting me see two documents from your online forum. I have, of course, read both with fascination.


Why do Ruddick’s reservations about RW’s greatness puzzle you?


Michelson: Even before the university campus absorbed the American poet in the nineteen fifties, the edited, polished psychological breakdown and the free verse Vast Refusal had devolved into exercises as empty as any eighteenth century “Ode on the Death of the Patron's Favorite Cat.”  That’s a truism--which is why I’m puzzled by Ruddick’s thinking here, or rather both main lines of it. I do not understand how writing a hopeless poem is a gesture of greater moral courage or intellectual honesty, especially now after eighty years of such discourse, than acknowledging, here and there, the kind of intuitive faith that actually gets people of out of bed in the morning. When cultural historians, down the line, compile a guide to late capitalist self-packaging, varieties of careerist nihilism in the arts will take up many pages. 


There are Emily Dickinson poems that still move me, even after many years of teaching them; and there are also times when I’d pay dollars to know if she could actually write competently and at length in some other form, demonstrating the technical range and mastery that we seem to expect as a skill of most other good poets.  A great poet is an individual voice, and individual voices will appeal to some readers and leave others cold.  Dickinson is one such voice; Richard Wilbur is another. 


Wilbur: I’m lucky to have, in Bruce Michelson, an advocate who not only thinks well of my work can unerringly be perceptive about it. I live in the country, have raised a lot of corn, and in writing “Zea” was composing in the key of corn. My eye was on the cornstalks. But his words make plain something of which I was half-aware, that the poem is about completion and depletion in old age. I especially like also, the passage in which he says that thinking in poetry is “something more powerful and mysterious than algorithmic computation”—an activity which tries to concert all one’s selves and faculties.


I’m glad to have had the attention of so keen a reader as Nicholas Ruddick, even if he has his reservations. Poetry is not doctrine, and so I can’t rebut his more negative responses, but I do want to say that in using such a word as “soul” out of season I have not meant to be quaint or “consolatory.” I don’t think it’s the business of poetry to console, but rather to fortify by articulately confronting the world—even if sad and disagreeable things must be said, as in my long poem “The Mind-Reader.” I’m happy that Mr. Ruddick and I are in agreement about the meaning of Emily Dickinson’s “Success is counted sweetest.”


Does faith or an affirmative attitude make a poet or writer less modern?


Ross:  I suppose skepticism has been more intellectually fashionable than religious belief for the past century or so, and that might make an unbeliever tend to seem more “modern.”  However, I don’t really think that literary modernity (or not) hinges on beliefs or attitudes as much as it does on approaches to writing and techniques--or perhaps sensibility in general.  


Do you share Ruddick’s view that “There is a Pollyannaish aspect to RW that seems to have become more overt in his recent poetry”?


Michelson: On the cliché accusation that Wilbur is some sort of moral Pollyanna: that’s the kind of superficial reading that many good critics outgrew years ago (Harold Bloom, for example, and Robert Pinsky, and Helen Vendler, and Anthony Hecht and Clive James) as they learned to read RW more carefully.  If darkness is Wilbur is what we want, there’s plenty there to serve the purpose.  But to see it you have to pay attention.


Connolly:  I can see that, grammatically, the existence of the caller in “Mayflies,” as noted by Ruddick, is assumed and unquestioned; and yet, faith here is still a matter of decision. It is a “task” the speaker sets himself, to endorse the fiat. I must say this bothers me--must be because I’m a Romanticist!–because it makes the joy seem a little forced, and the speaker seems like God’s yes-man. It’s exactly not Byronic to insist that preordained divine patterns are “fair,” beautiful and just. There is much less of the sinister here than anything of Hardy’s, only a little in the dark colors. And for Hopkins, there is sweetness whether he decides it’s there or not!


Ross: I don’t really feel that “Pollyannaish” is fair to Wilbur, to the extent that I know his work.  It suggests a naive glibness that strikes me as essentially foreign to Wilbur; sure, there’s a current of optimism (or at least of a resistance to pessimism or nihilism) in his writing, but I think it’s normally checked or qualified. Maybe it’s relevant to remember that early on Wilbur did the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s Candide--which of course satirizes facile optimism, or if you like “Pollyannaism”!


I think the resistance against both nihilism and Pollyannaism is classic Wilbur. It provides the tension that animates his poetry. How witty is RW?


Ruddick: If wit is defined in the conventional neoclassical way as the facility to produce aphoristic truisms, then I don’t think Wilbur does wit too well. I didn’t know the very interesting poem “Lying,” which seems to me full of good things—but one of the slight flaws (sorry to seem so negative all the time) is the conventionally “witty” line, “Odd that a thing is most itself when likened.” The first two words in this line seem to suggest to me that Wilbur is too self-questioning a temperament (nothing wrong with that!) to be a wit in the Popish or Wildean manner.


In a simplified comparison, I would describe Wilbur’s wit as metaphysical and Dickinson’s as macabre. Whereas the vitality of RW’s wit comes from its being powered and confined by an intellectual discipline, ED’s is driven at times by what seems to be a thinly veiled sado-masochistic vigor. In her book Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia calls ED “Amherst’s Madame de Sade.” One of the sharply impressive images that stay with me is ED’s comparison of her own eyes to “cherries in a glass that the guest leaves.” Her eyes are very different from RW’s vision, for example, in his poem “The Eye.”  How would you describe Wilbur’s wit? (Susan Snively, Amherst, MA, 2009: Dickinson did not say "cherries in a glass that the guest leaves," in describing her eyes to T. W. Higginson, but rather "the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves." Yes, she does utter some original metaphors--"pianos in the woods," for example. But the charming self-description she wrote to her future editor conceals a sly invitation to come to Amherst and partake of the "liquor brewed." Isabella Wai: Thank you for pointing out my oversight.)


Ruddick: I do think of RW as one of the best living poets, and it’s been great to get reacquainted with him and also to discover many fine things for the first time. But you want comparisons with ED, and for me she’s incomparable--you no doubt feel the same way with RW.


The poem “A Hole in the Floor,” also new to me, strikes me as witty in a different way, a way that Michelson’s definition allows one to get an excellent handle on. While “A Hole in the Floor” exhibits the humor required of conventional wit, it’s essentially a serious meditation, without digression, about how a “transformed way of seeing” can emerge from the most mundane of circumstances: the new hole in the parlor floor becomes a door of perception. The poem isn’t witty because it’s in neat aphoristic couplets. The wit is in the poet’s fiercely intelligent pursuit, first of the issues raised by his unmannerly staring, kneeling, peering, etc.¾“For God’s sake, what am I after?”¾and then in his equally fierce determination to try to answer the question. The wit seems to reside, then, not so much in the mock-heroic juxtapositions in the first two stanzas, as in the way that the whole poem slowly manages to develop an eerie, surreal mood of estrangement, of the (resisted) lure of the normally unseen world (the Gothic darkness of Frost’s wintry woods literally domesticated), and of the discovery of the “dangerous” (fearsome, exciting) strangeness that closely underpins the mundane. 


In his 2001 article “Richard Wilbur” (Sewanee Review), Anthony Hecht concludes with a reference to Auden’s statement that every author regrets having conceived “pure rubbish,” prevented “good ideas” from proper expression, and written innocuous pieces; the volume “for which he is honestly grateful” is “depressing slim.” Hecht notes that this apologia “applies to the whole of Auden’s work,” as it possibly does to “such eminences as Yeats, Pound, Tennyson, Hardy, Coleridge, Dickinson, and Graves.” Then Hecht names T.S. Eliot, George Herbert, Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, and Charles Baudelaire as the “few poets of whom it can be maintained that virtually every poem from their hand is indispensable.” To this short list, Hecht adds Richard Wilbur “with deep delight and gratitude.”


Phyllis Rose in her review of RW’s Collected Poems 1943-2004 (Poetry, September 2005) names Wilbur as “the greatest living English-language poet.”


Apparently, the choices made by Hecht, Rose, and those who rank poets depend on differing criteria. Would you modify Ruddick’s list of “the ten greatest lyric poets in the English language”?


Connolly: “Best” is kind of meaningless in itself. It’s the criteria used that would give any insight into the poetry, and with so many possibilities for criteria, you end up with a myriad possible lists. I have noticed that there are Americans on Ruddick’s list but not Canadians. Are we lyrically inadequate? I am also curious in some cases (e.g. Blake) what nomination as a great lyric poet says about other, non-lyric works?

Michelson: We’re talking about different poets in very different cultural moments. 


Ross: Making “top ten” lists is harmless fun; a few days ago I was at a dinner party where that sort of thing was going on, and that seems to me an appropriate occasion for it!  I suppose I could give you my own Top Ten Lyric Poets list now, but I won’t--the list would probably change by tomorrow!


Copyright © 2005 by individual commentators

Copyright © 2005 by Isabella Wai: Questions, Introduction, and Illustrations



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