Dickinson’s Minimalism versus Wilbur’s Impasto:


A Conversation with Nicholas Ruddick


by Isabella Wai



Nicholas Ruddick, Professor of English at the University of Regina, has “always admired Richard Wilbur’s determination to preserve the formal aspects of poetry,” and finds “certain poems of his, ‘The Writer’ for example, powerful and moving.” Yet he thinks RW pales beside Emily Dickinson, who is “one of the ten greatest lyric poets in the English language, and the only female among the pantheon.” He is a “light bringer” while she makes “greater poetry out of the shut-in fly” despite her “ecstasy at the ‘wild shining of the pure unknown’ over Amherst,” Professor Ruddick tells Isabella Wai in an interview. “RW lays on a verbal impasto,” he adds; ED is an austere minimalist.” Highlights:


ED aside, who are the other nine “greatest lyric poets in the English language” in your opinion?


NR: Shakespeare, Donne, Blake, Keats, Shelley, Hardy, Yeats, Frost, Auden.



Wilbur admires Auden and quotes Yeats in some of his responses to questions.


In his article “Sumptuous Destitution,” Wilbur praises Emily Dickinson for not letting her “Calvinist vocabulary” write her poetry; she redefines “Immortality,” “Salvation,” and “Election” and personalizes them. Wilbur himself tends to secularize Christianity, for example, in “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” How would you compare these two New England poets’ handling of the Christian lexicon to convey their spirituality?


NR: The poets’ respective historical context makes all the difference. ED’s position as agnostic in mid-19th-century small town New England was radical to say the least, especially for a woman. Her redefinition of the Calvinist vocabulary was a destabilizing strategy that even today can shock certain readers or make them unwilling to accept the ironic levels of meaning or indeed blasphemous intent in her poetry. For RW writing in 1956, the use of “soul” and “heaven” in a poem about washing on a line is consolatory: the secular, materialist worldview is now dominant, and RW wishes to capture and embrace the numinous residuum in the world as a counterweight to contemporary tendencies toward nihilistic despair.



Wilbur says that ED “could not see in Nature any revelations of divine purpose,” and in her poems the is “an unrevealed God whom one cannot confidently approach through Nature or through doctrine,” but “she discovered that the soul has an infinite hunger, a hunger to possess all things” (e.g. “Auto da Fe and Judgment” and “We thirst at first--‘tis Nature’s Act.” In “Mayflies,” Wilbur thinks of the possibility that his mission on earth “is joyfully to see/How fair the fiats of the caller are.” How would you compare the two poets’ attitude toward nature and existence?


NR: ED would never have ended a poem with the sentiment expressed in the last four lines of “Mayflies.” They strike me as a feeble concession to the kind of hope in divine providence that was frequently expressed by ED’s contemporary “poetesses” in the face of Victorian doubt.



Doesn’t “Mayflies” remind the reader of “God's Grandeur,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, who is not a “poetess”?


NR: Not really. I think that a better comparison is with Frost’s “Design,” but Wilbur’s poem doesn’t come out of this contest very well.



I think Hopkins’ influence on Wilbur is obvious, but I also see a tinge of Hardy, for example, “The Oxen.” Yes, “Mayflies” reminds me of Frost’s “Design” and Hardy’s “Hap” too. What do you think?


NR: I do think Hopkins is a great poet, and part of the reason for me is that he’s completely uncompromising in his vision, like Blake or Dickinson. He just doesn’t care whether you “get” him or not: he can wait forever. Wilbur tries much harder to please.

Yes, I do see a strong Hardy influence on Wilbur, but it’s more on technique and diction rather than springing from temperamental affinity. “The Oxen” is full of the kind of dark, painful irony that Wilbur avoids.



Since the backdrop of “Mayflies” is a somber forest, don’t mysteries loom large despite the presence of light, which also reminds the reader of life's brevity? Don’t the last lines hint at faith and courage? Doesn’t the poem reflect T.S. Eliot’s observation that “faith is inseparable from doubt”?


NR: Yes, I agree with your reading. It’s just that the poem doesn’t convince me, because its final lurch to optimism requires a priori acceptance of the existence of a “caller.”



Wilbur notes ED’s expert use of things, for example, flies, birds, and flowers as metaphors to depict her inner world. How does this observation reflect his respect for objects? (e.g. “A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness”; feel free to use another poem, or other poems, by Wilbur to illustrate your observations.)


NR: RW’s poem seems to warn the reader that the quest for an abstract purity is a futile trek into a waterless desert, that the mind needs the solid clarity of things, “light incarnate.” (By contrast, ED in an almost proto-modernist manner liked to transform entities into abstractions, the sunset sky into a play of colours, Indian summer into a “blue and gold mistake,” a hummingbird into “a resonance of emerald.”) “A World without Objects” has many fine lines, but given the passage you append from Traherne, I wonder if it isn’t based on a misreading, deliberate or otherwise. The Traherne passage speaks of “life [not “world”] without objects,” by which he means, I think, “a life without purposes,” not “a life without things, a life of abstractions.”



Wilbur considers ED’s poem that begins with “Undue Significance a starving man Attaches/To Food” an approach to discovering “something about the soul.” Isn’t the starving man feeding on mirages as the tall camels do while they journey through a desert in “A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness”? Doesn’t Wilbur reprimand the camels but celebrate the starving man’s discovery and illusion?


NR: RW’s reading of ED’s poem #439 is generally a correct one, I think, though he misses the dark humor in the mock-callous opening: it’s practically an anticipation of Kafka’s “Hunger Artist.” But no, I don’t think RW celebrates the “connoisseurs of thirst”; I think he’s instead pointing to where or how that thirst might be really, rather than putatively, quenched.



Wilbur seems fascinated by these two lines “A perfect, paralyzing bliss/contented as despair” by ED. Does this reflect a special affinity of these two poets who seem to believe in the inseparable linkage of opposites?


NR: I note that RW doesn’t draw attention to the “paralyzing” in these lines from #756. The huge “Blessing” that this poem’s about is not specified: but it’s clear that had it been extended in duration there’d have been no need for ED to have written a poem, or indeed any poetry, about it or anything else.


Obviously “Sumptuous Destitution” indicates that RW feels an affinity for ED, and what he finds in her is an infinitely hungry soul. But as poets they are of very different temperaments. You can see this clearly in their diction: ED is an austere minimalist, RW lays on a verbal impasto.



“Being an austere minimalist,” how does ED differ from Ernest Hemingway? What are the merits of Wilbur's “verbal impasto”?


NR: She’s a 19th-century female poet; he’s a 20th-century male writer of prose fiction. Seriously, though: Hemingway’s minimalism is intended to give the initial impression of simplicity that belies a (sometimes genuine, sometimes factitious) depth. Dickinson never tries to look simple: hers is a wrestling with never-quite-subdued diction and syntax that is reminiscent of the metaphysical poets.


Wilbur is an excellent technician, but his desire for formal perfection means that he rarely does the unexpected thing: when he does, as in the ellipsis starting the penultimate sentence in “The Pardon” or breaking the last line of “Love Calls Us,” he takes his art to a higher level. (Compare Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan.”) His diction is very rich, but it also tends toward the stilted: when he uses antique poeticisms like “accurst” and “blessed,” he’s doing it mainly for the meter, not for the irony like Berryman.



Doesn’t Wilbur “Giaour and the Pacha” remind you of the poem by ED that begins with “Success is counted sweetest/by those who ne’er succeed”? The giaour loses his identity at the very moment he triumphs over his foe. How would you respond to the parallels in the two poems?


NR: I don’t think ED would have identified much with the romantic, melodramatic content of Delacroix’s painting, though she might have appreciated his Turneresque tendency toward abstract swirls of color. I also don’t think the two poems are closely parallel. RW’s is essentially about the hollowness of a violent victory over an ancient foe from the point of view of the victor. ED’s poem is about how we can only fully appreciate what we can’t have, so the loser is the only one who fully appreciates success.



I think Wilbur's “Giaour and the Pacha” tells more than “the hollowness of a violent victory over ancient foe from the point of view of the victor.” Doesn’t the poem show that we are defined by our opposite? With the death of an ancient foe, the victor has lost his identity. As a friend of mine says, “St. George would not be St. George without the dragon although we don’t know how St. George would define himself.”


NR: Yes, you’re right; it does show this.



Wilbur thinks it is “likelier” that ED “is arguing the superiority of defeat to victory, of frustration to satisfaction, and of anguished comprehension to mere possession.” Do you agree?


NR: Yes, absolutely.



Randall Jarrell (“Fifty Years of American Poetry,” 1962) says that Wilbur “obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing.” Is this a fair statement and does it explain why Wilbur speak positively of ED’s three major privations--she is “deprived of” an established “religious faith,” “love,” and “literary recognition?


NR: That’s (as usual) a very acute remark by Jarrell. There is a Pollyannaish aspect to RW that seems to have become more overt in his recent poetry.


Privations were important to ED: she herself recognized them as a key to her art. Philip Larkin said somewhere that deprivation to him was what daffodils were to Wordsworth. But Larkin’s self-imposed privations were as nothing to ED’s, both self- and externally imposed.



How would you compare Wilbur’s “Icons” and/or “Leaving” with ED’s “Publication is the auction/of the mind of man?


NR: I take the ED’s poem #709, with its determination to remain virginally “pure,” to be motivated by her anger at how editors who had accepted those few poems she did submit for publication seemed to think that paying her a fee gave them the right to change her poem to conform to their readers’ expectation of “correct” poetry.


“Icons” is obviously about the cult of celebrity, but it seems to me to end as a rather small-minded poem, by one who has chosen simply to express (and endorse) the buried hostility and schadenfreude inherent in all our fascination with celebrity. ED’s poem is more about the writer’s subjection to editors and publishers than about the pitfalls of fame.


“Leaving” is a better poem, the familiar seen in a transfiguring and eternalizing light. I don’t see its similarity with #709, but it does have a close thematic connection to #1714, “By a departing light/We see acuter, quite…”



Does Wilbur’s portrait of ED in “Altitudes” do justice to her?


NR: It’s an interesting poem, certainly. I like the first 12 lines of “Altitudes II,” but the last 3 defeat me, unless it’s a reference to ED’s brother Austin who lived next door and who had an interesting sex life. As for RW, I feel that he actually has more affinity for the European neo-classical setting in “Altitudes I” than for the “dark house” in Amherst. He is, essentially, a light-bringer, while ED, though she did indeed gaze in ecstasy at the “wild shining of the pure unknown” over Amherst, made greater poetry out of the shut-in fly.



How great an ironist do you think Wilbur is?


Wilbur is certainly capable of seeing two conflicting aspects of the same phenomenon at the same time, e.g. the “foul purities” of the SS Officer’s eyes. But his tendency is to conclude by plumping for one of those aspects over the other, and most of the time his choice is the conventional, expected one. He doesn’t have Hardy’s or Frost’s preference for ambivalence, for the unresolved and unresolvable, so in a way he’s a less modern poet than they.



Professor Ruddick, who came from England, did his graduate studies at McMaster University in Canada, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Emily Dickinson. Among his research interests is the literary and cultural history of the late 19th century, with published and forthcoming articles on Perrault’s “Bluebeard,” Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and Tolstoy’s and Zola’s response to Jack the Ripper. The author of Ultimate Island: On the Nature of British Science Fiction (Greenwood, 1993), he is currently working on Darwinism and 19th-century science fiction.




Copyright 2005 by Nicholas Ruddick: Answers

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

Feedback, please click here