Plath, Wilbur, and “Good Spirits” (full text, click here)


The Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium assembled some of the leading authorities on her in Oxford, England from October 25 to 29, 2007. There were lively exchanges about who owns what or whom or who knows Sylvia Plath best. Ted Hughes endorses Wilbur’s “Cottage Street, 1953” as “the single truest best thing” about his wife. Seamus Heaney, encouraged by the “affections” in Plath’s final poems such as “Nick and the Candlestick,” adds a positive note about her in “Indefatigable Hoof-taps”: “we are surely reading work by somebody who wrote with the hope that good spirits were choosing her for their instrument.” Do these positive signs give Plath a resemblance to Edna Ward, whom Wilbur praises in “Cottage Street”?





“Demiurge’s Laugh” Versus “Cheshire Smile” (full text, click here)


Dr. Michael Manson of American University thinks that “Frost would be pleased to be called a Gnostic in the way that Harold Bloom describes Gnosticism” in the introduction to Robert Frost: Modern Critical Views, but he disagrees with Bloom’s claim that the Frostian God “is clearly animated neither by reason nor mercy but only by the blind necessities of being the Demiurge.” While Frost does seem stirred and teased by the “Demiurge’s laugh,” Richard Wilbur anticipates being set “fearfully free” by the “Cheshire smile,” which periodically appears among the foliage. Manson expands this interview about Frost and Wilbur to include other leading poets such as T.S. Eliot and John Ashbery. Compared with Frost’s “Directive,” Eliot’s Four Quartets, and Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” as a guide for today’s reader through life, Wilbur’s “Walking to Sleep” has “the best sense of humor,” Manson says.



Good Bet or Best Bet: On the Permanence of the 2006 Lilly Award Winner (full text, click here)


At 85, Richard Wilbur won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize of 2006, which is administered by the Poetry Foundation and includes an award of $100,000. In the announcement, Christian Wiman, Editor of Poetry Magazine and chairman of the selection committee, said: “If you had to put all your money on one living poet whose work will be read in a hundred years, Richard Wilbur would be a good bet. He has written some of the most memorable poems of our time, and his achievement rivals that of great American poets like Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop.” Why did Wilbur have to wait so long for this recognition? Has the new wisdom in his later poems won him the award? Wilbur likes “the recklessness” of some of his earliest work, but he adds, “I do think that I got better as I went along.” Professor James Longenbach of the University of Rochester thinks that Wilbur has been an “overlooked master,” but “his achievement is permanent.”




Of Beowulf and Beasts: A Round-Table  Discussion (full text, click here)


In response to the interview with Tristanne Connolly, Beowulf Revisited,” several scholars have offered intriguing comments on the Christian-pagan dynamic in the medieval epic and on the fantasy-reality dichotomy in general. Professor Harold Bloom thinks “it is a pagan poem by a Christian writer.” According to Dr. Wiebke Kuhn, the author is definitely “Christian, possibly even a monk. Anyone with a craving for knowledge during the Middle Ages had to become a religious person.” Professor John Burrow sees Beowulf neither “Christlike” nor “culpably pagan.” Does Richard Wilbur’s poem of the same title imply that the medieval poet represents a culture that was perhaps overly mesmerized with monsters and fantasies of the pagans? Professor Chauncey Wood thinks that Wilbur’s poem reflects the “unknowableness” of Beowulf the man and the epic. Wilbur himself explains that his poem uses the epic to make the argument that a hero, to preserve his world, “must in a sense kill or evict the child in himself.” Professor Nicholas Ruddick notes the tension between a Romantic perspective and a Realist perspective that Wilbur’s doubled structure suggests. Professor Bruce Michelson thinks Wilbur “in some dimension” explores “an imaginative predicament.”




Tension Between Nihilism and Pollyannaism: A Round-Table  Discussion (full text, click here)


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.




“Beowulf” Revisited: Wilbur’s Review of Medieval “Collective Unconscious,” A Conversation with Tristanne Connolly (full text, click here)


Richard Wilbur’s “Beowulf” differs from the medieval epic of the same title in length and content to show apparently, among other things, the repercussions of an overblown imagination that does not do justice to physical reality. Although Wilbur’s poem is also set in Denmark, “the grass” is “too garrulous green” and “The Roman road” is “paved too shiningly.” It is a “childish country,” where the inhabitants indulge in “monstrous” dreams or runaway fantasies. Professor Tristanne Connolly of St. Jerome’s University in an interview with Isabella Wai notes that Wilbur’s speaker “strikes” her “as being “rather like the critics Tolkien wrote against who objected to the focus in ‘Beowulf’ on the silly fights with monsters, instead of the serious historical events.” She also sees a parallel between the epic version of “Beowulf” and “The Dream of the Rood.”





Dickinson’s Minimalism versus Wilbur’s Impasto: A Conversation with Nicholas Ruddick, by Isabella Wai (full text, click here)


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 ED, 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.”




Of Wilbur and Wit: A Conversation with Bruce Michelson, by Isabella Wai (full text, click here)


In his book Literary Wit Bruce Michelson defines the term as “a transformed way of seeing and telling rather than as relief from seriousness, or as digression” (3). This quality is evident in a number of Richard Wilbur’s poems because of his “extraordinary wordplay, his ingenious use of incongruity, his rescue of irony from the mechanical dullness it slid into from overuse by a legion of Moderns.” Michelson discusses how Wilbur’s wit “in the very happiest intellection” (“Mind”) moves on multiple levels and in multiple directions. It gracefully re-examines human values and challenges habitual acceptance of established beliefs and “unbeliefs,” some of which can be deceptively rational.




“Cottage Street, 1953” and “Daddy”: Two Portraits of Sylvia Plath, group discussion (full text, click here)

Does Richard Wilbur in “Cottage Street, 1953” pay tribute to Edna Ward, his mother-in-law, at the expense of Sylvia Plath? Some students of World Literature at Auburn University argue that in fact he has painted a more sympathetic picture of her than her self-portrait in “Daddy.” Others in the same class contend that Sylvia Plath, who refuses to join Wilbur in his ironic “shallows,” has chosen to plunge into the depths of darkness, in which she states “her brilliant negative” and is eventually “drowned.”


Publications about Richard Wilbur in the 21st century: A Bibliography, compiled by Isabella Wai (full text, click here)





Disclaimer and fair use

Richard Wilbur has given me, Isabella Wai, permission to use “any reasonable amount of quotation” from his work in this online forum. In good faith I have tried to comply with the “fair use” clause of US Copyright, which is available on the Cornell University Website (www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/search/index.html) and the University of Pennsylvania website (http://www.upenn.edu/), when I cite previously published material from other sources. The Richard Wilbur Forum is for nonprofit educational purposes only. Please email me, at isa.wai@utoronto.ca, if any material posted in the forum does not conform to the “fair use” provisions, and I will remove it pending resolution of the objection.


Readers have free access to this forum and are invited to give their responses. The Richard Wilbur Forum does not accept responsibility for the views and judgments expressed by the contributors, copyright holders, and visitors to this website. All contributions are unpaid.


Feedback, please click here