Why Poetry Matters: The Death of Richard Wilbur

Why Poetry Matters

We late twentieth and early twenty-first century Americans are the first people in history who do not know poetry. Every civilization prior to our modern American civilization has read and heard and memorized poetry. This was still done in schools when I was young.

We use poetry to a certain extent every day, of course, whenever we use a metaphor or an analogy. But we seldom pay much attention to verse poetry—the kind of poetic language that has a formal structure. The only place we see it much anymore is in the nursery rhymes and children’s poems many of us still teach in our homes and schools.

And then we have the additional problem that what poetry we do see often lacks formal structure. Standard verse–what most people think of when they think of poetry–has meter (a kind of rhythm) and consistent rhyme pattern. But most poetry written in modern times is either “blank verse”–poetry that has meter but no rhyme, or what is called “free verse”—poetry which may or may not rhyme, but which has no meter.

It is not that there is anything inherently wrong with blank and free verse, but the almost exclusive reliance on these unstructural poetic structures does, I think, reflect to a certain degree the postmodern disdain for order and hierarchy.

If modern thought is characterized by anything, it is the undermining of convention, the breaking of rules, the defiance of custom and tradition. The ideologies that now dominate academic thought are rife with the idea that even reality itself is fundamentally unstructured, and that the only order that exists is the order we impose on it.

Richard Wilbur, who died last month, was my favorite contemporary poet. He was famous for taking an unfashionable stand for traditional verse. Wilbur was a Christian, and it is to this that I attribute his embrace of the older forms.

Traditional Christian thought was in agreement with thinkers like Plato and Aristotle on this at least: that not only was the physical universe ordered, but the moral and spiritual universe–reality itself–was also ordered. And not only was it ordered, but it was ordered in a hierarchy–with man at the top, then animals below him, and plants below animals, and so on.

The Book of Genesis itself expresses this in its portrayal of God ordering the universe, separating the light from the darkness, the sea from the land, and building everything up until His creation of the highest thing in the world: man, whom He creates in His own image. In later Christian works, such as The Divine Comedy, we still see this. For Dante, Heaven is up, and Hell is down. Each is ordered in relation to the other, and each is ordered in itself, and this order is also inherent in the world itself.

If you believe that reality itself is ordered, then you will naturally appreciate order in language, which is what formal poetry is: meaning and expression–ordered in what it says, and ordered in how it says it, and ordered in how the what and the how are ordered to each other.

The consciousness of this truth informs Wilbur’s poetry.

This is “The Measuring Worm,” published by The New Yorker in 2008. Let’s take a look at how this works:

This yellow striped green
Caterpillar, climbing up
The steep window screen,

Constantly (for lack
Of a full set of legs) keeps
Humping up his back.

It’s as if he sent
By a sort of semaphore
Dark omegas meant

To warn of Last Things.
Although he doesn’t know it,
He will soon have wings,

And I, too, don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.

This is a metaphysical poem, like almost all of Wilbur’s poems. It takes a simple thing, an inchworm, and uses it to say something fundamental about reality. In this case, he is speaking of ourselves as human beings.

The inchworm, like we humans, seems an earthbound thing. But the worm, like we humans, is destined for something greater. It will someday be a butterfly.

For what “Last Things” are we, as humans, destined?

As a Christian, Wilbur knows to what “undreamt condition, Inch by Inch” he goes. But he has written this poem as if he is in ignorance of his final destiny so as to lead his readers to the truth that he pretends not to know.

That is the what of the poem. But, again, the greatest poets are those who can incarnate the meaning of the poem in the form or structure of the poem itself. How can the structure of a poem take on the very form of its meaning? Let’s talk about how Wilbur does it here:

Poems have different forms, and most of them have names. In addition to blank verse, there is the limmerick, the sonnet, the villanelle, and many more. If you were to ask what kind of a poem “The Measuring Worm” is, what would be the answer?

At first, this poem seems like a villanelle. A villanelle is five tercets (three-line verses) in which the first and last lines rhyme, followed, at the end, by one quatrain (a four line verse). “The Measuring Worm” has the five tercets—five verses of three lines in which the first and the last rhyme. But it can’t be a villanelle because, although it has the five tercets, it is missing the quatrain at the end.

But … wait a minute. Look at what the poem says at the end! It says,

… I, too, don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.

What he is saying is that he doesn’t know what the end is. And, remember, we’re looking for the way the content and the form are connected. Well here it is!

He wrote this poem as a villanelle with the end, the quatrain left off. He has done this to incarnate, in the very form of the poem, his point: Our lives are unfinished. The unfinished form of the poem expresses this in its very structure.

How brilliant is that?

And there’s another thing: Measure the height of any of the tercets in this poem on the screen of your computer. How high is it? As high, most likely, as it would be written out in longhand in one of Wilbur’s notebooks, or as it would have been printed in any of his books of poetry: an inch. “Inch by inch” he is progressing toward an end which he has left off in order to prompt us to ask ourselves where we are going.

And the thing about this is that most people would not even see this unless they knew how poetry works. They would be completely blind to the clever moves Wilbur has made here—moves which, incidentally, he could not have made unless he was using traditional poetic forms.

Wilbur has many other poems that are equally brilliant. In particular, since we are now in the midst of the Christmas season, don’t miss his “A Christmas Hymn,” the music for which was composed by Richard Sheppard.

It is amazing what great poets can do. And this is one reason I am sorry to have heard that Richard Wilbur has passed away.

But there is one thing I am happy about, and that is that the villanelle of Richard Wilbur’s poetic life has found its ending. If the quality of his poetry, and the sublimity of what he had to tell us over some seven decades (he was 96 when he died) is any indication, his missing quatrain should be sweet.

To learn more about poetry (you or your student), check out Memoria Press’s literature and poetry guides.

Leave a Reply