I got to hear my favorite modern poet read from his work tonight, and I realized how nicely this reading bookended my academic career:  I first heard (and heard of) Richard Wilbur during my undergraduate days at Sewanee, when we studied his poetry in a contemporary poetry class taught by my adviser, Wyatt Prunty (also an accomplished poet).  And then sometime that year Wilbur was invited to Sewanee, which is where I first heard him read in person.  Since then I have cherished his poetry (as well as his hymn, “A Stable Lamp is Lighted” which is in the Episcopal Hymnal).  What I love about his poetry is that it not only is amazing, beautiful, profound, brilliant, moving, and skilled– like the work of many of my favorite contemporary poets– but it is also, unlike many of those others– deeply optimistic.  Whereas some of the finest modern poetry can at best be called beautiful but bleak (I am thinking, for example, of something like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” which I love), Wilbur’s work is hopeful, with a deep and abiding sense of God’s grace and providence.  I don’t know much about Wilbur’s life of faith, but I know for certain he is a believer; his poetry radiates love for this world, and peaceful trust in it.  It’s not all Pollyanna and daisies– it can be somber and dark, true to life– but it’s just got this current of hope, a sense of divine order, running throughout it.  Someone once said of him that he has a “sacramental perspective” on the world.

What a gift Wilbur’s poetry has been to me since my undergraduate days, and how thankful I am to have heard him here at the end of my schooling, having just completed my PhD in English literature.  Poetry like Wilbur’s is why I do what I do, why I love to read, study, discuss, and teach poetry, why I could do it from dawn until dusk.   It also makes ME hopeful, that such a spirit can radiate in such a talent, that a man with an unabashed sense of God’s goodness can be a success in this world (he’s won the Pulitzer Prize twice and was U.S. Poet Laureate).  I asked him, during the Q &A tonight, how he hopes his poetry will be remembered, or what he’d like people to take from his work, Wilbur said that he hopes that his poems — as they are records of something that has touched him, has opened up his world or reorganized it — might do the same for someone else.  That he wants to be “in conversation” with others.  Speaking about metaphor– as the greatest poetic gift, the ability to say– and make true– that “this is that” (not that something is “like” something else but that it is “that” itself), Wilbur said that metaphor acknowledges the interrelatedness of all things.  Great poetry like his does that, it opens your perception up, changes your understanding of the world, connects things in such a way that you wonder that they weren’t always connected thus.   (Isn’t God’s creation in many ways one big metaphor?)  Looking back on my days at Sewanee, the path to where I stand right now seems so natural, so “of course,” and yet so mysteriously beautiful.  I’m so eternally grateful for the perspective and widsom Richard Wilbur’s poetry continues to give all who read his work.

Here is a poem from his forthcoming collection:

PSALM

Give thanks for all things 

On the plucked lute, and likewise 

The harp of ten strings. 

Have the lifted horn 

Greatly blare, and pronounce it 

Good to have been born. 

Lend the breath of life 

To the stops of the sweet flute 

On capering fife, 

And tell the deep drum 

To make, at the right juncture, 

Pandemonium. 

Then, in grave relief, 

Praise too our sorrows on the 

Cello of shared grief.

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