This Old Poem #45:
The Poets Laureate Special Edition #5:
Richard Wilbur’s Signatures
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/19/03

  Will-Bur!’ was the sound often heard in the old TV sitcom Mr. Ed, bellowing from the titular horse toward his owner, especially when the equus was peeved at him. Of course, Wilbur was a smiling idiot- not too unlike the hero of this opining. Yes, Richard Wilbur was American Poet Laureate from 1987-1988. So what?
In the 1950s he gained fame as 1 of the leading neo-fos of Modern Poetry. What’s a neo-fo? These are the folk who believe that ‘real poetry’ must adhere to classical dictates & have a formal structure & thema. Unfortunately this has often meant style over substance- this being true of both RW’s corpus & that of the neo-fos in general. Whether essaying a sonnet, a villanelle, a sestina, a pantoum, etc. RW would consistently show that he had reasonable competence formally- but absolutely nothing to say. It’s amazing how little a purview on the cosmos RW has in his poetry. His work almost seems to be that of someone emergent from a time machine & trying to convince the world of the uniquity of his neo-fo razzmatazz.
  In later years RW did what most budding DWM poetasters do: he went ‘Eastern’- or Zen, if you prefer. He discovered….c’mon, you know what mamby-pamby MFA-fed literatistas lose their loads over….the haiku! RW has played around with the haiku in more than just its singular form. Trust me, there is no singular haiku that I would bother writing an essay on. But RW has written poems that employ the haikuvian 5-7-5 syllabic format. 1 of his better known poems is the titular poem. Let’s look at what it shares in common with the haiku, what it does not share, & what else he has done with it all.


False Solomon's Seal—
So called because it lacks a
Star-scar on the heel,

And ends its arched stem
In a spray of white florets,
Later changing them

To a red, not blue,
Spatter of berries—is no
Falser than the true.

Solomon, who raised
The temple and wrote the song,
Wouldn't have dispraised

This bowed, graceful plant
So like an aspergillum,
Nor its variant

With root duly scarred,
Whose bloom-hung stem is like the
Bell-branch of a bard.

Liking best to live
In the deep woods whose light is
Most contemplative

Both are often found
Where mandrake, wintergreen, and
Dry leaves strew the ground,

Their heads inclining
Toward the dark earth, one blessing
And one divining.

  OK- the commonality? The 5-7-5 syllabic form. What else? Well, not much. I mean, there is some nature imagery. What’s not in common? Well, the bad dangling line breaks- no good haiku does this. I mean- a haiku cannot demand a bad line break for the rhyme- so why is it so difficult for RW, & 1000s of other poetasters, to realize this? The very infusion of rhyme not only breaks the classical haiku form (which can be done, if done well), but almost invites the poor word choices. Also the sustained narrative. What else is there? Well, he does have some nice numerology going on: haikus are 3 lines, 3 x 3 = 9- the # of stanzas, 9 x 3 = 27, the # of lines. But the actual poem, aside from the numerology? I’ve underlined the clichés- abysmal is the word. Some are stand-alone clichés- what is enunciated, while others are specific to the ‘flower poem’ theme: the arched stem, the spray of flowers, contemplation, & leaves strewing the ground- these being thematic clichés. The title is meant to underscore this poem’s attempt at depth. The plural hinting at commonalities to be found in those things spoken of, as well as those implied. This is a piece of tripe on a clichéd subject- expounding on a flower, & ends with the horrid cliché of a deep moment. You’re really moved- ain’t you?
  Let’s rewrite this:

Often Found

False Solomon's Seal—
so called because white florets,
red, not blue. The true

Solomon, who raised
the temple and wrote the song,
wouldn't have this plant,

its variant, root
bloom-hung stem, mandrake. Their heads
inclining and divining.

  The new title is taken from a discarded line, & is more original, & less pompous than the original’s. We get that this is a poem on a flower by line 2- this theme is so familiar that any reader of poetry is already lugging around most of the clichés the original so unnecessarily foists. But instead of steering us toward a predictable end we get a poem 1/3 the original’s length, while also keeping the numerology of 3. Yet this poem is so much richer. We don’t need a total description- just a hint will suffice. & look how the poem ends. The inclining & divining, which in the original is a banal religious moment. has now been dramatically transformed in to a singular moment which can be seen in the clichéd manner, but also as sheer description- which ties back to the new title, meaning that such acts often occur in nature- a much more intriguing thought, & ending. The plodding end rhymes & poor line breaks have been replaced by tighter lines, & a music brought foth by alliteration, assonance, & internal rhymes that come quickly. The excessive need to describe, in the original, is now merely stark description- a plainer, more haikuvian speak.
  Yet, this approach to culling the worst of formalism, & doing nothing with it is this PL’s forte. Let’s gander at his bio: 

  RW was born in 1921 in NYC. He edited his college newspaper in 1942. He served in the European theater of WW2. He went to Harvard & got an M.A. in 1947- the year his first book was published. He taught at Wesleyan University, founding Wesleyan University Press- the poetry series that plagued modern poetry with such sub-stellar brown dwarves as Robert Bly, James Wright, James Dickey, Richard Howard, & others. In 1987 snagged the Poet Laureateship of the U.S., yet RW has remained a neo-fo, aligning himself as an heir to Wallace Stevens, claiming to have poems rich in diction, urbane, yet formal & incredibly dull. His 3rd book, Things of This World (1956), won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. 

  RW became the leading light of the neo-fo movement in the 1950s & 60s. Even as he butted heads with the Confessionalist & Beatnik propagandists, RW won a coterie of devoted, if myopic, cultists. The titular poem has had its share of apologiae. Apologists gush over its absolute uniquity- even as the 27 line original is larded with- um, 9 clichés, plodding end rhymes, & forced word choices due to the rhyme scheme. This is, of course, attributed as extraordinarily skilled. Critic Thomas Carr praises the poem in this manner: ‘apprehended by this most original poet's extraordinary close looking at small natural phenomena, are made meaningful through unexpected associations with the largest human concerns. And all of this in the context of a tactful, self-effacing presentation.’ OK, to be self-effacing means be modest- that is the poet does not want to draw attention to himself or the poem’s artifice. How does he do that with cliché & poor music? Hmmm….Of course, these sorts of words are routinely used in kiss-ass reviews that mean nothing. But it sounds like the poet must be doing something remarkable to have such a critically non-sequitured term hurled at the reader. Look also at the attempt to subliminally indoctrinate 1 to the idea that this poet & critic are deep: apprehended, original (yes, clichés are always original), extraordinary, natural, phenomena, meaningful, unexpected, associations, concerns, context, tactful, self-effacing. Yet, this snippet says absolutely nothing- read alone you would be clueless as to RW’s strengths & weaknesses as a writer. Excelsior! (See, I can toss big words around, too- but with humor!)
  TC later confesses that he was bowled over by the poem because it was presented to him as a Xmas card, ‘handsome type on special paper, with a colored drawing of a blooming stem of False Solomon's Seal. Though many gardeners and flower lovers are familiar with both Solomon's Seal and False Solomon's Seal, I had never encountered either of these wildflowers—or if I had, while walking in woods, I hadn't known their names.’ Yet, despite the poem’s execrable dullness & plodding, TC raves: ‘a three-beat meter quickly made itself felt and would contribute powerfully to the poem's musicality. Only in the final stanza, as the poem achieved its culmination, would the first and third lines be felt clearly as two-beat lines, providing a closure both modest and firm.’ Sorry Charlie, er- Tommy,  but RW does hew close to the haikuvian form- the ‘beat’ TC senses is of his own desire to impose strictures on a bad poem by his hero. TC then tries to explain the poem: ‘What is False Solomon's Seal? How is it identified? How does it differ from a variant, the "true" Solomon's Seal? What are the signatures of the two "deep woods" flowers?
  The poet lists them. The heal, or root, of False Solomon's Seal is different from the heal of Solomon's Seal because it does not have a star-shaped marking which resembles the six-pointed symbol associated with King Solomon. Then, False Solomon's Seal has red berries rather than blue ones. Finally, its flowers form like a cloud of tiny droplets rather than as bell-shaped blooms. (I learned these things from a dictionary and illustrations in a book on wild- flowers.) But the two flowers are equally "true." Their differences give neither flower precedence, we learn, as the poet identifies each with a high calling—a priestly vocation for one, a vocation as prophet and poet for the other.
  The identification is made by an astonishing leap backward to Biblical times where King Solomon himself is recognized in each of these roles as the person "who raised the temple and wrote the song." The builder of the Temple in Jerusalem and the traditional poet of the Songs of Solomon "wouldn't have dispraised" either of the flowers bearing his name.
  TC drones on in this fashion. You see, he does not trust his readers to discern this most manifest poem. Look at how many words he uses to discern the obvious. Of course, nothing is uttered of the actual phraseology being atrocious. Later, TC conflates this poem with William Blake’s visionary nature. He ends his musing with this gem of critical penilingus: ‘Richard Wilbur's tone in the poems looked at here is more modest, but the utterance is as intense. The bard we hear speaks quietly, but the extraordinary care with which he organizes his rhythms, syllables, and symbols conveys an equal earnestness. Few poets have brought home such a harvest from a flowered spot in deep woods or a field of cornstalks.’ Note the use of subliminal code words, with nothing of note really being uttered.
  Fellow producer of bad verse, Donald Hall once opined, ‘The typical ghastly poem of the fifties was a Wilbur poem not written by Wilbur, a poem with tired wit and obvious comparisons and nothing to keep the mind or the ear occupied.’ Reread the last ½ of that statement & you have a description of RW’s original- to a T. Of course, DH, as usual, was whiffing on the real target of those disses. Fortunately, RW’s verse has been attacked critically, but for all the wrong reasons- because of its neo-fo status, & his lack of dealing with the real world- aka being apolitical- a mortal sin in this PC Elitist Purgatory of the last few decades. Other critics have chided him with what is known, to some, as the John Ashbery critique: ‘Among minor poets he is allowed to be most major, but among major poets he is not even considered the most minor.’ Yet, I guess there is something to be said for such petty sniping- at least with neo-fos the Academic hierarchy can exhibit some spleen. But I can do better- to hell with the lot of them. RW- please wake me when he’s dead!


Final Score: (1-100):

Richard Wilbur’s Signatures: 45
TOP’sOften Found: 85

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