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Things of This World

By Richard Wilbur

Original Publisher: Harcourt Brace
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Patrick Rosal writes:

Things of This World is sort of classically Richard Wilbur, the vast majority of the poems in regular stanza and rhyme. The language is direct; the surfaces are clear. You “get them” pretty quickly. The title suggests he’s going to contemplate the things of this world, by which, I imagine, he means the immediate, local (though on a human scale very large), shared physical world—as opposed to the other world, which is metaphysical and, in Wilbur’s cosmology, often celestial.

In fact, he’s very interested in the heavenly. “Look up into the dome,” the first line of the opening poem, “Altitude,” enjoins. And quickly, in the very next poem, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” we find the spectral and the mundane in the same space, a view of a clothesline:

            Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.

Perhaps his most anthologized poem is also in this book, “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” an effervescent meditation on two contrasting fountains in Rome, one a metaphor for our splendid, ill-fitted, earthly selves, “happy in all that ragged, loose / Collapse of water, its effortless descent,” and the other, “the main jet” at St. Peter’s:

Struggling aloft until it seems at rest 

In the act of rising, until
The very wish of water is reversed,
That heaviness borne up to burst
In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill

With blaze, and then in gauze
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine
Illumined version of itself…

It’s easy to love the free trickle of short-i assonance and the mellifluous consonance of l’s rolling throughout the poem’s long sentences and compound syntax, all of it hammered into relief by the occasional internal rhyme. The poem is delightful, well-made, and worth going back to. And there are many good poems in the book, not quite with the same energetic music, but good poems nonetheless. “After the Last Bulletin,” for example, is a testament to the way in which we used to relate to the news, how we could disappear from it at night, that the headlines were good for a whole day, that they became a part of the streets as we slept, the newspaper blown into alleys and blinding the eyes of statues, finally swept up until the next day’s edition arrived.

Admittedly, I’m interested in a political reading of Wilbur, though by no means is he ever didactic in the book. The collection’s most overtly political poem is “Speech for the Repeal of the McCarran Act,” which never quite makes a good argument against the infamous “anti-communist” legislation in its title. The highlight of the poem, however, is the second stanza, where Wilbur fashions a moving depiction of war:

I am not speaking of rose windows
Shattered by bomb-shock; the leads tousled; the glass-grains broadcast;
If the rose be living at all
A gay gravel shall be pollen of churches.

A soldier in World War II, Wilbur does not draw much from his experience in the European theater in Things of This World (though he does so in his collection, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems); there is, ironically, an unintentional confession in the opening lines of the stanza (“I am not speaking of…”). Maybe selfishly, in this generation of American war, I crave the poetry of a soldier, a fierce witness, the poetic capacity for deep feeling (I believe Randall Jarrell had some criticism of Wilbur in this regard). I think Wilbur is at his best when his poems stand against the myth of deathlessness, which is a chronic and fairly widespread condition of the American psyche. The poems “Beasts” and “Looking into History” are good examinations of our mortal lives (as are his excellent translations of Baudelaire, Jammes, and de Thaun).

Admittedly, I’ve got some gripes with Wilbur (or maybe my gripe is more with the limited vision of his time). I can’t let him off the hook for disrespecting both Asians and New Jersey in the same poem! (This Filipino was born and raised in the gorgeous, grimy Garden State). In “Digging for China,” the speaker is told by a “somebody” that “‘Far enough down is China…Dig deep enough and you might see the sky…it’s nothing like New Jersey.’” It’s a place, the somebody says, where everything is “different.” The speaker grabs a trowel and “sweat[s] like a coolie all that morning” trying to dig down to the other side of the earth. Unsuccessful, he stands up out if his ditch and is disoriented. It doesn’t help the poem that Wilbur seems to bite from Elizabeth Bishop in the closing line: “All that I saw was China, China, China.”

Nonetheless, the most surprising and, for me, the greatest reward for reading the collection is “The Mill,” which, if I’d come across the poem outside the book, I wouldn’t have guessed was written by Wilbur. As far as I know, it’s not a widely read or anthologized poem.

“The Mill” is a powerful and moving elegy, written in a very loose iambic pentameter, but with the glaring absence of Wilbur’s usual end rhyme. In the poem, the speaker’s friend, dying, manages to produce “the names of streets, the exact look / Of lilacs, 1903, in Cincinnati.” It’s a tender poem of address, unique for its intimacy in a poetry collection that is often detached (albeit skillfully so). Here, it’s clear this is a metaphor for the mind dying, a mill still turning though it’s abandoned and isolated (the speaker can’t seem to remember if the friend told him he came across it in Tennessee or Brazil). But we are never removed from the profound affection the speaker has for his friend. We aren’t distracted by a heaven of forms or abstractions. We are simply presented with grief and the ordinary speech that loves (and needs) to give that grief some natural form. This beautiful poem is praise for all such things that keep moving—even in their ruin. 

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections,Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (Persea, 2003), which won the Members' Choice Award from the Asian American Writers' Workshop, and most recently My American Kundiman (Persea, 2006), which won the Association of Asian American Studies 2006 Book Award in Poetry and the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award. Awarded a Fulbright grant as a Senior U.S. Scholar to the Philippines in 2009, he has had poems and essays published widely in journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, Tin House, American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, the Beacon Best, and Language for a New Century. (Photo credit: Stephen Sullivan)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Edgar Bowers for The Form of Loss
  • Leah B. Drake for This Tilting Dust
  • Charles E. Eaton for Greenhouse in the Garden
  • Kenneth Fearing for New and Selected Poems
  • Robert Fitzgerald for In the Rose of Time
  • Katherine Haskins for Villa Narcisse
  • Rolfe Humphries for Green Armor on Green Ground
  • Joseph Langland for The Green Town (published as part of the anthology Poets of Today, III)
  • Anne Morrow Lindbergh for The Unicorn
  • W.S. Merwin for Green with Beasts
  • Marianne Moore for Like a Bulwark
  • Ezra Pound for Section: Rock Drill
  • Kenneth Rexroth for In Defense of the Earth
  • John Hall Wheelock for Poems Old and New

Poetry Judges that Year: Louise Bogan, Edward Davidson, Horace Gregory,
Louis Simpson, Yvor Winters

The Year in Literature:

  • Things of This World by Richard Wilbur also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • John Hall Wheelock was both a Finalist that year for his own collection and editor of Poets of Today, III, which included Finalist Joseph Langland’s collection, The Green Town.

Other Information:

  • Richard Wilbur (1921- ) was born in New York, NY.
  • Wilbur was only eight years old when he published his first poem in the children’s magazine John Martin’s Magazine.

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Reader Comments (9)

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