An Exploration of Richard Wilbur’s Work And How Poetry Is An Inevitable Expression Of Religious Assertions, Part One

We have lost a lot of greats since 2016. The most recent great who touched my poet’s soul and was among my list of favorite writers left us on October 14th. Upon hearing the news, I reached for the one book of his I own. Later on, I remembered this—a piece written for a poetry assignment back in 2014. Apparently Part Two is still in a notebook somewhere. If you haven’t yet read the poem referenced below, I encourage you to do so.


In a 1968 interview, Richard Wilbur said:

 … that poetry is essentially religious in its direction. I know a lot of people, poets, who are not consciously religious, but find themselves forever compromised by their habit of asserting the relevance of all things to each other. A poetry being a kind of truth-telling (it’s pretty hard to lie in poetry), I think that these people must be making, whether they like it or not, what are ultimately religious assertions.

Being a student of poetry, and still an overenthusiastic one if not wholly adequate, this is first what struck home for me. Early on, I developed the expectation of poetry to reveal sacred secrets—I believe poetry’s purpose is to demonstrate, celebrate, and even to evoke individual spiritual awakening. There is no need for a poet to sit down with that expectation from his/her work … it will happen.

As Wilbur touches on in this brief talk, poetry is a truth telling. A writer sits down with words and delves into their center … the writer mines a multitude of meanings and sensual impact and emotive qualities of each word, then combinations of those words in phrases, then the metaphorical weight of those phrases in relation to what is going on in that writer’s life, or memory, or some intellectual or emotional preoccupation.

Human beings simply cannot help “their habit of asserting the relevance of all things to each other”, and creative humans do this with their art. We categorize, define and redefine, poke and prod until the investigation of self becomes spiritual epiphany—the pursuit of language becomes the pursuit of truth, and the pursuit of truth always leads to the revelation of a universe so much greater than ourselves, then somehow, that vast universe turns back on itself to acknowledge the sovereignty of “I”, “me”, “we” .

We simultaneously categorize ourselves as mere human and a Creator’s holy vessels of inspired messages. We are dust and we are ALL. We are immortal and mortal. We are the very language that Earth and Heaven speak and, therefore, both will listen. Of course not every poem will move every reader to the ultimate awakening. Readers are as individual as the writers they read. Real beauty is discovered when one individual stumbles upon the other.

I found Mr. Wilbur quite by accident, running the opposite direction of anything that remotely resembled formalism; I tripped over him and all his billowing, breathless colors confined in the blank verse “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”. The narrator of this poem, I believe, is caught for a while in that half-dream state we have all experienced—that airy, floating, borderless place where we can observe in quiet astonishment as Heaven flutters among the most mundane Earthly things.

In these precious few moments the narrator saw souls (rather, representations of the human spirit) celebrating the freedom of being loosed from the weight of sinful desire, responsibility of labor, and that all-too human thing, worry. Those precious few moments end with the man who, irreparably human, yawning and waking, makes his Earthly preoccupations clear with a demand for order according to those preoccupations, and so “the soul descends once more in bitter love”.

My own definitions of the words “soul” (the very essence of our humanness that does indeed embody desire, intellect, and will; the very thing that tethers us to this world) and “spirit” (that bit of sovereignty imparted by God that may very well long to be free of the body and soul to reunite with the Creator) defy Mr. Wilbur’s usage. Nonetheless, his depiction of the “soul” does not hinder my enjoyment and understanding of this outstanding poem. In fact, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” does it all for my poet soul, and was the first to reveal that spiritual epiphany I had so long desired from poetry.

It is in Mr. Wilbur’s works that I am finally free to admire the simultaneous expression of ecstasy and discipline, of humanity and sovereignty.



RIP, Mr. Wilbur. Thank you for your words.

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