The concept of “belief” quickly becomes a common thread in Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems (1987). Sometimes he examines connections between belief and vision. For example, Wilbur’s poem “All That Is” poses a stunning reverie on the limits of what we can see, and how what little we see can still lead us to belief. Roger Lundin, in Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief, calls “Lying” “one of the great modern poems on belief and language” (9). Belief, language and vision are all connected—Frederick Buechner observes that faith and fiction are both “ways of paying attention” (26 ). Wilbur is a master poet, and through his eyes, I am able to see things I might otherwise miss.
If as writers, readers, and faith-walkers, we can’t seem to find God in our surroundings, “maybe… we aren’t looking in the right places” (Buechner 26). What I love most about Wilbur’s poetry is that it helps me pay attention to all of the right things. I feel like I have a front seat to his faith discoveries—which often happen by “paying attention” to what might seem insignificant. In my experience, it is the small things that come to speak most powerfully of His Presence. Wilbur’s poetry acts as a reminder to look in unexpected places. His poetry models a new way of seeing. Even as I read his poetry, my faith grows.
As Wilbur explains in an interview with Richard Jackson (1979), he uses what he calls “exhaustive description:” “you reveal a world that ordinarily lies beyond human perception and you imply a further beyond” (141). In counterpoint, his work concerns itself with the limits and possibilities of the poet’s own mind and vision. Perhaps this is what resonates so soundly with me when I read Wilbur’s poetry: he knows truth is already there for us to see. Yet, there’s this underlying acceptance that, even after a masterful attempt to describe it, there will always be more beyond our reach.
Naysayers tend to call Wilbur too refined, timid, and for such a great master of words, rhyme, and meter, far too safe. I can see where they may be coming from. In addition to philosophical poems of grand scale, you’ll often find him take on something as seemingly insignificant as “Thyme Flowering Among Rocks” with equal rigor. But the ability to lose oneself in the object, in a sort of Keats-like “negative capability,” is for Wilbur, an invitation to surprise of what lies beyond. Take, for example, “Icarium Mare.” In Malcolm Guite-like fashion, Wilbur reminds us that large-scale truths exist:
We have heard of the undimmed air
Of the True Earth above us, and how here,
Shut in our sea-like atmosphere,
We grope like muddled fish.
The “undimmed air,” Wilbur imagines, might have been “where John’s bejeweled inward view/Descried an angel in the solar burst.” Though John’s vision might be at the far extreme of what we can see, Wilbur appreciates smaller visions, too. In the same “undimmed air” are “Black distances exorbitant to sense,/ which in its little shed/Of broken light knows wonders all the same” (17-18). What we can see, though finite, can surprise us. The poem ends by remembering our limitations, yet with hope that we will catch glimpses in unexpected places:
We keep our proper range,
Aspriring,with this lesser globe of sight,
To gather tokens of the light
Not in the bullion, but in the loose change.
I like that these “tokens of the light” in Wilbur’s poems are something to be gathered, by the poet, and by us as well. That they are already there, and not something we construct through language, is vital to the understanding of Christian faith. Roger Lundin identifies two, clashing perspectives in the realm of modern Christian faith. The naturalist view, adopted by many evangelicals today, sees belief as something constructed (28). To contrast, Wilbur’s stance in “On Having Mis-identified a Wild Flower” is crystal clear:
A thrush, because I’d been wrong,
Burst rightly into song
In a world not vague, not lonely,
Not governed by me only.
It’s from this place that Wilbur does his “seeing,” and challenges me to see in different ways, too. Many may see the resurrection as metaphorical, rather than something to stake one’s life upon. But, if truth stems from the literal death and resurrection of Christ, and can be transcended, this lends importance to the poet’s work (Lundin 54). In “Lying,” he writes “We invent nothing, merely bearing witness/To what each morning brings again to light” (17-18) and “All these things/ are there before us; there before we look/Or fail to look” (26-28).
I appreciate that, through Wilbur’s words, I am challenged to look. I also appreciate the way he challenges the way I see things. In “The Eye,” the title poem of Part One of his earlier collection The Mind Reader (1976) a tourist peering through binoculars begins to question his vision, and prays to Dante’s Lucy to correct it. It is these lines from the “Lucy prayer” which catch my attention the most:
Charge me to see
In all bodies the beat of spirit,
Not merely in the tout en l’air
Or double pike with layout
But in the strong,
Shouldering gait of the legless man,
The calm walk of the blind young woman
Whose cane touches the curbstone (II.13-20).
Wilbur’s words inspire me to look, and challenge my perspective of the ordinary. In the last lines of the poem, the speaker prays,
Let me be touched
By the alien hands of love forever,
That this eye not be folly’s loophole
But giver of due regard” (II.21,25-28).
Not unlike in Hopkins’ “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” the speaker’s inspired look at the everyday reveals the eternal. In my own life, the more I pay attention, the more I see glimpses of His Presence in my everyday surroundings. It becomes a new way of seeing, a way of seeing that is exemplified beautifully in New and Collected Poems (1987).
Let us–as readers, writers, and faith-walkers–be continually surprised by what we see.
Buechner, Frederick. The Clown in the Belfry. “Faith and Fiction.” San Francisco: Harper, 1992.
Jackson, Richard. “The Mystery of Things that Are (Richard Wilbur).” Acts of Mind: Conversations With Contemporary Poets. U of Alabama P, 1983. Print.
Lundin, Roger. Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014.
Wilbur, Richard. New and Collected Poems. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1987.