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British Association for American Studies


Issue 17, Autumn 2010: Article 1


Issue 17, Autumn 2010: Article 1

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

“Mad-Eyed From Stating the Obvious”: The Cold War Symmetries of Robert Lowell and Richard Wilbur

Stephen Ross

© Stephen Ross. All Rights Reserved.

Who would it surprise 

If (after the flash, hush, rush,

Thump, and crumpling) when the wind of prophecy

Lifts its pitch, and over the drifting ash

At last the trump splits the sky.

No One should arise…

W.S. Merwin, ‘No One’[1]

Like most mid-century American poets, Robert Lowell and Richard Wilbur sought in earnest for poetic forms and for poetic language equal to conveying the magnitude of the nuclear crisis. Though routinely set in contrast to each other, particularly in the “anthology wars” years of the late 50s and early 60s, Lowell’s and Wilbur’s most famous Cold War poems, ‘Fall 1961’ (For the Union Dead, 1964) and ‘Advice to a Prophet’ (Advice to a Prophet, 1961), tell a different story, showing the poets to have been, at least for a time, more curiously aligned, or at least far less disparate, both politically and artistically, than Lowell’s famous ‘raw and cooked’ dichotomy of the time would lead us to believe. I propose to investigate further these Cold War symmetries by way of a comparative reading of the poems, conducted in the larger context of Wilbur’s and Lowell’s shared debts to William Carlos Williams. I take the year 1961 as my pivoting point, the year in which the US and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war during the ‘Berlin Crisis’. In that year, Lowell published Imitations and composed ‘Fall 1961’, while Wilbur published his fourth volume of poetry, Advice to a Prophet, and travelled to the USSR with Peter Viereck as an American emissary in early September, days after the Soviets had recommenced atmospheric nuclear testing.

My argument will build from and seek to extend John Gery’s analysis of the sources and flowering of Cold War American poetry, Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry: Ways of Nothingness. In his study, Gery singles out Gertrude Stein’s 1945-46 prose poem ‘Reflection on the Atomic Bomb’ and William Carlos Williams’ ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’ as early touchstones of Cold War American poetics, arguing that while Stein’s prose poem focuses on ‘the potential bankruptcy of imagination awaiting the poet who takes on the nuclear threat…Williams demonstrates quite conversely how that threat can permeate poetic subject matter itself, implying therefore that we must imagine it before we can resist it’.[2] Gery also devotes part of a chapter to the troubling theme of “sensible emptiness” in three poems by Richard Wilbur. In these poems, ‘written at roughly ten-year intervals between the 1940s and 1960s—‘A World without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness’, ‘Advice to a Prophet’ and ‘In the Field’—Wilbur specifically confronts the potential annihilation of “the things of this world”, not only their physical eradication, but their spiritual annihilation as well’.[3] But while Gery rightly postulates the seminal importance of these works, he does not go on to explore Williams’ direct impact on Wilbur as a poet and prophet of the nuclear age, nor does he offer more than a few passing remarks on Lowell, whose Cold War poetry was certainly as influential as Wilbur’s and who was also inspired by Williams in important ways. As I will seek to demonstrate, ‘Advice to a Prophet’ and ‘Fall 1961’ can be fruitfully read as products of Wilbur’s and Lowell’s engagement with Williams over the first decade-and-a-half of their careers.

Let us begin by considering the poems themselves, beginning with ‘Advice to a Prophet’ (below), first published in the New Yorker on April 4, 1959, and followed by ‘Fall 1961’:

When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,

Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,

Not proclaiming our fall but begging us

In God’s name to have self-pity,

Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,

The long numbers that rocket the mind;

Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,

Unable to fear what is too strange.

Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.

How should we dream of this place without us?—

The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,

A stone look on the stone’s face?

Speak of the world’s own change. Though we cannot conceive

Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost

How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,

How the view alters. We could believe,

If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip

Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,

The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,

The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip

On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn

As Xanthus once, its gliding trout

Stunned in a twinkling.  What should we be without

The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,

These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?

Ask us, prophet, how we shall call

Our natures forth when that live tongue is all

Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken

In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean

Horse of our courage, in which beheld

The singing locust of the soul unshelled,

And all we mean or wish to mean.

Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose

Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding

Whether there shall be lofty or long standing

When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.[4]

‘Fall 1961’:

Back and forth, back and forth

goes the tock, tock, tock

of the orange, bland, ambassadorial

face of the moon

on the grandfather clock.

All autumn, the chafe and jar

of nuclear war;

we have talked our extinction to death.

I swim like a minnow

behind my studio window.

Our end drifts nearer,

the moon lifts,

radiant with terror.

The state

is a diver under a glass bell.

A father’s no shield

for his child.

We are like a lot of wild

spiders crying together,

but without tears.

Nature holds up a mirror.

One swallow makes a summer.

It’s easy to tick

off the minutes,

but the clockhands stick.

Back and forth!

Back and forth, back and forth—

my one point of rest

is the orange and black

oriole’s swinging nest![5]

Both poems fall into a much larger category of Cold War poetry that convey cold war anxieties through figurative images of nature rather than through images of mass destruction. Whether mad-eyed like Lowell or sanguine like Wilbur, both poets are ‘interested in the living not the way of killing them’, as Gertrude Stein writes; accordingly, each, in his own way, ‘speaks of the world’s own change’, as Wilbur counsels, not of ‘the weapons, their force and range’.[6] Both poems hinge on the figure that ‘nature holds up a mirror’, that the natural world provides the first, perhaps the only, index for self-understanding.  Without nature—‘the glass…in which we have seen ourselves and spoken’—the motive for metaphor would not exist.

Wilbur’s dizzying litany of images suggests the imagination’s cascading fears of nuclear annihilation: ‘the sun [that is] mere fire’; ‘how the dreamt cloud crumbles’; ‘vines blackened with frost’; ‘white-tailed deer that slip into shade’; ‘the jack-pine that loses its knuckled grip’; ‘every torrent burning as Xanthus once’; ‘gliding trout stunned in a twinkling’; ‘the dolphin’s arc’; ‘the dove’s return’; ‘the rose of our love’; ‘the clean horse of our courage’; ‘the singing locust of the soul’; ‘the worldless rose’; and ‘the bronze annals of the oak-tree’. Lowell, occupying a tighter, more cage-like poetic space, observes local, domestic objects with a manic pathos—‘the orange bland ambassadorial face of the moon on the grandfather clock’ and ‘the orange and black oriole’s swinging nest’. He ‘swims like a minnow behind [his] studio window’ and plaintively muses that ‘one swallow makes a summer’. ‘We are like a lot of wild spiders crying together but without tears’, he writes, stealing his four-year-old daughter Harriet’s remark about a piece of music by Anton Webern. In short, Wilbur’s ‘sun that is mere fire’ and Lowell’s ‘moon that lifts, radiant with terror’ both gesture toward post-apocalyptic landscapes that each poet dared not name explicitly.

Admittedly, a comparative analysis of nature imagery in these poems does not alone make for a very interesting or sophisticated argument, so here I will propose that we understand the larger significance of these overlaps by considering the poems’ common sources of inspiration in the work of William Carlos Williams. ‘I speak in figures’, Williams writes in Book I of ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’, his influential Cold War love poem that first appeared in 1955. And like Wilbur’s and Lowell’s poems, ‘Asphodel’ also hinges on a select group of natural images—namely storm, sea, flower, and garden—all made to reflect the various facts of the mid-century human condition:

Are not facts flowers

and flowers facts

or poems flowers

or all works of the imagination


Williams asks in Book III. At the beginning of Book II, he had already written that the bomb, too, belongs in that list of facts:

The poem

if it reflects the sea

reflects only

its dance

upon that profound depth


it seems to triumph.

The bomb puts an end

to all that.

I am reminded

that the bomb


is a flower



to our destruction.[8]

For better or worse, the bomb is part of our lives, Williams writes. It is the job of the modern artist to allow this fact to enter, but not overpower, his/her consciousness. It must be a fact among facts. Wilbur hits on a similar point, albeit without specific reference to nuclear weapons, in a 1956 essay, ‘Poetry and Landscape’, when he writes, ‘After a struggle of approximately one and one-half centuries, our poetry has managed to accept mills, railroads, airfields and bulldozers as legitimate material, worthy of consorting with more traditional images’.[9]

From the start of their careers, Wilbur and Lowell observed a cautiously reverential distance from Williams, learning to fashion versions of him in their own images that they could safely manipulate. By the time they were writing ‘Advice to a Prophet’ and ‘Fall 1961’, each poet had zeroed in on those aspects of Williams’ craft that they wished to emulate or appropriate: for Wilbur, this meant Williams’ specialised understanding of the terms ‘things’ and ‘imagination’, while for Lowell it meant a general loosening of form and use of common speech. Let us first consider the case of Wilbur.

I. Wilbur

Wilbur, like Lowell, made Williams’ acquaintance in the mid-40s, at the start of his career. For Wilbur, winner of the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for Things of This World, it was the ever-beguiling Williams of ‘no ideas but in things’, who held the most appeal. ‘What poetry does with ideas’, Wilbur wrote in 1966, ‘is to redeem them from abstraction and submerge them in sensibility; it embodies them in persons and things and surrounds them with a weather of feeling; it thereby tests the ability of any ideas to consort with human nature in its contemporary condition’.[10] It was this version of Williams—still homespun, but imbued with a mystical strain—that Wilbur took both as a mentor and as a point of departure. In a 1950 review of Williams’ Selected Poems, Wilbur writes that a Williams poem is ‘not a nexus of thoughts and images but an act of strict outward focus and realization’, adding that ‘the full enjoyment of the poem depends on one’s sharing with the poet an essentially mystic or magic feeling—a feeling that words, rightly arranged, become one with the things they signify’.[11] Of course, in casting Williams as a kind of naïvely inspired mystic of words and things, Wilbur, like many others, grossly reduces him to something less than his true stature. Yet, while Wilbur’s comments might fall short as incisive criticism of Williams, they do offer some useful points of critical purchase for his own poetics.

‘Advice to a Prophet’ emerges directly from Wilbur’s early engagement with Williams, during which he strained, often in rarified language, to articulate his beliefs about the relationship between the poetic imagination and the world—the ‘things’—that it imagines. A quotation from Wilbur’s 1968 interview with Joan Hutton brings out this point and offers a good launching point for my reading of ‘Advice to a Prophet’ in the context of Williams. Wilbur says:

I believe what I was trying to do in that poem (‘Advice to a Prophet’) was to provide—myself, of course—with a way of feeling the enormity of nuclear war, should it come. The approach of that poem, which comes at such a war through its likely effect on the creatures who surround us, is a very “thingy” one. It made it possible for me to feel something beside a kind of abstract horror, a puzzlement, at the thought of nuclear war; and it may so serve other people. I hope so.[12]

The operative word in this statement is ‘thingy’, a loaded term in the English poetic tradition going back at least as far as Wordsworth and inevitably associated with Williams, as Wilbur well knew. Indeed, Wilbur took his early engagement with Williams as an opportunity to flesh out his own poetics, his ‘lyric calling-to-life of the things of this world’, as Randall Jarrell put it, a poetic program he has stayed more or less faithful to for over 60 years.[13] At the age of 27, twenty years before his making his remarks on the ‘thingy’ quality of ‘Advice to a Prophet’, Wilbur participated in a ‘knock-down’ discussion of poetic forms with Williams and Louise Bogan at the Bard College poetry conference, which in turn inspired an essay on Williams, free verse, and the merits of formal verse, which Wilbur entitled, rather clunkily, ‘The Bottles Become New, Too’. The essay called for an art consisting of ‘moment(s) of tension between a formative mind and a reality which that mind insists on recognizing’, which would be, as Wilbur early sensed, the tension that would prompt many of his finest poems.[14] Much of the essay, with its New Critical inflection and its emphasis on poetry’s prophetic qualities and on the moral necessity of recognising the physical reality of the world, reads like a blueprint for ‘Advice to a Prophet’.

Flattering both Williams and himself, he writes that ‘it is the province of poems to make some order in the world, but poets can’t afford to forget that there is a reality of things which survives all orders great and small. Things are. The cow is there. No poetry can have any strength unless it continually bashes itself against the reality of things’.[15] Later, he adds:

In a time of bad communications, when any self-transcendence is hard to come by, to perceive the existence of a reality beyond all constructions of the consciousness is to experience a kind of call to prophecy. To insist on the real existence of the four elements, of objects, of animals, taking these things as isolable representatives of the ambient reality, is a kind of minimum devoutness in these days. It is a step toward believing in people.[16]

‘To perceive the existence of a reality beyond all constructions is to experience a kind of call to prophecy’—turgid as this early passage might be, its use of the term ‘prophecy’, its moral though not moralistic tone, and its insistence on ‘the real existence of the four elements, of objects, of animals’ as ‘things’ to be taken as ‘isolable representatives of the ambient reality’ all preempt the concerns of ‘Advice to a Prophet’. Significantly, it was Wilbur’s early engagement with Williams that first prompted him to express his position on these issues, particularly his abiding notion that poetry cannot merely bash itself against the reality of things but must also acknowledge the tension between things and the mind. For Wilbur, this is a moral directive as much as it is an aesthetic one.

In an uncollected 1956 essay, ‘Poetry and Landscape’, Wilbur tacitly issues a direct challenge to Williams, writing that ‘however personally we may take the landscape, however much sympathy and meaning we may discover in it, there is always a suspicion that our words are not anchored in the objects at all—that the word tree does not harpoon and capture the tree, but merely flies feintingly towards it and, like a boomerang, returns to the hand’. He goes on to comment that ‘the suspicion that the landscape really belongs to the scientist has undermined the poet’s confidence in the controlling, expressive and relating power of his nature-language’, presaging the opening caveat of ‘Advice to a Prophet’ that the prophet not speak of ‘the weapons, their force and range’ but rather of ‘the world’s own change’.[17] Yet, Wilbur learned to marry his scepticism about the efficacy of words with an almost Yeatsian faith in the poetic imagination’s ability to capture and re-envision reality, whence his frequent use of the term ‘prophecy’.

Wilbur has often characterised his career as a public quarrel with the ‘world-annihilating’ aesthetics of Edgar Allan Poe, confiding in a 1970 interview that it is Poe’s tendency ‘toward brushing aside and annihilating everything in the natural world, everything that stands between Poe and the realm of pure spirit’, that gives him pause.[18] Accordingly, we might say that Wilbur seeks to position himself somewhere roughly between Williams and Poe, or rather, that he seeks to build provisional bridges in his poems between Williams’ ‘things’ and Poe’s ‘realm of pure spirit’. In his 1977 Paris Review interview, he makes the following instructive distinction between ‘imagination’ and ‘fantasy’: ‘To me, the imagination is a faculty that fuses things, takes hold of the physical and ideal worlds and makes them one, provisionally. Fantasy, in my mind, is a poetic or artistic activity that leaves something out—it ignores the concrete and the actual in order to create a purely abstract, unreal realm’.[19] ‘Advice to a Prophet’ makes a similar push against ‘fantasy’—the fantasy of nuclear annihilation, the force and range of the weapons, ‘long numbers that rocket the mind’—in favor of a morally inflected imagination alive to the reality of things—‘These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken’—and the way in which they in turn inspire human reality.

Nearly 20 years after the Bard conference, a more mature Wilbur would offer a conciliatory gesture to Williams: ‘One perpetual task of the poet is to produce models of inclusive reaction and to let no word or thing be blackballed by sensibility…that is why William Carlos Williams, with his insistence on noting and naming the bitterest details of the American urban scene, was such a hero of the modern spirit…’.[20]

II. Lowell

Unlike Wilbur, Robert Lowell’s engagement with William Carlos Williams centered on issues of craft rather than poetic phenomenology. Lowell’s letters to Williams during the mid-late 50s attest, at times disingenuously (‘I have no master, only masters, you are about the first among them’), to the central role Williams played in Lowell’s decision to experiment with freer verse forms, begun with Life Studies and continued in For the Union Dead and beyond.[21] Indeed, as Lowell biographer Ian Hamilton notes, Lowell was more and more ‘inclined to learn from Williams’ from the time he published The Mills of the Kavanaughs.[22] As early as his Harvard days, Lowell tried on Williams’ cadences in ‘very simple, free verse, imagistic poems’,[23] though it would take him another 20 years to write his first successful ‘unmeasured verse’.[24] Lowell wrote Williams in 1952, ‘Still I wish rather in vain that I could absorb something of your way of writing into mine’.[25] A decade later he would still confide that ‘Williams enters me, but I cannot enter him’.[26] By the late 50s Lowell was in fairly frequent contact with Williams about his experiments in free verse, writing him in the fall of 1957, ‘I feel more and more technically indebted to you, growing young into my forties’![27] And in February 1958, he breezily wrote Williams of having ‘joined [him] in unscanned verse’. In a letter of December 1957, Williams wrote his approval of Lowell’s newfound ‘occupation with unrhymed measures’, which ‘vastly broadens your potentialities’. ‘Unrhymed verse’, Williams adds, with fatherly fondness, ‘brings one of my dreams for you into full fruit’.[28]

It is difficult to say, however, exactly how influential Williams’ line really was on Lowell’s new ‘unmeasured verse’ or how much Lowell, intoxicated by his first successful attempts at free verse, was simply caught up with praising—and likening himself to—Williams. Certainly none of Lowell’s poems sounds like a typical Williams poem; nor did Lowell have much use for Williams’ typographical innovations. As Ian Hamilton observes, ‘Lowell’s difficulty…was that rhyme and meter were for him very close to being the ‘natural speech’ that William Carlos Williams and his followers were calling for’.[29] ‘I seesaw back and forth between something highly metrical and something highly free’, Lowell would tell Frederick Seidel in his 1961 Paris Review interview, ‘There isn’t one way to write’.[30] Even with the rhymes, the swift short imagistic lines of a poem like ‘Fall 1961’, with their manic ‘back and forth’ progress might come as close to approximating the kind of ‘unscanned verse’, after Williams’ lights, that Lowell idealised at this time. One almost unrecognisable preliminary version of ‘Fall 1961’ begins:

That first night we sat together,

mooning across the Charles River,

until the cement dome

of the technicological Institute

was the Pantheon in Claude Lorrain’s Romes

By the final stanzas of this version, however, the lineaments of the finished poem begin to emerge:

Pray gods! Over Central Park

now, the atoms of Democritos drift nearer,

the moon climbs radiant with terror,

the dark

world is an electrical dragnet.

Poor child!

you are still a girl,

beautiful and unwell,

as when you looked out on the world

like a diver under a glass bell.[31] 

In the finished poem, of course, it is ‘our end’ that drifts nearer, not ‘atoms of Democritos’, while ‘the state’ replaces Lowell’s young daughter, Harriet, as the ‘diver under a glass bell’.

Lowell’s correspondence of October-November 1961 highlights his increasing preoccupation with the threat of nuclear war, exacerbated by the Berlin Crisis of that summer and fall. In letters to friends and fellow writers such as Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary McCarthy and William Meredith, Lowell lamented the precarious state of world politics, citing ‘the hideous comedy that we should charge the globe with so much ruin’ and bemoaning ‘the nuclear air that gets on my nerves’.[32] To Bishop he wrote in early October of ‘a queer, half-apocalyptic, nuclear feeling in the air, as tho [sic] nations had died and were now anachronistic…’. At some point during this time, he began to compose ‘Fall 1961’, his first creative work since ‘For the Union Dead’ of the previous spring. Around the same time, he began his final homage to Williams, which appeared in the winter 1961-62 Hudson Review and in which he would praise Williams as ‘a model and a liberator’.[33] Manuscript evidence of the various drafts of ‘Fall 1961’ in the Houghton Library collection of Lowell papers at Harvard University even indicates that at one point Lowell worked on the poem and the essay on the same sheet of paper. As Lowell praises Williams ‘short lines’ for ‘speed(ing) up and simplify(ing) hugely drawn out and ornate sentence structures’, the drafts of ‘Fall 1961’ also show Lowell paring down his own style.

The Williams essay concludes with a moving recollection of a reading of ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’ that Williams gave at Wellesley College in 1956. ‘A drastic experimental art is now expected and demanded’, Lowell writes:

The scene is dense with the dirt and power of industrial society. Williams looks on it with exasperation, terror, and a kind of love. His short poems are singularly perfect thrusts, maybe the best that will ever be written of their kind, because neither the man nor the pressure will be found again. When I think of his last, longish autobiographical poems, I remember his last reading I heard. It was at Wellesley. I think about three thousand students attended. It couldn’t have been more crowded in the wide-galleried hall and I had to sit in the aisle. The poet appeared, one whole side partly paralyzed, his voice just audible, and here and there a word misread. No one stirred. In the silence he read his great poem ‘Of Asphrodel, That Greeny Flower (sic)’ a triumph of simple confession—somehow he delivered to us what was impossible, something that was both poetry and beyond poetry.[34]

In citing Williams’ ‘exasperation, terror, and love’, Lowell necessarily points to his own ‘exasperation’ (‘Back and forth, back and forth…), ‘terror’ (‘the moon lifts / radiant with terror’), and ‘love’ (‘A father’s no shield for his child’) in ‘Fall 1961’, itself a ‘triumph of simple confession’. Lowell’s debt to ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’ lies in its confrontation of the nuclear threat’s invasion of daily life, its claustrophobic ability to ‘penetrate / into all the crevices / of my world’, as Williams writes of the asphodel at the poem’s end.[35] In Lowell’s, ‘We have talked our extinction to death’, we cannot miss the echoes of Williams, who, with equally dark and half-punning irony, had written six years earlier:

we are sick to death

of the bomb

and its childlike insistence.[36]

III. Concluding Remarks

While the relation between Lowell’s insistently public politics and his poetry has occasioned considerable critical debate, Wilbur’s politics have been less often remarked as a guiding force in his poetry. Lowell ran the gamut of political commitments in his lifetime, from ‘militant anti-Communist and liberal Cold War skeptic’ to ‘radical Cold War opponent and cosmic pessimist’, whereas Wilbur has remained a steadfast traditional liberal, confirmed in his beliefs but not outspokenly so.[37] Yet from his undergraduate years, Wilbur evinced a strong political conscience which, as James Longenbach has argued, shines through not only in ‘Advice to a Prophet’ but in many earlier and later works like ‘A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness’, ‘Year’s End’, ‘Speech for the Repeal of the McCarran Act’, ‘A Fable’, and the satirical ‘We’, which he chose not to re-publish after its appearance in the November 1948 Poetry.[38]  ‘We’ begins:

“We ought to drop the bomb at once before

Those Russians do. I’m sure you all agree?”

Of course we do; and hearing of a war

The Continentals rise in clouds of tea,

Attired in looks of conscious artistry,

Decorous rags, and decorative gore.


How good to have the Russians to abhor:

It lets us dance the nation on our knee

Who haven’t been quite certain since the war

Precisely what we meant by saying we.

The alien elements have come to be

Entirely too enormous to ignore.

This sort of poem has never been Wilbur’s forte, nor has it been his habit to take on an issue like the threat of nuclear war so directly. If he does address it directly in ‘Advice to a Prophet’, he does so feintingly. ‘As for bigness and smallness in subject-matter’, he writes in John Ciardi’s 1950 anthology Mid-Century American Poets, ‘I do not sympathize with the cultural historian who finds a poem “serious” and “significant” because it mentions the atomic bomb’.[39] By the same token, the finesse with which Lowell handles the theme of nuclear war in ‘Fall 1961’—so evident when compared with the poem’s early, diffuse drafts—sets the poem apart somewhat from the rest of his oeuvre.

In 1962 Donald Hall cast Lowell and Wilbur as the ‘culminations of the twin strains of density and delicacy’in post-war American poetry [40]. The following year Randall Jarrell observed that ‘it is life that [Lowell] makes into poems instead of, as in Wilbur, the things of life’.[41] Countless other critics have used the one to pillory the other; Wilbur sums up the situation best in a 1964 interview: ‘I’m not at all conscious of being a member of or a founder of a school. It seems to be the custom at the moment among people who are making a general survey of the poetic situation to put Lowell on one side and me on the other. I’m all grace and charm and short gains, and he’s all violence and…Well, he’s Apollo and Dionysus locked in a death grip’.[42]

On March 1, 1962, Lowell and Wilbur came together to celebrate their joint birthday at Wilbur’s house in Portland, Connecticut. Along with the rest of the world, they had weathered the nuclear standoffs of the previous fall. Peter Davison chronicles this moment in The Fading Smile, his memoir of 1950s literary Boston:

At that 1962 birthday party, both men stood at the height of their powers. Wilbur would never descend from his height, but neither would he rise any higher. In essence he would never change. On the other hand, Lowell would never again attain…despite a fury of work and personal agony, the heights he had already reached.[43]

Since his death in 1977, Lowell has undergone a long slide from preeminence, while Wilbur continues to publish good—sometimes great—poems in The New Yorker. Now that the Cold War dust has settled, so to speak, we can begin to see the extent to which the judgments of Hall, Jarrell, and many others forced Wilbur and Lowell into cookie-cutter moulds that poems like ‘Fall 1961’ and ‘Advice to a Prophet’ cannot help but destabilise.

University of Oxford


[1] W.S. Merwin, Migration: New and Selected Poems (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2005), p. 67.

[2] John Gery, Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry: Ways of Nothingness (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996), p. 40.

[3] Ibid, p. 104.

[4] Richard Wilbur, Collected Poems, 1943-2004 (Orlando; Austin; New York; San Diego; Toronto; London: Harcourt, Inc., 2004), p. 258-9.

[5] Robert Lowell, Selected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), p. 143.

[6] Gertrude Stein, Writings: 1932-1946 (New York: Library of America, 1998), p. 823.

[7] William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, vol. II (New York: New Directions, 1988), p. 333.

[8] Ibid, p. 321.

[9] Richard Wilbur, ‘Poetry and the Landscape’, The New Landscape in Art and Science, ed. Gyorgy Kepes (Chicago: Paul Theobald and Co., 1956), p. 89.

[10] Richard Wilbur, Responses: Prose Pieces 1953-1976, Expanded Edition (Story Line Press, 2000), p. 161.

[11] Richard Wilbur, ‘Arts and Letters’, Sewanee Review (1950), 137-141 (p. 138-9).

[12] Richard Wilbur, Conversations with Richard Wilbur, ed. William Butts (Jackson; London: University Press of Mississippi, 1990), p. 53.

[13] Randall Jarrell, No Other Book (New York, NY: Perennial, 2000), p. 252.

[14] Richard Wilbur, Responses: Prose Pieces, p. 275-6.

[15] Ibid, p. 273.

[16] Ibid, p. 274.

[17] Wilbur, ‘Poetry and the Landscape’, p. 87.

[18] Wilbur, Conversations, p. 58.

[19] Richard Wilbur, ‘The Art of Poetry: Richard Wilbur’, The Paris Review 72 (Winter 1977), 2-38 (p. 11).

[20] Wilbur, Responses, p. 128-9.

[21] Robert Lowell, Collected Letters (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2005), p. 308.

[22] Ian Hamilton, Robert Lowell: a biography (London: Faber, 1983), p. 180.

[23] Robert Lowell, ‘The Art of Poetry: Robert Lowell’, Paris Review 25 (Winter-Spring 1961), 2-41 (p. 27).

[24] Robert Lowell, Collected Letters, p. 307.

[25] Ibid, p. 181.

[26] Robert Lowell, Collected Prose (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1987), p. 41-2.

[27] Hamilton, Robert Lowell, p. 233-4.

[28] Robert Lowell, Collected Letters, p. 358.

[29] Hamilton, Robert Lowell, p. 231.

[30] Robert Lowell, ‘The Art of Poetry’, p. 13.

[31] Patrick K. Miehe, The Robert Lowell Papers at the Houghton Library (1990), p. 122.

[32] Lowell, Collected Letters, p. 750.

[33] Lowell, Collected Prose, p. 43.

[34] Ibid, p. 44.

[35] Williams, The Collected Poems, vol. II, p. 337.

[36] Ibid, p. 322.

[37] Robert Gould Axelrod, ‘Robert Lowell and the Cold War’, The New England Quarterly Vol. 72, No. 3 (Sep., 1999), 339-361 (p. 360).

[38] James Longenbach, Modern Poetry After Modernism (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

[39] Richard Wilbur, ‘The Genie in the Bottle’, Mid-Century American Poets, ed. John Ciardi (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1950), 2-8 (p. 6).

[40] Donald Hall, Contemporary American Poetry (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1962), p. 28.

[41] Randall Jarrell, No Other Book, p. 252.

[42] Wilbur, Conversations, p. 30.

[43] Peter Davison, The Fading Smile: poets in Boston, 1955-1960 from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1994), pp. 76-7.