Dec 22, 2011

"A Hole In The Floor," by Richard Wilbur. Dana Gioia and Randall Jarrell


A Hole In The Floor by Richard Wilbur

In case anyone has become interested in Richard Wilbur as a result of my last post, I’ll add some biographical info I’ve just stumbled onto. It’s written by Dana Gioia (JOY-uh), who, like Wilbur is a poet, teacher, translator, music scholar, and promoter of the arts.
Some specifics relevant to previous posts on Banjo52:
1. As a formalist poet, a graduate of Amherst and Harvard and teacher at Wesleyan, a translator of Moliere and composer of librettos, Wilbur might be thought an east coast elitist. In fact, his parents were of fairly modest (though somewhat intellectual) backgrounds.
2. During his college years, Wilbur spent two summers as a boxcar hobo.
3. Wilbur was in some major combat in World War II, partly because his leftist politics in college made him suspicious to superiors and got him transferred out of Army Intelligence into the infantry.
4. His work (and his own bias?) made him compatible with the New Criticism, which favors formalist, brainy poetry.
5. He had a long friendship with Robert Frost.

I remain partial to New Critical thinking about the limited role, if any, in reading authors’ lives into their writing. I don’t think any of Gioia’s information is essential to understanding or appreciating or critiquing Wilbur’s poetry; a writer’s life can be interesting in its own right, without our insisting upon reading it into the work. 
As for the poetry itself, here is a 1962 take on Wilbur by eminent critic and important minor poet, Randall Jarrell, who often writes more colorful generalizations than he has time to support or illustrate completely. In that way, and in sparking us toward thought, whether in agreement or enraged disagreement, Jarrell reminds me of William Logan, though Jarrell might be less vitriolic, at least on Wilbur:

“Petronius spoke of the 'studied felicity' of Horace’s poetry, and I can never read one of Richard Wilbur’s books without thinking of this phrase. His impersonal, exactly accomplished, faintly sententious skill produces poems that, ordinarily, compose themselves into a little too regular a beauty – there is no eminent beauty without a certain strangeness in the proportion; and yet 'A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra' is one of the most marvelously beautiful, one of the most nearly perfect poems any American has written, and poems like 'A Black November Turkey' and 'A Hole in the Floor' are the little differentiated, complete-in-themselves universes that (sic) true works of art. Wilbur’s lyric calling-to-life of the things of this world – the things, rather than the processes or people – specializes in both true and false happy endings, not by choice but by necessity; he obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing.”

But you probably came here for a poem, not just commentary. So here again is “A Hole in the Floor."  Notice the way Wilbur begins with rhyme and half-rhyme, then loses it in the middle stanzas. (But be on the lookout for rhyme and other sound play that's internal, rather than coming only at ends of lines).

A Hole In The Floor by Richard Wilbur

I think that struggle to find rhyme implies and echoes the dangerous chaos and darkness Wilbur sees just below the level where we think we live. Yet the return to exact, rather conspicuous rhyme in the final stanza might well suggest the kind of happy ending Jarrell refers to.


Anonymous said...

"the dreamt land
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass."

(From another of his; I like that.)

So many writers, well, so many everyones I guess, lived such fucked up, miserable, or mean lives, knowing they beat their kids or slept with a brother, it detracts from and sometimes destroys the brilliance I find in their work.

Stickup Artist said...

I sat straight up with rapt attention at the subtitle, "for Rene Magritte." And loved the lines,
"the buried strangeness
Which nourishes the known"

Gosh, I feel that all the time but never could put any words to it.

Thanks for introducing me to RW! A fellow Moliere fan too.

I'm so glad we stumbled upon each other Banjo. And am looking forward to more poetry discussions next year.

Oh, we have a couple of big mountain ranges (the San Gabriels and the San Bernardinos) where I live that end just far enough from each other to form the Cajon Pass. Both ranges get plenty of snow and even pretty good skiing. But it is unusual to get snow at such a low elevation.

Hope you are enjoying the holidays!

Banjo52 said...

AH, I like those lines. Seems they could almost fit into "The House." As for the other, yes, what's to say? Some ugly psyches make some beautiful art (also some very decent psyches make it, I'm fairly sure).

It might be a reason to take refuge (yes, hide) in the New Criticism--make a point of not learning about the lives, looking only at the art. I jest (I think). One non-blogging friend has complained that the New Criticism leaves open the possibility of an ape creating more beauty than, say, Jackson Pollack (beauty as agreed upon by art experts who haven't been told who the artist was).

So yes, it's a complicated issue. I guess I'm choosing to take my chances on human over ape (both artists and art experts) rather than say, in effect, "I can't respond with any confidence or competence to Poem or Painting X because I don't know who made it. He might have been a psycho. Or he might have been a left-handed, horny bonobo on crack."

At some point, I will respond, and if the bonobo makes a monkey out of me, I'll live with it, red-faced and hunched.

Of couse, what I probably believe is, yet again, that somewhere in the middle lies the wise and right course. But I don't ride motorcycles, and I don't sky dive, so by God I'm gonna be a wild and crazy, reckless, ramblin' rake of a New Critic.

Until someone puts a gun to my head. Or the cows come home. Whichever is first.

Banjo52 said...

Stickup, thank you, and likewise about our mutual discovery.

I too find those lines among the best in the poem. They really are its heart, I think — both musical AND true, more so than the more dramatic “danger” in the last line.

I haven't read anything like the whole of Wilbur, but when we do connect, I'm not sure there's any contemporary who impresses me more.

Rune Eide said...

The two last lines in the first stanzas referring to the discovery of the remains of Troy, made me read ALL the last lines that way. Coupled with the reference to Rene Magritte it made for an interesting experience. Maybe it should have had "This is not a poem" as a subtitle too? :-)

Hannah Stephenson said...

I love the celebration of the creepy and dark here.....buried strangeness deserves to get looked at and talked about.

The title reminds me of "The Door in the Floor," that book-within-a-book (it was some John Irving book--maybe Widow for One Year? Where an author writes scary children's books).

Happy (and strange!) holidays to you.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

After "Not these, but the buried strangeness
Which nourishes the known"... Wilbur should have quit. The poem crashes in it's final lines. Maybe that was the way to drive the reference to Rene Margritte??? maybe

I have a Japanese friend who told me in Japan there is a strange kind of love/fear regarding cats. The love produces "Hello Kitty." The fear has to do with the fact that cats go under one's home. That "buried strangeness" for the Japanese, has to do with the interface between the spirits of the dead (clinging to the underside of a home) coming into contact with living creatures that pursue those spaces (cats) Then join you afterwards. meow

Brenda's Arizona said...

New criticism emphasizes 'close reading'. What does that mean?

Dissection? Does it mean over-analysis? I'd love your lay-term explanation.

Do you read poetry out loud to your students? If so, do you read with emphasis on the meter/rhyme? Or do you read it like an essay?

I think it would be grand to wander into a hole in the floor and discover all the miles of history built under a room. Maybe the history of a house/room builds up like a wax buildup. You can see the story by the pealing back the layers. Wouldn't that be great?

Ken Mac said...

love that telephone pole. Great eye dude

PJ said...

I'm going to skip the Magritte images at first as I'm thinking more about the references to Troy and Hesperia:

I've done far too many home repairs, crawled into too many crawl spaces, found too many remnants of poor workmanship that had to be remedied to be enchanted by a place under the floor boards (obviously Wilbur's hands weren't calloused and by hole I think he means some floorboards have been removed which requires some umph!). But I know that Bly speaks of that place down under as a magical, even comforting place - Disneyland is the antithesis of down under he says or something along those lines - and in that sense I can see the draw and why the room would seem ominous in comparison. I can also see where the space as he has described it seems like a place where time has stood still and wouldn't that be grand place to inhabit every once in a great while, specially in death? Heaven always promises to be such a busy place, I would rather simply decompose into my elemental being or even just sleep and dream. Maybe of Magritte?

Banjo52 said...

These comments are unusually interesting--too much so for quick responses from me. I'm thinking of basing a new post, or a few, on some of these. Any suggestions? Requests?

PJ said...

Well, I neglected to say that Bly's ideas about the underworld are from his Greek studies so I didn't tie that all together very well but I think the idea is intriguing.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I rerouted one of my blogposts back to you. Where have you been? I was starting to worry.

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