Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Angels by Way of and in the Laundry: Richard Wilbur's Sacramental Ekphrasis

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Angels by Way of and in the Laundry: Richard Wilbur's Sacramental Ekphrasis

Article excerpt

Arguing that Richard Wilbur's career-long preoccupation with locating a proper relation between the tangible world and the intangible leads him to put ekphrasis to new and fascinating uses, this essay examines how the struggle between image and text, visual and verbal representation is presented in six of his poems.

Insofar as ekphrasis is usually defined as the verbal depiction of a visual object or artwork it would seem to constitute little more than either an attempt on the part of a poet or writer to exercise his/her descriptive talents or a mode of meta-discourse for exploring the nature of different artforms. Recently, however, and in keeping with a general concern with what is involved in the representation of another--be it person, event, or object--ekphrasis has come to be regarded as a far more serious activity. Thus tracing the history of the genre from Homer to present times, James Heffernan has argued that ekphrasis stages a struggle for dominance between the image and the word" that is reflective of other kinds of power relations (1). Focusing more specifically on the "visual turn" that characterizes contemporary culture, W.J.T. Mitchell has similarly drawn attention to the many forms that ekphrasis can take, including the way that critics "picture" theory. For both Heffernan and Mitchell, inherent in ekph rasis is a certain ambivalence toward visual art, stemming from what Heffernan calls a "veneration and anxiety" about images (6), and taking the form of what Mitchell calls "ekphrastic hope and ekphrastic fear" (152).

In this context, the poetry of American writer Richard Wilbur--whose career-long preoccupation has been with what he calls "the proper relation between the tangible world and the intuitions of the spirit" (Responses 125)--provides a fascinating case in point. Born in 1921, the child of a father who was also an artist, specifically a painter, Wilbur published his first volume of poetry when he was twenty-six, followed by six other volumes of verse, as well as critical essays and translations of the work of dramatists like Moliere and Racine, poets like Apollinaire and Baudelaire, and writers like Poe and Borges. Described by a reviewer in the New York Times as one of America's most "graceful and technically accomplished poets" (Richman 2), in addition to winning a National Book Award, he has twice been the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry--in 1956 for the volume entitled Things of This World and again in 1988 for New and Collected Poems. The previous year (1987) he was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, the second American poet to be so honored.

Much of the scholarship on Wilbur to date has focused on the religious dimensions of his poetry, on how he ambivalently locates "the eternal through and in the temporal," as Raymond Benoit puts it, converting the natural world "through his deft use of analogy and allusion, into a sacramental reality" (165-66). Indeed, in 1993 Christianity and Literature devoted a special issue to Wilbur, in which Cleanth Brooks, for instance, lauded him as "unparalleled in conveying the world of things at the same time that he allows those things...to function as symbols for a quality of experience that exists in a world beyond" (550). Almost nothing, however, has been written about Wilbur's ekphrastic poems--either how they function in relation to his overall poetic and spiritual concerns or how they relate to general interarts theorizing. In the following essay, therefore, I wish demonstrate that a key component of Wilbur's attempt to mediate between "the tangible world and the intuitions of the spirit" involves staging th is dialectic in terms of the paragone between image and text, visual and verbal representation. As a way of establishing a framework for my argument, I will first identify the major points of intersection between ekphrastic theory and Wilbur's philosophy. Subsequently, I will provide a close reading of six of Wilbur's ekphrastic poems, five of which are representative of the way he uses specific paintings, and another which suggests the way he enlists architecture. …

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