Ways of knowing

Human beings, by their nature, seek to understand themselves and the world around them. Each of us is placed into a world which we neither created nor comprehend. It is as if we have woken up in a dark room with no knowledge of who we are or how we got here. As our eyes gradually adjust to the dark, we glimpse a variety of unknown objects, clues to our origins, the origins of the room and the task we have been place into the room to complete. Before anything else can be done, we must answer the questions: who am I and what am I doing here? Throughout history, many answers to these questions, of varying validity, have been offered.

Today, and since the Enlightenment, one way of answering these questions, the scientific, has come to predominate to the detriment of other ways of answering. While the means provided by science have provided numerous benefits, they have proven incomplete and unsatisfactory at best. While the scientific method may be able to measure the speed and quantity of the water pouring over a waterfall, its chemical composition and its erosive effects, scientists can say relatively little about its beauty and its evocation of a sense of sublimity in its human observers. This, rather, is the place of the poet and the artist, whose ways of understanding do not contradict those of the scientist but do indeed complete and even surpass them. Knowledge is the imposition of human order onto otherwise apparently disorderly experience of disparate phenomena with the bodily senses and the faculties of the mind. Genius, then, is the ability to form connections between what appear to others to be entirely unrelated experiences. With these definitions in mind, the poet is the genius par excellence; he is a creator of cosmos out of chaos through the use of metaphor.

Richard Wilbur is undoubtedly an outstanding modern example of such a genius. For Wilbur, in his poetry, there is nothing that is not both significant and signifying; each experience is both valuable in itself and valuable in its ability to represent or otherwise point beyond itself to something else, entering thereby into the cohesive network of all created (and, perhaps, uncreated) things. With this dual relevance of each thing as his axiom, Wilbur is able to transform the mundane into the infinitely meaningful and thereby imbue the mundane itself with infinite meaning. In “Transit,” Wilbur begins with a chance sighting of “a woman I have never seen before” exiting her townhouse on a city street. He describes her as “so beautiful that she or time must fade,” thereby entering through an otherwise prosaic event into a poetic meditation on beauty and time. In “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” Wilbur again exhibits his ability to begin with the banal and end in the eternal. The poem begins as Wilbur sees laundry drying on the line “outside the open window.” He begins immediately to imagine that the drying laundry is “angels,” some of whom “are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, some are in smocks.” Nearly at the climax of the poem, Wilbur records the cry of his soul: “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry, / Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam / And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.” In the poetic genius of Wilbur, the daily drudgery of cleaning clothes and sheets has become a celebration of life, a spotting of angelic beings and an affirmation of the inherent goodness of the created world as it stands.

That all of this may be far from the way most people experience the world, with all of its necessities and drudgeries, is precisely an argument in favor of Wilbur’s genius. He has taken up our shared sense impressions and the ideations they produce and reoriented them in an exuberant and original way. The laundry is indeed still laundry and the laundry must be done, but it is also something else; it is fuel for the often forgotten but most essential aspect of man: his eternal soul. Wilbur himself provides the most succinct, and, of course, poetical, description of his genius in his poem “A Wood”:

Given a source of light so far away
That nothing, short or tall, comes very near it,
Would it not take a proper fool to say
That any tree has not the proper spirit?
Air, water, earth and fire are to be blended,
But no one style, I think, is recommended.

Wilbur has here avoided an error reciprocal to scientism. He has not asserted the tyranny of his position but rather acknowledged that if his understanding is correct, if indeed each thing is both significant and signifying, there must, then, be as many ways of metaphoring, as establishing connections between apparently disparate elements, as many ways of knowing as there are ways of being human, which is to say, they must be as numerous as are human beings themselves.