Richard Wilbur

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My vote

Way over in England, they heard about Anis Shivani’s Huffington Post piece on the “15 Most Overrated Writers”, and ask instead “Who Are Your Favorite Underrated Writers?”  The photo with the article is of Milan Kundera.  Guardian writer Alison Flood seems to think he is underrated because he has not received a Nobel.  Most writers don’t receive a Nobel.  I’m not sure that counts.  (A late hat tip to Dave Lull… I wasn’t able to post this till 9.00 p.m.)

Anis Shivani himself promised in the Huffington Post to offer his own list at a future date, but meanwhile the Guardian’s commenters suggested:  G.K. Chesterton (several votes),  Péter Nádas, Shirley Jackson, Carl Michael Bellman, Elizabeth von Arnim, Russell Hoban, Marguerite Duras, Josef Skvorecky, Ford Madox Ford, Cees Nooteboom, Haruki Murakami, Terry Pratchett, Elizabeth Taylor, Rumer Godden, Antal Szerb, Anatoly Rybakov, Wallace Stegner (several votes, including this one: “Yes! Wallace Stegner! How could I have not mentioned him!  Angle of Repose is the best-written novel I’ve ever read, and one of my two favorites [the other being Forster’s A Room with a View ]. Stegner’s is the only novel to have ever made me cry merely for the beauty of the writing. Eat your heart out, Sherman Alexie!), Andrey Platonov (several votes), Sadegh Hedayat, Amin Maalouf, Guy de Maupassant (several votes), Mervyn Peake, Antonio Munoz Molina, among others.

What’s surprising is how little poetry is represented in the lists.  Anthony Hecht gets a much deserved mention from Alison Flood.  One mention of Edwin Arlington Robinson — which is going back a century.  Why not, say, Weldon Kees?  Or Tomas Venclova?

Fortunately, “Resurgence27” restores my faith in the future of poetry-reading by naming Vikram Seth‘s delightful The Golden Gate, a novel-in-verse (in which case, fiction and poetry) that was hailed when it came out in 1986, and then largely forgotten.

Seth wrote the book in 13 feverish months as a graduate student,  writing at a clip of  600 lines per month, all in Pushkinian sonnets, a project he described as “the whole passé extravaganza”:

How can I (careless of time) use
The dusty bread molds of Onegin
In the brave bakery of Reagan?
The loaves will surely fail to rise
Or else go stale before my eyes.

Gore Vidal wrote, “Although we have been spared, so far, the Great American Novel, it is good to know that the Great Californian Novel has been written, in verse (and why not?): The Golden Gate gives great joy.” Amazon.com’s reviewer says the book “will turn the verse-fearing into admiring acolytes.”

Vikram Seth

It’s not the book’s most glorious sonnet, by far, but those of us who remember the old bookstore/coffeeshop Printer’s Inc of California Avenue, Palo Alto, back in its pre-Amazon days (its current incarnation is a travesty), might appreciate perhaps the only tribute to a coffeehouse ever written in verse:

The enchanted bookstore, vast, rectangular,
Fluorescent-lit, with Bach piped through
The glamorous alleys of its angular
Warren of bookshelves,the dark brew
Of French roast or Sumatra rousing
One’s weak papillae as one’s browsing
Lead to the famed cups, soon or late,
That cheer but don’t inebriate.
Magical shoe box! Skilled extractor
Of my last dime on print or drink,
Mini-Montmartre, Printers Inc!
Haven of book freaks, benefactor
Of haggard hacks like me, who’ve been
Quivering for years to your caffeine.


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3 Responses to “Richard Wilbur”

  1. Elena Danielson Says:

    Thanks for the link to the Guardian’s piece on over- and underrated authors. Interesting question to think about. In that line, I liked your interview with Bob Conquest, focusing on his poetry. I think he qualifies as one of the underrated writers. He was labeled as anti-Soviet and was lumped with political hacks. But his poetry is inspired and very funny at times. Also underrated, one of my favorite writers is Bertha von Suttner, also political but her anti-war novel has real literary quality based on intense observation and many lengthy conversations with military officers in what we would today consider interviews. So much trash gets on the bestseller lists and so much good writing goes unread. There really is a need for lit crit of the old Saturday Review variety. Some of the current work is too abstract and self-absorbed to be helpful for the reading public.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I linked into your comment about Bob Conquest in today’s post on him — yes, I think you’re right, he is an underrated writer. Fun to discover them, isn’t it?

    I’ll have to check out Bertha von Suttner, completely unknown to me.

  3. Gary Says:

    I was so glad to see your vote was for Richard Wilbur. I think he’s our greatest living American poet.

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