Three distinguished American writers share March 1 birthdays: Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur and Ralph Ellison, according to Garrison Keillor's Writers Almanac. Each of them first gained prominence in the vibrant years of American literature following World War II, with Ellison and Lowell especially achieving recognition as major voices of their generation.
Lowell's life and work touched me the most, although no books ever influenced me more than Ellison's novel "Invisible Man" and essay collection "Shadow and Act." My discovery of Lowell's poems and memoirs years ago sent me into flights of ecstasy that few literary works ever have. I return to Lowell's poems, especially "For the Union Dead," although my first rapturous feelings have cooled. Although he displayed the monstrous behavior of his nickname, Cal, derived from Caliban or Caligula, I remain sympathetic toward him as I would a flawed old friend or family member.
Wilbur, at 95, born only four years later than Lowell, has outlived his generation of self-destructive poets with a countervailing model of sanity. Unlike Lowell, who late in his career moved from early formal rigidity toward freer lines, Wilbur has remained loyal to formal verse, drawing criticism that his allegiance to meter and rhyme hampered his creativity.
In his March 1 entry, Keillor features a characteristic Wilbur poem, "Boy at the Window," a well-wrought work weakened by sentimentality and a metronomic rhythm. Lowell, Berryman and others of Wilbur's generation who were trained in the traditional techniques of English poetry gained reputations as innovators while Wilbur continued to write poems seen as old-fashioned. Even his most accomplished work doesn't quite reach the haunting power of such formal masters as James Merrill and Anthony Hecht.
Yet, Wilbur's Collected Poems reflect a career of the highest accomplishment. Many of his poems strike me as hampered by forms, but several of them stand among my favorites. His "Cottage Street, 1953," about meeting Sylvia Plath as a troubled young woman, gives one of the most poignant portraits of Plath. I also love his poem "The Fourth of July", which juxtaposes famous events of that day such as Lewis Carroll's trip up the Thames with Alice Liddell and her sisters and Grant's victory at Vicksburg. While his formality stifles originality, he has achieved a distinctive voice that unmistakably marks his work as Wilburian.
Like Lowell, Wilbur grew up in the environment of Boston and Harvard, sharing Lowell's Puritan-influenced awareness of history, politics and family responsibility. While Lowell was plagued by manic attacks and marital discord, Wilbur has led a life of serenity and reliability, enjoying a single stable marriage. Now, with the rise of the new formalists, Wilbur's poems have received more favorable reconsideration. He is also known as our best translator of Moliere's plays.
The three writers born in the early 20th century - Ellison, 1914, just before the start of World War I; Lowell, 1917; and Wilbur, 1921, three years after the war's end - share a devotion to civic virtue, exploring the highest aspirations and failings of the American Republic.
Today, on their birthday, I voted in the presidential primary, an exercise that seems increasingly futile. The work of Wilbur, Lowell and Ellison is essential for understanding American political discourse. They each cared for vital, precise political language and examined the consequences of its deterioration. As the presidential campaign grows ever more incoherent, disturbing and dishonest, especially on the GOP side, Wilbur, Ellison and Lowell can help guide us back toward the light.