The Necessity of Witness: On the Poetry of Eleanor Wilner
Atenor of empathy ripples through the poetry of Eleanor Wilner. Poems crackle with wit or scrutinize the sordid roots of violence. They don’t blink. Recipient of NEA and MacArthur Fellowships, Wilner received the 2019 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. Since she came of age in the ‘60s, she has been a civil rights activist. In her acceptance speech for the Frost Medal, she celebrates the heterogeneous vibrancy of poetry today, the many once-marginalized voices now helping to transform our “collective vision” as a country. “[P]oetry is intrinsically a political act,” she states, but less because poets veer toward political subjects than that they pay close attention, in the manner of necessary witnesses, to what others miss. In doing so, they translate “unacknowledged worlds.” “Might we not see the poetic imagination as a kind of DNA of the soul,” Wilner asks, and might poets themselves be “keeper[s] of communal memory and [agents] of change”?


The author of eight collections of poetry, most recently Before Our Eyes: New and Selected Poems 1975-2017 (Princeton, 2019), Wilner is known for her humane imagination. She writes poems that speak to the larger community. As Christine Casson has written insightfully, Wilner’s poems accomplish “hard ethical work … the confrontation with those actions and emotions that take us far afield from the care of one another.” We discern such abiding concerns in nascent form in the early poems selected for this feature, which are drawn from Wilner’s forthcoming collection, Gone to Earth: Early and Uncollected Poems 1963-1976, out in spring 2021 from the new women’s press, Crooked Hearts Press.

Notice the deft prosody and plain diction of the first poem here, “Repair,” which acknowledges Frost’s influence, but quietly asserts its difference. In Wilner’s view, the mending begun in spring doesn’t move us to build stronger walls, but wakes us up to new possibilities for connections. As she writes in lovely folk meter, “There’s something here that binds and breaks, / that mends, and at the same time, wakes.” Other poems also focus on contrary actions which resolve in either “new life from the death of the old” (“Ripeness”), or the dead end from a stubborn refusal to change (“Reveries in an Old Dawn”). Both these poems are examples of Wilner’s meticulous observations of nature, but they also gesture symbolically toward social and environmental forces that trap us in circumstance (such as rural poverty), or the “flat, dead white” of morning light (symbolizing white privilege in “Reveries”).

The mythopoetic poems – “Daphne,” “Ariadne’s Prayer,” and “What do myths have to do with the price of fish?” (a poem “Dry / as the magpie’s wit”) – exemplify the mythic mode that will come to full flower in Wilner’s later work. In the first two, we see themes analogous to the naturalistic poems of entrapment (“Daphne”) and resilient escape (“Ariadne”). They are analytical in their critical rereading of the inherited stories. Daphne, “broken in full flowering / spring by heavy hands,” must choose against herself to save herself. Ariadne saves no hero. Rather, learning to approach the Minotaur, who is “like the earth,” she finally “lets him be [her] waking,” and in ironic reversal, he saves her. The only personal poem in this selection, “What do myths have to do with the price of fish?” gives a trenchant portrait of what young women poets coming of age in the middle of the last century confronted as they made their way, as indicated by the dismissively coy question the title records. Wilner’s grave response is characteristically idealistic: since the horrors of history can’t be changed, she will go back to the old stories, which “live in us, and can be changed”: Eden can simply be called “earth,” and instead of eating the apple of “Knowledge,” this time let us “eat the fruit of life.” 

Finally, a “habit of hers,” as Wilner diffidently notes, is “to celebrate poets I love,” and two elegiac tributes are included here. “A Green Blues for Etheridge,” for renowned Black Arts poet, Etheridge Knight, is in moving dialogue with Knight’s own elegy for his tragic friend, Pooky Dee. In Wilner’s homage, Pooky Dee dives with the ebullience of youth into “green water” he thinks deep, “the bright blood spreading / its stain over the shallows of America.”“Recycled Song” is for the poet Julia Randall, whose poems “made contemporaries of her poetic ancestors,” and who was an environmental activist ahead of her time.

I hope this selection of poems by Eleanor Wilner will inspire you to read more. Enjoy!

1. All quotations in first paragraph are from the manuscript of the acceptance speech for the Frost Medal delivered on April 18th, 2019 at The National Arts Club in New York. The text was shared with the editor in an email dated 5/9/2019. Copyright © 2019 by Eleanor Wilner. Quoted by permission of Eleanor Wilner.
2. Christine Casson, “About Eleanor Wilner,” Ploughshares 35, 1 (Spring, 2009): 193-99.
3. Selected poem quotations from Gone to Earth, Early and Uncollected Poems 1963-1976 by Eleanor Wilner. Copyright © 2020 by Eleanor Wilner, quoted by permission of the author. Gone to Earth is forthcoming in 2021 from Crooked Hearts Press, an imprint of Red Hen Press. The editor gratefully acknowledges the support of the founding publishers of this press, Janice Dewey and Barbara Allen, for this feature.
4. This quotation from Wilner’s email to the editor, dated 12/28/2019.
5. Ibid.
6. Eleanor Wilner, email to the editor, dated 1/4/2020.


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