Gaiety Redeemed

Richard P. Wilbur
Richard P. Wilbur; drawing by David Levine

Sometime in the early Fifties, Richard Wilbur apparently cut an advanta-geous deal with whatever committee of muses or daemons or egos and ids lies in charge of his poetic inspiration. Freshly thirty at the start of the decade—he was born in 1921—he already had two books behind him, which had drawn the sort of acclaim, including a warm nod from T.S. Eliot, that most young poets only dream of.

Those two attractive books, The Beautiful Changes (1947) and Ceremony (1950), pulsed with a young man’s self-aware, athletic delight in technical prowess. He performed ina variety of forms, both traditional and of the moment, and—sometimes abruptly within the same poem—ran through a range of tones, from the opaque to the pellucid. His various influences (Marianne Moore, Stevens, the metaphysical poets) were worn openly, with a sense of proud affiliation. Had Mr. Wilbur departed the world at this point—had he met up with a Mack truck—it would have been difficult to say just where his reputation might have headed.

In 1956 he published his third book, Things of This World (still for me his finest achievement), in which he established an outlook and a sonority that would henceforth identify his work: poems that were clearer, sparer, better proportioned, more stately and measured and solidly constructed than their predecessors. If a perceptive reader, unacquainted with Wilbur’s verse, were handed his collected works in a jumbled pile and asked to sort them chronologically, it would be relatively easy to guess which poems belonged to the Forties and to the first two books—but quite difficult, I think, to determine whether later poems originated in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, or Nineties.

Internally, a bargain had been struck, and as is dependably the case when an artist fixes on a style, various potentialities were lost as well as gained when Wilbur found his lifelong voice. An exuberant, antic quality—complete with typographical flourishes—largely disappeared. No longer were readers likely to encounter, as they do in The Beautiful Changes, a stanza composed all in capital letters; exclamation points leaping up like jack-in-the-boxes in unexpected places; a poem whose first word was not capitalized; compound coinages (“fineshelled,” “streambottom,” “lightshifting”); and so forth. As the voice settled in, or settled down, a particular form of unpredictability—the urbane bounciness of the man wearing a tuxedo and high-top tennis shoes—receded.

What was gained was a voice in which mastery of form took on a look of effortlessness. Wilbur has always had a marvelous touch with animals and plants, with weather and terrain, but increasingly the voice in Things of This World brought to his flora and fauna, his skies and landscapes, the art that hides art; he not only became a splendid nature poet, but made it look easy, as in “Exeunt,” reprinted here in its entirety:

Piecemeal the summer dies;
At the field’s edge a daisy lives alone;

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