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;
A last shawl of burning lies
On a gray field-stone.
All cries are thin and terse;
The field has droned the summer’s final mass;
A cricket like a dwindled hearse
Crawls from the dry grass.
The rhymes fall offhandedly; the voice shifts smoothly among its trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter components; the two stanzas deftly mirror each other’s structure and punctuation—everything conspiring to sharpen that paradoxical, impossible, annual moment when the world’s smallest hearse bears away the world’s largest corpse: the body of summer itself.
That Wilbur, in fashioning a voice for himself, chose well and wisely is reaffirmed with the appearance of Mayflies, his first collection in ten years. The book consists of twenty new poems and a selection of translations (Dante, Mallarmé, Baudelaire, and a poignant pair by Valeri Petrov, a modern Bulgarian poet). Readers familiar with the long sweep of Wilbur’s career will hear in Mayflies many echoes, thematic and formal, of what has gone before. But they will also find that the new variations extend and enrich the old Wilbur music. In this his seventy-ninth year, his methods look far from exhausted. It’s been a long while since I came across a new book of contemporary American poetry which, in its consistency, clarity, and fullness of tone, felt so heartening.
Devotees of rhyme can generally be divided, without too much hedging or distortion, into exact-rhymers and off-rhymers. Along with Robert Frost, one of his spiritual guides, Wilbur decidedly belongs among the exact-rhymers, and you sometimes sense when reading Wilbur, as you do with Frost, that for him this practice has a moral component—that an off-rhyme often feels like a bit of a cheat. Exact rhyme, of course, has traditionally been deemed desirable—a norm to be aimed at—and through long usage a great many of us have come to associate it with polish, euphony, and the securely assembled; off-rhyme with rawness, clangor, and the jerrybuilt.
The pursuit of exact rhyme can be exacting. In mid-career, W.H. Auden chastised himself for having earlier treated “s” and “z” as equals (for rhyming, say, rice and size) and pledged henceforth to break himself of the habit. Elizabeth Bishop once remarked that, while deploring the “impure” practice of rhyming a singular with a plural (wing and things, say), she had discovered in looking back over her work that she’d committed this transgression once and, though happy with the effect in that particular poem, planned never to do it again. These are vows and sentiments Wilbur clearly would assent to, yet he is unusual in the extent of his own pursuit of exactitude—of rhyme “purity.”
His poems reveal a close attention to how rhyme-sounds echo within the line. Generally, the interplay between middles and ends—between what might be called the “inner music” of internal rhymes and the “outer music” of end-rhymes—is subtle and uncluttered. (In this, his music is in marked contrast to a poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose end-rhymes are nearly always exact but whose internal music is a dense, clogged, dissonant hullabaloo. If much of Hopkins’s distinctive sound springs from the heightened contrast between inner and outer music, Wilbur’s characteristic harmony springs from a concord between the two.)
From its first line, every musically interesting poem is a sort of “break” of the racked balls on a billiard table—a caroming clatter and scatter. Released, the sounds of the poem collide off one another in their myriad, unchartable ways. In Wilbur’s verse, balls tend to meet solidly, dead on, and when they smack obliquely, in assonance or dissonance, they spin off in crisp, sharp-angled reroutings.
In his meters, too, Wilbur favors a flexible but firm music. Readers are rarely in doubt where they stand, metrically, within a line or, when the line is finished, how it ought to be scanned. His meters go a long way toward explaining the muscular propulsion of his verse—as does his practice of placing his verbs prominently at the beginnings and ends of lines. Both practices are on display in the opening of “Shad-Time”:
Though between sullen hills,
Flat intervales, harsh-bristled bank and bank,
The widening river-surface fills
With sky-depth cold and blank,
The shadblow’s white racemes
Burst here or there at random, scaled with red,
As when the spitting fuse of dreams
Lights in a vacant head…
And in the opening of “Beasts”:
Beasts in their major freedom
Slumber in peace tonight.
The gull on his ledge
Dreams in the guts of himself the
moon-plucked waves below,
And the sunfish leans on a
By the lyric water…
Wilbur is in need of all such vitalizing devices—his propulsive meters, his strategically placed verbs—to safeguard himself from the very real danger of preciosity. There is a delicacy to his perceptions, to his often Latinate vocabulary, to his frequently botanical subjects that is always threatening to turn bloodless. And, indeed, here and there you come upon poems that seem to arrive at too-easy resolutions—as if created in the conviction that even stubborn disappointment and remorse and longing can be whisked away by wordplay, provided the wordplay is sufficiently dexterous. Yet in his best poems, the tension necessary to every art form arises from a contrast between a vigorous method and a nicely calibrated sensibility. And with Mayflies added to Wilbur’s long list of books, it’s striking just how many memorable poems—particularly, how many well-turned, well-thought-out, musically accomplished short lyric poems—he has composed. How many American poets have written so many? Frost and Bishop leap immediately to mind, as well as a few others, but the list remains small.
I’ve met Mr. Wilbur on a handful of occasions over the years. The first time was a summer afternoon in 1981, when I drove over to his house in Cummington, Massachusetts, in pursuit of an article on “America’s Master of Found Verse,” which eventually ran in The New Republic. At one point that afternoon we got on the subject of his tributes to the beauty of the natural world. He told me that while he often turned, as a reader, to extremely dark and harrowing verse, he felt that he possessed, as an artist, a special flair for a poetry of praise. His words seemed to illuminate something near the core of his aesthetic, but when I asked him to repeat them, to ensure that I might quote him precisely, he hesitated and then demurred—explaining that he would just as soon not go on record with them.
It’s easy to understand Wilbur’s hesitation. Why provide ammunition to those who complain that you write with too much pleasure and ease? Although he has received as many awards and as much acclaim as any other living American poet—including two Pul-itzer Prizes—Wilbur has always been flanked by critics who complain that he is too smooth, too traditional, too affirmative, and who have felt that his often celebratory tone bespeaks a lack of depth.
These are complaints that he has probably fueled by maintaining an unfashionable sense of privacy, rarely allowing into his poems any direct disclosures about the rough patches in his life. (In an interview back in the Sixties he declared, “I vote for obliquity and distancing in the use of one’s life, both because I am a bit reserved and because I think these produce a more honest and usable poetry.”) The sketchy self-portrait that emerges from his verse is that of a man who has lived a long, stable, and fulfilling life—someone who has spent most of his time in New England but who has traveled often to Europe and lived in Florida; who has enjoyed hiking, jogging, gardening, tennis; who is devoted to his family. Mayflies contains a touching love poem, “For C.,” addressed to his wife Charlee, who was also the dedicatee of his first book; this is a man who has been writing love poems to the same woman for more than half a century.
No doubt Wilbur’s life has held its own blend of trauma and tragedy, and it may be that literary critics will eventually link up the shadows in his poems to painful events not directly spoken of. Such has been the fate of Marianne Moore, another poet of seemingly serene surfaces who remained leerily protective of her privacy.
The temperament that feels—as one of his poems has it—“Obscurely yet most surely called to praise” may hesitate, as Wilbur did when I first met him, to issue any credos. But it’s a temperament whose brightness is likely to come bubbling up anyway in stray pronouncements, and in various interviews over the years Wilbur has made his position clear:
To be brief about it, I should say that the world is ultimately good and every art an expression of hope and joy…. What art needs to do, as Milton said, is to reflect how all things “Rising or falling still advance His praise,” and in the process to make a full acknowledgement of fallen-ness, doubt, and death…. But there is something wrong with poems which lack all redeeming gaiety—and there may be gaiety in art which confronts the most desperate things.
And: “I confess frankly to being an optimist, and I hope not to be a shallow one. I come out always—not always, but ‘most always—on the ‘Yes’ side of things.”
The best poems in Mayflies are eulogistic. If the volume as a whole is autumnal in spirit, here is one of those falls in New England when the sloped flanks of whole hillsides turn to gold. I think at least three of the poems—“Zea,” “Fabrications,” and “This Pleasing Anxious Being”—belong among his lasting work. All three are nature poems, or at least draw much of their beauty from precise, painterly evocations of the natural world.
“Zea”—a botanical name for maize—employs a hybrid stanza, a marriage of East and West in which the syllabic pattern of the haiku is wed to a rhyme-scheme. Twice before Wilbur has worked in this form, but never so effectively as here. With its inflexible syllable counts and rhymes jammed close together, this spare and simple-looking stanza imposes great formal demands, while requiring that the whole highly artificial construction sound natural—a tone which Wilbur achieves from the outset:
Once their fruit is picked,
The cornstalk lighten, and though
Keeping to their strict
Rows, begin to be
The tall grasses that they are—
Lissom, now, and free
As canes that clatter
In island wind, or plumed reeds
Rocked by lake water.
As the cornstalks move deeper into death—summer to fall, fall to winter—they undergo a series of metamorphoses (from canes and reeds to ribbons and geese), until, in the dead of winter, at the poem’s close, they undergo a resurrection:
Later, there are days
Full of bare expectancy,
Downcast hues, and haze,
Days of an utter
Calm, in which one white corn-leaf,
Its fabric sheathing
A gaunt stem, can seem to be
The sole thing breathing.
(The reader should stop to savor, as a perfect emblem of Wilbur’s art, that quietly odd “downcast hues,” a phrase that carries both a literal rightness—the leaves have been physically cast down—and a discreet, figurative expression of loss and regret.)
“This Pleasing Anxious Being,” a poem in three parts, comes to an understated but stunning close—one of Wilbur’s finest moments. In the final section, boyhood recollections of a drive through a blizzard at Christmas—a perilous journey, with Mother leaning out to track the pavement’s edge with a flashlight—yield to other, upcoming journeys through obscured, dangerous landscapes:
The steady chugging of a landing craft
Through morning mist to the bombarded shore,
Or a deft prow that dances through the rocks
In the white water of the Allagash,
Or, in good time, the bedstead at whose foot
The world will swim and flicker and be gone.
What awaits the child in the car, could he but foresee it, is a hazardous war that he will survive, and the crowning vigor of adulthood, as personified in the poised canoeist, and—“in good time”—deathbed visions. That valedictory “good” is two-pronged: both a reference to Wilbur’s longevity and an appreciative glance at life’s bounties. The theme of gratitude runs deep in Wilbur’s poetry, beginning with his earliest work: a steady recognition of something miraculous in the gift of an ordinary day.
In his open spirit of thankfulness, Wilbur declares himself kin to a diverse band of modern American poets, including e.e. cummings (“i thank You God for most this amazing day”), Marianne Moore, Amy Clampitt—artists whose greatest imaginative leaps have often arisen in praise of the natural world. It’s a tradition of distinctive music and of vivid metaphorical invention, and surely one of the great critical tasks of the twenty-first century will be to place in some better-balanced alignment those darker revelations which we’ve embraced as mirrors to our age (the thrilling rubble of The Waste Land, Plath’s raw-nerved musings on madness and suicide, Lowell’s global vision of a world in which our children “fall in small war on the heels of small war”) with the brighter visions of those who have voiced, in Wilbur’s words, “the heart’s wish for life.”
Of course there will always be critics who (with the hidden sentimentality of those who pride themselves on facing the world’s grim truths straight on) find Samuel Beckett too cheery and happy-go-lucky. It’s not easy to convince such souls of the validity of what Elizabeth Bishop used to point out to her students—that dark visions can come too easily to the artist, and it’s often a far more arduous struggle to locate the bright tableau of salvation.
Wilbur’s fitting revenge upon those critics who have complained that he writes too gracefully has been to go on producing, decade after decade, graceful poems. It’s the essence of gracefulness to look easy, but to surface rarely. Wilbur has done it the hard way—beautifully.