The huge, comprehensive edition of Richard Wilbur’s Collected Poems represents the work of some sixty years. In addition to his most recent poems, it includes seventeen previous collections, five children’s books, and translations from several languages. Over the length of his distinguished career, Wilbur has also published two books of literary essays and has translated the plays of Molière and Racine to high praise. For his accomplishments, he has been honored with a National Book Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, the Bollingen Translation Prize, and many other prestigious awards.
The critic Peter Stitt described him as standing apart from his literary age in at least three ways. Wilbur, he wrote, “exhibits a classic, objective sensibility in a romantic, subjective time; he is a formalist in the midst of relentless informality; and he is a relative optimist among absolute pessimists.”1 I agree with that, except for one minor quibble. All poets, if they are any good, tend to stand apart from their literary age. They either linger in the past, advance into some imaginary future, or live in some version of the present that is altogether their own. What is interesting about Wilbur is how faithful he has been over a lifetime to what may appear to some as a very odd choice.
The recognition came early to Wilbur with the publication of his first book of poems in 1947. With the exception of Robert Lowell, who was four years older and already had a small reputation, most of the poets of his generation, including such diverse figures as Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Denise Levertov, Louis Simpson, and Richard Hugo, were barely known to the poetry-reading public. Eventually, they all became the distinctive poets we know them to be, while often modifying or radically altering the poetry they were writing—but not Wilbur. One could shuffle his poems, disregarding the order in which they first appeared, and mixing the earliest with the latest work, without confusing or displeasing the reader. The same cannot be said of any other poet of this period. Most of them would now and then go out on a limb and do something completely unpredictable and risky. Needless to say, I’m exaggerating. Wilbur’s later poems are plainer and a little more personal, but are in truth not that different from his earliest ones. Unlike others, he has been happy to work within an older and well-established poetic tradition over these many years.
“It was not until World War II took me to Cassino, Anzio, and the Sieg-fried Line,” Wilbur later said, “that I began to versify in earnest.”2 Earlier he had thought of a career in journalism since his mother’s father and grandfather had been newspaper editors. He was born in 1921 in New York City. His father, Lawrence Wilbur, was a painter. He graduated from Amherst College in 1942. While still a student, he spent his summers hitchhiking and riding the rails around the country. His mother encouraged him to write and his father encouraged him to paint. Once he was inducted into the army, his only occasional participation in leftist causes caught the attention of federal investigators while he was being trained as a cryptographer and he was demoted to a front-line infantry position with “suspected of disloyalty” stamped on his service record, and thus he saw action in Italy, France, and Germany. After he was demobilized, he continued his studies at Harvard and received an MA in English in 1947, the same year his first book of poems was published. After Harvard, he taught English at Wellesley College, then Wesleyan University, where he stayed twenty years, and finally went to Smith College as a writer in residence, where he remained till his retirement.
The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems was widely and by and large favorably reviewed. Louise Bogan in The New Yorker detected the influence of Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. I would add Stevens and Frost to that list. The general consensus was that Wilbur had the talent to become a major poet. Rereading the volume today one has to agree. The poems are deftly crafted, at times verbally dazzling and as often weakened by the use of stale poetic language and stock sentiments. Of course, unevenness in quality is what one expects to find in every first book. I mention it here only because unevenness is a problem with all of Wilbur’s books. His best poems are usually so much better than the rest; one keeps searching for an explanation. “Every poem of mine is autonomous, or feels so to me in the writing, and consists of an effort to exhaust my present sense of the subject,” he wrote of his own work.3 Fair enough. However, what that turns out to mean in practice is a wide variety not so much of styles—which is commendable—as of sheer quality. Here, for example, are the last two stanzas of “Place Pigalle” from his first book:
Ionized innocence: this pair reclines,
She on the table, he in a tilting chair,
With Arden ease; her eyes as pale as air
Travel his priestgoat face; his hand’s thick tines
Touch the gold whorls of her Corinthian hair.
“Girl, if I love thee not, then let me die;
Do I not scorn to change my state with kings?
Your muchtouched flesh, incalculable, which wrings
Me so, now shall I gently seize in my
Desperate soldier’s hands which kill all things.”
“Priestgoat” is nice, but the rest—which some critics claim to be a parody of early Eliot—is simply dreadful no matter what the intentions were. This is the same book that contains his much- anthologized and truly masterful poem “Potato,” which is free of any such affectations, and one called “Cicadas,” with its beautiful quiet beginning:
You know those windless summer evenings, swollen to stasis
by too-substantial melodies, rich as a
running-down record, ground round
to full quiet. Even the leaves
have thick tongues.
Wilbur’s first book reads at times like a collection of formal exercises. He is not only interested in various meters and rhyme schemes, but also in exploring different kinds of vocabularies. It was probably a wish to explore the effect of certain words that occasioned a poem like “A Simplification,” which is unlike any other in the book. This mock lament for the passing of the great orators and ranters of the past doesn’t work entirely as a poem but it begins delightfully:
Those great rough ranters, Branns
And catarrhal Colonels, who hurled
Terrible taunts at the vault, ripped down Jesus’ banns
And widowed the world
With Inquisitorial thunder, dammed-
Up Biblical damnations, were
The last with tongues to topple heaven; they hammed
Jahweh away and here
The critical reaction to Wilbur’s next book, Ceremony and Other Poems, in 1950 was more or less along the same lines. The reviewers continued to praise his extraordinary skill and to be puzzled by his antiquarian approach. Wilbur wrote as if Whitman, Pound, Williams, and Cummings never existed, and that pleased some and annoyed others. Even when he wrote about topical issues like the recent war, he was emotionally detached. “His manners and manner never fail,” Randall Jarrell said of his second book.4 The poems with their pretty surfaces and rejection of intimate confession recalled nineteenth-century French Parnassians who disdained the effusiveness of Romantic poetry. Compared to Wilbur, Frost, who also had no use for modern idiom in poetry, was a downright rebel. Whatever the merit of any of these complaints, critics have continued to this day to disagree about his poetry. His most devoted supporters have argued that modern free verse was a historical aberration, that true poetry was always about meter and rhyme, while his detractors continued to insist that his reluctance to take risks beyond the confines of his style and write like a contemporary was a serious flaw. In his defense Wilbur said in a recent interview:
The word “experiment” always introduces an element of stupor into any conversation about poetry, because it seems impossible for us to get rid of the idea that technical innovation resembles scientific discovery, and involves some sort of progress, in the light of which some are stragglers and others in the vanguard. It’s a long time since there were theories and manifestos about how free verse should be done, and for most of America’s myriad free-versers the sole remaining technical consideration is where to put the line-breaks; yet every damned one of them thinks that he is experimental because it was anciently proclaimed that forward-looking poetry was going to dispense with meter and rhyme. What dreary rot. There can be, and are, good free verse poems, but significant chance-taking in poetry is not a matter of form alone but of concerting of thought, tone, diction, sound, cadence and all else that goes into a poem’s making.5
Reading his Collected Poems, I readily concede that there’s nothing troublingly retrograde about his use of meter and rhyme and still have reservations about his work. In my view, Wilbur’s susceptibility to grandiloquence spoils too many of his poems. It’s seldom enough for him just to describe something, recount an experience, construct an argument, and hint at some idea; he also likes to hold forth, even though he is aware of the dangers of doing so. In his essay on Emily Dickinson, he writes that her taste for truth involved a regard for solid and homely detail, remembering to include buckets, shawls, and buzzing flies even in her most exalted poems.6 Wilbur, too, values the commonplace and reproaches Poe for scorning the real and wanting to exclude from poetry all earthly business that might detain the soul from its flight. He’s right, of course. Still, he frequently forgets Dickinson’s warning that “too much proof affronts belief.” She knew when to leave the poem alone and let the imagination of the reader tie the loose ends.
A poet like Theodore Roethke, on the other hand, ruined many a fine poem by tacking on some uncalled-for epiphany as if the poem would be poorer without an outburst of wisdom. Wilbur shares that weakness. My complaint is not that he is a poet of ideas or even that he seeks to make pronouncements, but that he is too fond of clichés:
Love is the greatest mercy,
A volley of the sun
That lashes all with shade,
That the first day be mended;
And yet, so soon undone,
It is the lover’s curse
Till time be comprehended
And the flawed heart unmade.
What can I do but move
From folly to defeat,
And call that sorrow sweet
That teaches us to see
The final face of love
In what we cannot be?
There are many such lines in the Collected Poems. Even his rightly admired poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” has a couple of false notes:
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omni-presence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
"Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance."</i>
The title of the poem comes from a lovely passage in Augustine’s Confessions which could serve as a rationale and plot summary for so many poems since the days of the Romantics:
I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and new! I have learnt to love you late! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you. The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have no being at all.
The speaker of “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” comes to a similar understanding. He awakes to the sound of pulleys wheeling the wash outside his window. In his drowsy state of mind they appear to him like angels spirited from his sleep (note the pun), freshly laundered, as it were, and hung bodiless on the line. Outside what is most likely a tenement window, the ordinary reality is miraculously transformed for a moment. The short-lived vision of lightness and cleanliness is ruptured by the “punctual rape” of the alarm clock. At that point, the poem is damaged for me by the lines that follow in which the soul groans at being cheated of such bliss and having to return to the body. I realize that the cry that there be nothing in life but such ecstatic flights is meant to be taken partly tongue-in-cheek, but it still strikes me as literary retouching of the experience, destroying, as far as I’m concerned, whatever verisimilitude it had.
Baudelaire could get away with conceits like that but not a twentieth-century American poet. Denise Levertov, in her poem “Matins,” which describes a nearly identical early-morning experience, sends the speaker more plausibly to the bathroom afterward. In contrast, Wilbur’s poem feels contrived, its meaning manipulated at a crucial point, so that even the powerful concluding lines about clean linen for the backs of thieves and the difficulty of keeping a balance between the sacred and the profane, the real and the imaginary, do not have the impact they ought to have.
“Some men write their poems in response to their agonies; some, to their delights,” Hyam Plutzik wrote in a review of Wilbur’s Things of This World back in 1956.7 He went on to call him that rare bird, a poet of joy who walks among the devils that his fellow poets keep pointing out to him, but he doesn’t see them. In an interview, Wilbur has said that he wants to simply celebrate the radical joyousness of this world while at the same time rejecting the apostolic zeal of the ideologue and the humanitarian. “The world is sufficient before I ever trouble myself to say so. It’s not raw material waiting for the artistic kiss of life to revive it.”8 In his essay “Poetry and Happiness,” he has his own theory on what makes poets write. There are two impulses in poetry, according to Wilbur, the impulse to name our reality and the impulse to discover and project the self. “All poets are moved by both,” he declares, “but every poet inclines more to one than to the other.” Here, as an illustration of how these two impulses work together, is the title poem of his 1961 collection:
ADVICE TO A PROPHET
When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Nor proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God’s name to have self-pity,
Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.
Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?—
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,
A stone look on the stone’s face?
Speak of the world’s own change. Though we cannot conceive
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,
How the view alters. We could believe,
If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip
On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,
These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken
In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled
And all we mean or wish to mean.
Ask us, ask us whether with the wordless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.
The subject of this poem is nuclear war and the destruction of the planet. It addresses some prophet of doom, weary of repeating the obvious, who has failed to make himself heard by the people he is trying to warn. He advises him to avoid dry statistics about the power and range of weapons, their destructive capacities, and the horrors that await us afterward since we cannot fear what we find nearly impossible to imagine. The prophet, if he’s to be believed, must remind people that impermanence is the very essence of their experience of the world and make them recall incidents from their lives that show that to be the case. A white-tailed deer slipping into shade or a lark flying beyond the reach of our sight—in these and countless other similar occurrences, we glimpse ourselves. “We are happy,” Yeats said, “when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us.”
Undoubtedly, as Wilbur intimates in his poem, our conception of perfection and beauty and their transience all derive from such experiences. If the “live tongue” that calls our natures forth is ever silenced, and the annals of the oak tree closed, not only will history end, but also our ability to speak about what most matters to us. This is what the prophet must make people understand: we rely on nature to tell us what we are. On a razed planet there will be no renewal. We will be left—if we are left at all—with our slow, unreckoning hearts, lacking even a soul.
As one can see from this unsettling and forceful poem, Collected Poems, 1943–2004 is still an indispensable book despite my reservations. In addition to the poems I have already cited, I count at least two dozen others that seem to me first-rate. Among them are “Juggler,” “For the New Railroad Station in Rome,” “Exeunt,” “A Black November Turkey,” “To Ishtar,” “In the Smoking-Car,” “Two Voices in a Meadow,” “Thyme Flowering Among Rocks,” “The Mind-Reader,” “Teresa,” “A Shallot,” “The Fourth of July,” “The Writer,” “Under a Tree,” and this hard, imagistic poem that steers clear of artifice and whose one classical allusion at the end is well-earned:
In grimy winter dusk
We slowed for a concrete platform;
The pillars passed more slowly;
A paper bag leapt up.
The train banged to standstill.
Brake-steam rose and parted.
Three chipped-at blocks of ice
Sprawled on a baggage-truck.
Out in that glum, cold air
The broken ice lay glintless,
But the truck was painted blue
On side, wheels, and tongue,
A purple, glowering blue
Like the phosphorous of Lethe
Or Queen Persephone’s gaze
In the numb fields of the dark.
The book also contains many splendid translations Wilbur made over the years. There are poems by Baudelaire, Valéry, Brodsky, Nerval, Apollinaire, and a number of other poets. Wilbur may be our finest translator since Pound. He doesn’t range as widely among languages and literatures as Pound did, nor does he permit himself the liberties the older poet took with the originals. Especially when he’s translating from the French, Wilbur frequently manages to accomplish the impossible by recreating not only the meter and rhyme, but even some of the wordplay and the music. According to him, any translator unwilling to be slavish to the original is in the wrong racket. He is right about that. What follows is one of the sev-eral marvelous translations of the great fifteenth-century French poet François Villon, in which the colloquial flow, the swagger, and the lyricism are all preserved:
BALLADE OF FORGIVENESS
Brothers and sisters, Celestine,
Carthusian, or Carmelite,
Street-loafers, fops whose buckles shine,
Lackeys, and courtesans whose tight
Apparel gratifies the sight,
And little ladies’-men who trot
In tawny boots of dreadful height:
I beg forgiveness of the lot.
Young whores who flash their teats in sign
Of what they hawk for men’s delight,
Ape-handlers, thieves and, soused with wine,
Wild bullies looking for a fight,
And Jacks and Jills whose hearts are light,
Whistling and joking, talking rot,
Street-urchins dodging left and right:
I beg forgiveness of the lot.
Excepting for those bloody swine
Who gave me, many a morn and night,
The hardest crusts on which to dine;
Henceforth I’ll fear them not a mite.
I’d belch and fart in their despite
Were I not sitting on my cot.
Well, to be peaceful and polite
I beg forgiveness of the lot.
May hammers, huge and heavy, smite
Their ribs, and likewise cannon-shot.
May cudgels pulverize them quite.
I beg forgiveness of the lot.
It may be unavoidable that the virtues of every poet’s work are in the end responsible for its defects. As perceptive as Frost was, he noticed little of American life outside of his rural New England. The pet theories of Stevens and Pound have a way of driving even their greatest fans nuts. Wilbur’s fastidious craftsmanship is also a straitjacket. His love of tradition comes at a cost. Many of his poems sound timid to anyone who has seen what his more imaginative and inventive contemporaries can do.
Am I being unfair to him? I don’t think so. Wilbur does well some of the hardest things in poetry and not so well with some of the others. He leaves me—as he does many of his readers and critics—with a mixture of profound esteem and disappointment. His books of essays, Responses (1976) and The Catbird Song (1997), are filled with sensible, cautionary observations on poets and poetry which for reasons that I do not understand he doesn’t always adhere to when he sits down to write. Whatever the answer, his best work, like this fairly recent poem of his, is astonishingly good and will continue to be read:
A BARRED OWL
The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”
Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.
April 7, 2005
Richard Wilbur in Conversation with Peter Dale (London: Between the Lines, 2000), p. 96. ↩
Donald L. Hill, Richard Wilbur (Twayne, 1967), p. 13. ↩
Richard Wilbur, Responses (Harcourt Brace Jovanovic, 1976), p. 118. ↩
Richard Wilbur’s Creation, edited by Wendy Salinger (University of Michigan Press, 1983), p. 46. ↩
Richard Wilbur in Conversation with Peter Dale, p. 35. ↩
Wilbur, Responses, p. 4. ↩
Salinger, Richard Wilbur’s Creation, p. 66. ↩
Frances Bixler, Richard Wilbur: A Reference Guide (Hall, 1991), p. 204. ↩