The Magazine

The Form of Poetry

Richard Wilbur's collected poems

Dec 20, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 14 • By DAVID MASON
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by Richard Wilbur

Harcourt, 585 pp., $35

RICHARD WILBUR'S most-anthologized poem, "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," begins:

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.

The act of waking--dimly perceiving laundry on pulley lines between apartment buildings as we are spirited from sleep--lands us in a world of codes we must decipher like cryptographers. Then Wilbur makes another leap: Outside the open window / The morning air is all awash with angels. The shift from laundry to angels, like that from sleep to waking, is Wilbur's teasing and enthralling game of being. Of course, as we lie in our beds, The soul descends once more in bitter love / To accept the waking body, because only in a body can we pursue the mysteries of incarnation--our own and the world's. Only with our human senses can we be readers of the encoded world.

Now eighty-three, Wilbur is the last surviving member of the "Big Three" of his generation of American poets (Donald Justice and Anthony Hecht having died just months ago). The publication of his Collected Poems is proof that American poetry without Wilbur would be, in the words of Robert Frost, a diminished thing. Collected Poems begins with a recent example of blank verse, "The Reader," in which a woman takes up old novels she once read, reentering those fictional lives that, unlike ours, are intended and complete. Yet even here an opening into mystery is possible:

the true wonder of it is that she,

For all that she may know of consequences,

Still turns enchanted to the next bright page

Like some Natasha in the ballroom door--

Caught in the flow of things wherever bound,

The blind delight of being, ready still

To enter life on life and see them through.

It's the perfect prologue to a volume containing the work of sixty years, because for Wilbur being is a blind delight, unsolvable but worth living through.

Richard Wilbur is a formalist, but he has never been content to mass-produce the common fixed forms: sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas. Nor has he been one for the large canvas or the epic. What you get from Wilbur is small-scale refinement--and a lifetime of such lyric-making turns out to be more substantial than it may have first appeared. Reviewing an early volume, Ceremony and Other Poems (1950), Randall Jarrell was unimpressed: "Richard Wilbur is a delicate, charming, and skillful poet. His poems not only make you use, but make you eager to use, words like attractive and appealing and engaging. . . . The reader notices that the poet never gets so lost either in his subject or in his emotions that he forgets to mix in his usual judicious proportion of all these things; his manners and manner never fail."

This dismissal of gentlemanliness came at roughly the moment when the barbaric yawp of Confessional Poetry was about to be sounded, not to mention Ginsberg's Howl and other carnival noises of the Beats. Wilbur compounded the offense of his reserve by not going crazy, leading an apparently happy life with a marriage of more than sixty years. Where was the torment?

Jarrell demanded a more dramatic voice in the early poems, but despite the appearance of dramatic monologues and dialogues in subsequent volumes, Wilbur's theatrical talent would be largely relegated to the stage. His definitive translations of seventeenth-century French drama (Molière and Racine) and his lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's Candide have apparently been a major source of income since his retirement from teaching in 1986. This bourgeois success would not produce a poet of outrage, but a voice of civility. Like Edgar Allan Poe, he assumes that poetry is lessened the longer the poet goes on. Like Alexander Pope, he adopts a public stance without placing himself at the center of things. His imagery is often suburban or rural, walled off from many of the issues that consume other contemporaries. Indeed he mistrusts political pieties of any sort, finding a relatively modest role for the poet, perfecting his forms, many of them minted in the course of revision, discovered rather than borrowed from past writers.

But though Wilbur was not the dramatic poet Anthony Hecht was, nor a tormented megalomaniac like Robert Lowell, this does not mean there are no sorrows in his work. It means, rather, that he has stubbornly transmuted tribulations into moments of grace, insisting that the world is more important than anything he can say about it. In "On Having Mis-identified a Wild Flower" he writes: