The Form of Poetry
Richard Wilbur's collected poems
Dec 20, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 14 • By DAVID MASON
COLLECTED POEMS, 1943-2004
RICHARD WILBUR'S most-anthologized poem, "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," begins:
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
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,
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:
A thrush, because I'd been wrong,
Precisely because we don't govern it, the world is not vague. Wilbur has a gift for humility without obsequiousness, piety without self-righteousness--which links his vision not only to Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, but also to such skeptical Christians as T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. (His debt to the knowledge games of Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost is equally apparent.)
If Wilbur fundamentally celebrates the world rather than bemoaning it, perhaps this is because he has always felt our tenure here to be brief. We can see this as far back as his first book, The Beautiful Changes (1947), where the title poem notices, Your hands hold roses always in a way that says / They are not only yours. The paradox of Wilbur's career has been that the maker of such finely wrought poems believes all poetry will melt and go. His last volume of poems and translations was called Mayflies (2000), after creatures that live only a day.
BORN THE SON of a painter in New York City in 1921, Wilbur spent much of his childhood in what was then rural New Jersey. In a book-length interview with Peter Dale, he commented, "My childhood left me with a preference for living in the sticks, for long walks, for physical work and the raising of great crops of herbs and vegetables. It made me a fair amateur naturalist and gave me an ability--essential in a poet, I should think--to make something of solitude."
As a young man his political leanings were "ordinary leftish ones, Rooseveltian and entirely patriotic," confirmed by a pre-college year of tramping and rail-riding across nearly every state in the nation. That remarkable journey, alluded to in the first stanza of his elegy for Auden, is also the subject of a poem called, with typical irony, "Piccola Commedia."
After his marriage and graduation from Amherst College in 1942, he enlisted in the Army's 36th (Texas) Division. When the division cryptographer went mad, Wilbur talked his way into the job. Critics have often remarked on cryptography in relation to Wilbur's love of riddles, and, in fact, riddles are one of the many places in his work where his joy in the puzzle of the code shines through--for riddles are child's play with adult implications. Here, for example, is one of Wilbur's recent translations of an ancient Latin riddle: To make men weep, though griefless, is my lot. / I seek to climb, but in damp air can not. / Without me, my begetter's not begot. (The answer, given on another page, is smoke.)
Wilbur saw action in Italy and France, and he would later attribute his first poems to such experiences: "One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one's world somehow gets out of hand." After the war he did graduate study at Harvard on the G.I. Bill, then taught there, followed by a few years at Wellesley and twenty at Wesleyan University (1957 to 1977), finishing with another ten years as writer-in-residence at Smith College. With his wife, Charlee, he reared four children, one of whom "had the bad luck to be born autistic," writing, editing, or translating twenty-five books along the way.
THE FACT that Wilbur has not dwelt with a Confessional Poet's Sturm und Drang on domestic difficulties sets him apart from his contemporaries. For a while in American poetry, it seemed that bouts of madness and addiction were tickets to greatness, suicide merely the dues paid for one's laurels. If one lived dramatically, one wrote better. Not so, for Wilbur. Even the war gets scant notice in his work, especially if you compare him with James Dickey, Anthony Hecht, Louis Simpson, and other soldier poets. In Wilbur's first volume we do come across "Mined Country," "Potato," "First Snow in Alsace," and "On the Eyes of an SS Officer." But those poems are remarkable mostly for their distance: We thought woods were wiser but never / Implicated, never involved.
His second book, Ceremony, continued in the vein of deft irony, containing one of his most famous poems, "The Death of a Toad," in which the poor toad's passing apparently moves us Toward some deep monotone, / Toward misted and ebullient seas / And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia's emperies. The toad gets more baroque attention than the deaths Wilbur witnessed in war. Critics like Jarrell can be excused for wondering whether Wilbur's early skill with this sort of material would ever actually issue in something more.
But Wilbur's next book, Things of This World (1956), would confirm his intentions and accomplishments as a lyric poet. It also won him his first Pulitzer Prize. Like all of Wilbur's subsequent books, Things of This World mixed original poems with flawless translations. Its brilliance is best exemplified by "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" (a phrase borrowed from St. Augustine) with its metaphysical play on angels and bed sheets. This is the poem that introduces us to a time of day, and consciousness, that Wilbur would often revisit--the moment between sleep and waking, when we cannot help weighing one reality against another. (The new Collected Poems misses a stanza break in this poem, the only proofreading error I found.)
From Things of This World on, Wilbur's command was steadier, with no sign of the merely precious. Advice to a Prophet (1961) and Walking to Sleep (1969) both collect poems and translations one would not want to miss, though not every subject was suited to his talents. Compare his poem evoking such horrors as Auschwitz, "On the Marginal Way," with Anthony Hecht's Holocaust poems, and you will see that horror is not Wilbur's metier.
The Mind-Reader (1976) contains one of Wilbur's rare dramatic monologues, along with a group of his very best lyrics, including "The Writer," "To the Etruscan Poets," and "In Limbo." In "Cottage Street, 1953" Wilbur recounts a meeting with the young Sylvia Plath in which It is my office to exemplify / The published poet in his happiness, / Thus cheering Sylvia, who has wished to die. The poem is Wilbur's mixed rejoinder to Confessionalism and the cult of madness that swallowed up so many mid-century American poets: I am a stupid life-guard who has found, / Swept to his shallows by the tide, a girl / Who, far from shore, has been immensely drowned.
WHEN IN THE SAME BOOK he responded to the passions surrounding the Kent State shootings with "For the Student Strikers," he reminded us how easy it is to turn our fellow human beings into the enemy: It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt / Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force. Wilbur would not debase his art for easy sloganeering. He was much attacked in the poetry world for advocating compassion Even for . . . the guardsman's son. Still, Wilbur's assertion of the power of articulateness makes him one of the most important writers in our angry and divisive time. In the interview with Dale, he said: "Of course there are qualities, as opposed to whole persons, which I wholeheartedly dislike: mendacity, smugness, cruelty, stinginess, chic vulgarity. I find sanctimony and cocksure atheism equally disagreeable."
New and Collected Poems (1987) won a second Pulitzer for Wilbur, and its previously uncollected poems included such masterpieces as "The Ride" and "Hamlen Brook," the latter ending: Joy's trick is to supply / Dry lips with what can cool and slake, / Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache / Nothing can satisfy. I don't know a better stanza about poetry than this one, which builds on the delicate image of a minnow in a stream.
Like Auden, Wilbur places reality not in the literary artifact but in the reader and the poet. That is why his poems rejoice in family life, and here his long marriage to a woman who loves poetry with an earthly delight becomes a sustaining image. In Mayflies he printed his homage to her, "For C." He considers those who have been caught up in adulteries, love affairs, and the sexual revolution, and he concludes:
We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse
I doubt a poet's spouse has ever been the excuse for a more transcendent lyric. One can point to weaknesses in Wilbur's oeuvre: a tendency to sound at times like channeled Robert Frost, a slightness in some of the early poems, a relatively narrow range of dramatic voices. But when he speaks with full eloquence, we have no better poet in America.
One of Wilbur's best dramatic gifts is his ability to write for children, and the new volume reprints the complete texts of Opposites, More Opposites, A Few Differences, The Disappearing Alphabet, and The Pig in the Spigot, some of them illustrated with the poet's own Thurberesque drawings. In recent years, Wilbur has concluded public readings with excerpts from The Disappearing Alphabet, bringing down the house and leaving his audience with a champagne giddiness:
Because they're always BUZZING, honey bees
Wilbur's stanzaic inventiveness has much to teach new poets who are at times too content merely to reproduce received forms.
But he is also one of the best teachers for poets of shapeless rage, asking all of us to calm down and look harder for the right words. His metaphysical bent is tragicomic because he sees how we are suspended in uncertainty. He is a poet of consciousness, of mind, who would agree with that other poet of mind, Wallace Stevens, that The greatest poverty is not to live / In a physical world.
But that's because only the physical, only the real, can convey genuine messages to us, whether we read them properly or not. Richard Wilbur has made this his great subject. He is our cultivated guide to the blind delight of being.
David Mason is a teacher at the Colorado College.