The Form of Poetry
Richard Wilbur's collected poems
Dec 20, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 14 • By DAVID MASON
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.