New Poems and Translations
by Richard Wilbur
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 80 pp., $20
Richard Wilbur, born in 1921, is to my mind the supreme American poet of the second half of the past century, and as this new collection shows, continues so undiminished into the present.
He combines the virtues of tradition and innovation. He excels at traditional forms, and is equal master of heroic couplets and blank verse. But he can also create new ones, such as the loose trimeter triplets, with only the first and third line rhyming, as at the start of the title poem:
Out of the snowdrift
Which covered it, this pillared
Sundial starts to lift,
Able now at last
To let its frozen hours
Melt into the past
In bright, ticking drops. . . .
Is there a better way of conveying the coming of spring?
Wilbur’s range of topics is wide, and the best one-word description of his work is “elegance.” He is free of that touch of illogic, of intense neurosis if not insanity, that characterizes so much contemporary poetry and derails communication. He is concise, original, never obscure for the educated reader willing to use his interpretive skills.
What has kept Wilbur so consistently relevant? The interviews he gave the Paris Review in the 1970s are still valuable. As he puts it, “I have poems in which I set two voices going against each other. One is a kind of lofty and angelic voice, the other is a slob voice, and these are two parts of myself quarreling in public.” In a wider sense, this applies to all his poems, which are both higher and lower brow, gradually, if not immediately, accessible. You could perceive coexistence of the classical (angelic) and modern (slobbish), although not in your prosaic, garden-variety slobbishness.
Consider a short poem, “Terza Rima,” named for the interlocking triplets in which Dante composed:
In this great form, as Dante proved in Hell,
There is no dreadful thing that can’t be said
In passing. Here, for instance, one could tell
How our jeep skidded sideways toward the dead
Enemy soldier with the staring eyes,
Bumping a little as it struck his head,
And then flew on, as if toward Paradise.
Note how the poem, no doubt a memory from his World War II Army days, begins in a traditional manner embodied in the “great form” of terza rima, but then becomes frighteningly modern, to end, ironically, on another (mock) solemn note. Note also the confirmation of what Wilbur likewise said in the Paris Review: “I usually have a certain distance from my material, a feeling that I am not spilling my guts but arranging some materials and trying to find out the truth about them.” His view of some of his contemporaries is encapsulated in a fascinating early poem, “Cottage Street, 1953,” about his mother-in-law’s tea party where the suicidal Sylvia Plath, one of the so-called confessional poets, seems “immensely drowned” and destined to go on To state at last her brilliant negative / In poems free and helpless and unjust.
No such negativity for Wilbur, who declares, “I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy, that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good.” This, he says, “in the teeth of all sorts of contrary evidence.”
Take the easefulness, simplicity, and a sort of circumspect optimism in “Out Here.”
Strangers might wonder why
That big snow-shovel’s leaning
Against the house in July.
Has it some cryptic meaning?
It means at least to say
That, here, we needn’t be neat
About putting things away,
As on some suburban street.
What’s more, by leaning there
The shovel seems to express,
With its rough and ready air,
A boast of ruggedness.
If a stranger said in sport
“I see you’re prepared for snow,”
Our shovel might retort
“Out here, you never know.”
Observe, among other things, the classical a-b-a-b rhyme scheme. Rhymes could not feel more spontaneous, more natural, as they inconspicuously contribute to the poem’s unobtrusive music.
To be sure, Wilbur is also a poeta doctus, a learned poet unashamed of his erudition. Take a poem like “Trismegistus,” which refers to the 42 Hermetic Books attributed to Hermes Trismegistus (thrice-great Hermes), the name given by the medieval Neoplatonic philosophers to the Egyptian god Thoth, concerned with the life and lore of the ancient Egyptians. The final octave reads:
Still, still we summon him at midnight hour
To Milton’s pensive tower,
And hear him tell again how, then and now,
Creation is a house of mirrors, how
Each herb that sips the dew
Dazzles the eye with many small
Reflections of the All—
Which, after all, is true.
The words in emphasis are, of course, quotations. It helps if we recognize in “Milton’s pensive tower” the lines from “Il Penseroso”: Or let my Lamp at midnight hour, / Be seen in some high lonely Tow’r, / Where I may oft out-watch the Bear, / With thrice great Hermes . . . Such help, though, is not mandatory. Note for example the interplay of the two “stills,” each with its own meaning, and of the capitalized “All” with the lower-case “all” in the wonderfully breezy, laconic last line.
Wilbur is also a splendid love poet, as witness “Galveston, 1961,” which includes a learned reference to the Nereid Panope, the one sea nymph among her 50 sisters whom sailors invoke for protection. It is a beach poem, first reveling in the charm of the beloved swimming in the sea. When she comes out, the poet urges her:
Shake out your spattering hair
And sprawl beside me here,
Sharing what we can share
Now that we are so near—
Small-talk and speechless love,
Mine being all but dumb
That knows so little of
What goddess you become
And still half-seem to be,
Though close and clear you lie,
Whom droplets of the sea
Emboss and magnify.
Wearing a related but different hat, Wilbur is also the best translator of lyric poetry and verse drama in our language. He has magisterially rendered, into metrical and rhyming, exactly corresponding, English verse many lyric poems from various languages, and numerous plays by Molière, Racine, and Corneille. In Anterooms there are fine verse translations from Mallarmé, Verlaine, and the Latin of Symphosius.
In 1963, Randall Jarrell wrote that
Petronius spoke of the “studied felicity” of Horace’s poetry, and I can never read one of Richard Wilbur’s books without thinking of this phrase. His impersonal, exactly accomplished, faintly sententious skill produces poems that, ordinarily, compose themselves into a little too regular a beauty—there is no eminent beauty without a certain strangeness.
But he promptly went on to praise sundry Wilbur poems, calling one of them “one of the most nearly perfect poems any American has written.”
Wilbur elicits this kind of ambivalence. I think it is really a case of perfection unconsciously scaring us, making us feel envious or inadequate. Certainly I am in awe of the liminal poem in Anterooms, “The House,” which I take to be about Wilbur’s lovely deceased wife, Charlee:
Sometimes on wakening, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.
What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow’s walk above the bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.
Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.
This is the house of the dead to which the living, no matter how loving, have no access. But as Wilbur has said, “One of the jobs of poetry is to make the unbearable bearable, not by falsehood but by a clear, precise confrontation.” The pursuit of poetic perfection is not unlike seeking contact with the dead: It may be impossible, but you persevere.
John Simon is the author, most recently, of John Simon on Music: Criticism 1979-2005 (Applause Books).