The Magazine

Modern Master

The case for Richard Wilbur.

Nov 15, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 09 • By JOHN SIMON
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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. 

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