EP&M Online Review

Richard Wilbur:  A Marvel Of Our Time

review by

Edward Zuk

When the publication of Richard Wilbur’s latest Collected Poems was announced, a ripple of anticipation ran through the community of the author’s admirers.  There was something premature about Wilbur’s first collected works, the New and Collected Poems of 1989.  Though that volume earned Wilbur his second Pulitzer prize, no one expected him to stop writing high-quality poems.  Besides, the New and Collected Poems simply reprinted the previous books of verse along with 15 new works without making available the stage lyrics, children’s verse, or any juvenilia.  The new Collected Poems:  1943 – 2004 comes closer to being the volume that Wilbur’s many admirers have been hoping for.  Along with every poem from the 1989 collection, Collected Poems:  1943 – 2004 includes thirteen new poems, the recent book Mayflies (2004), five books of children’s verse with the author’s line drawings, and five song lyrics from his work for opera and stage.  With the possible exception of any gems that may be hidden among his juvenilia and the glorious translations of the plays of Molière and Racine, which are arguably the greatest translations of the 20th century, we finally have all of Wilbur’s important works in one collection.

    This in itself would be cause for celebration, but just as welcome is the chance to consider, once again, what a fine poet Wilbur is.  By now Wilbur’s reputation is secure, and the reviews of this new Collected Poems have been predictably laudatory.  It is as if the book reviewers woke up one morning, blinked their eyes, and realized that Wilbur is among the best two or three poets of his generation, and among the best half-dozen American poets of the 20th (and early 21st) century.  It was not always this way.  On the publication of The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947), the most influential new critic of the time, Randall Jarrell, wrote a review that argued that “most of his poetry consents too easily to its own unncessary limitations”:

    I would quote to Mr. Wilbur something queer and true that Blake said on the same
    subject:  “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than
    enough.”  Mr. Wilbur never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.  In the
    most serious sense of the word he is not a very satisfactory poet.  And yet he
    seems the best of the quite young poets writing in this country, poets considerably
    younger than Lowell and Bishop and Shapiro and Roethke and Schwartz; I want
    to finish by admiring his best poems, not by complaining about his limitations.
    But I can’t blame his readers if they say to him in encouraging impatient voices:
    “Come on, take a chance!”  If you never look just wrong to your contemporaries
    you will never look just right to posterity – every writer has to be, to some extent,
    sometimes, a law unto himself.

All this about a young poet who had just published his first volume of poems at the age of twenty-six!  In retrospect, it is Jarrell’s criticism that seems wrong-headed and limited in spite of his praise of Wilbur for being the most talented young poet of his generation.  Six decades of superb lyrics now make it impossible to view Wilbur as a poet who is not “satisfactory,” or to argue that his poems do not look right to his readers.  Thanks to Jarrell’s influence as a critic, a view that Wilbur is a limited or curtailed talent has shadowed his work for decades.  The time now seems ripe for us to agree that Wilbur has risen far above these alleged limitations, and that it is time to put Jarrell’s essay to rest.

But as strange as Jarrell’s remarks read today, he did foresee an important quality of Wilbur’s work.  Wilbur is a poet who has been happy to confine himself to one genre, rarely venturing outside of it.  He is not a philosophical poet, in that readers cannot look at his poetry for the articulation of an original and comprehensive view of life in the way that they turn to the verse of Wordsworth, say, or Yeats.  His poetry does not accumulate images and ideas so that each poem stands as a part of a greater whole in the manner of George Herbert’s The Temple.  Judging from this latest Collected Poems, the desire to write an epic or book-length poem does not appear ever to have seized him, nor has he devoted his poems to a cause outside of poetry or to a political movement.  I cannot sense a mythic impulse in his work, by which I mean an attempt to discover the symbols that define his country or to forge a national consciousness.  And in spite of Wilbur’s superb translations of Moliere’s and Racine’s plays and his collaboration with Lillian Hellman on the libretto of Leonard Bernstein’s opera Candide, his genius is not essentially a theatrical one, and he has not produced any original dramas that he has released to the public.  He has also tended to shy away from narratives (though the early “Sonnet” and later “A Fable” are among a handful of welcome exceptions to this generalization), so that his reputation has been formed almost solely through dramatic monologues and lyrics.  But what lyrics!  In my opinion, and in the opinion of many others, they stand as one of the lasting joys of 20th-century verse.

Within this limitation (if indeed a devotion to lyrics is a limitation when one can write ones as distinguished as “The Beautiful Changes” or “Love Calls Us to Things of This World”), Wilbur has done much to expand the resources of our poetry.  It may seem strange to hear Wilbur spoken as an innovator, but few American poets have done more to introduce new strains into the national literature.  Readers of EP&M Online will recognize Wilbur as one of the brave figures who kept metre and rhyme alive during the dominance of free verse in the 1960’s and 70’s.  He did so by a restless experimentation.  One often hears of various writers being called a “poet’s poet”; in the same way, Wilbur is a “formalist’s poet formalist poet.”  A quick glance through this new Collected Poems reveals Wilbur’s mastery of most of the standards of the formal poet’s repetoire:  couplets and rhymed tercets, ballad stanzas, variously rhymed quatrains, sonnets, blank verse, rondeaus, ballades, original rhyming stanzas of five to eight lines, and every other staple of English verse.  The sonnets, incidentally, include a Petrarchan one (with the full title of “A Miltonic Sonnet for Mr. Johnson on His Refusal of Peter Hurd’s Official Portrait”), a Spenserian one (“Praise in Summer”), and – if one includes the translations – many in the French style, where a rhymed couplet begins the sestet.  The poem entitled “O,” which stares across the page in these Collected Poems at another lyric titled “&,” is a Petrarchan sonnet with only two rhymes, a tour de force which falls just short of one of Sidney’s sonnets, which reduced the rhymes to two words, “light” and “night.”

This delight in poetic form has taken Wilbur in some unexpected directions.  “The Lilacs” and “Junk,” for example, are successful adaptations of Anglo-Saxon meter with its four-beat lines, caesuras falling in the middle of the lines, and alliteration of key words, though Wilbur with his characteristic grace makes these lines sound polished rather than thumping.  I cannot recall another American poet, including Pound, who has handled accentual verse with such facility.  “Sleepless at Crown Point” is a rather ornate attempt at haiku, and more recently Wilbur has turned his hand to another Japanese form, the 31-syllable tanka, which can be thought of as a haiku with two 7-syllable lines attached at the end.  More interesting, to my mind, are his attempts to invent new forms out of the old, for no other apparent reason than the pleasure of doing so.  Wilbur’s lasting contribution to the haiku lies in transforming it into an engaging stanza form, complete with end rhyme:

    This, if Japanese,
    Would represent grey boulders
    Walloped by rough seas
    So that, here or there,
    The balked water tossed its froth
    Straight into the air. . .  (“Thyme Flowering among Rocks”)

The reference to the Japanese viewpoint raises the form of the poem into something like a metaphysical conceit.  Or consider the following verse form.  Any formal poet can write a quatrain rhyming abba, but how many would dream of rhyming the end of the second line with the first or second syllable of the third, as Wilbur does in “A Sketch”:

    Into the lower right
    Square of the window frame
    There came
            with scalloped flight . . .

This pattern continues for another nine stanzas so effortlessly that one forgets what a leap of the imagination it takes to envision a new form, let alone carry it to completion.  We need a measure of “formal intelligence,” a way to calculate a poet’s ability to think and communicate solely through the architecture of his poems, to fully appreciate this aspect of Wilbur’s genius.  Certainly, his understanding of poetic structure dwarfs that of most contemporary poets and asks to be compared with that of the line of great formalists from Sir Philip Sidney to Wilbur’s friend at Harvard, Robert Frost. 

Combined with this delight in form is a novel approach to metre, one that Wilbur shares with James Merrill, who was five years his junior.  Both poets wrote extensively in loose iambics in which there are so many inversions and extra unstressed syllables that the lines seem to float gracefully on their own cadences.  This verse flows and ebbs as naturally as speech, as in the first stanza of “A Simile for Her Smile”:

    Your smiling, or the hope, the thought of it,
    Makes in my mind such pause and abrupt ease
    As when the highway bridgegates fall,
    Balking the hasty traffic, which must sit
    On each side massed and staring, while
    Deliberately the drawbridge starts to rise . . .

One can easily pick out the phrases that break the metre – “Makes in my mind,” “abrupt ease,” Balking the hasty traffic,” “each side massed,” “Deliberately” – that are placed so that the iambs never quite have time to establish themselves.  The overall effect is to break the steady beat of the metre, allowing the lines a fluidity or suppleness that is rare in English verse.  In this poem, and in dozens of others, Wilbur has hit on a variation of the iamb that sounds natural, polished, and convincingly modern.

Innovations in form and metre, of course are not the type of experimentation that we associate with the 20th century.  It was Wilbur’s fate to have come of age in an era in which poets pushed their experiments and discoveries to extremes, and to have to be judged against the violent outbursts of Pound, Eliot, Yeats, and other high Modernists.  Wilbur delights in extending or playing with established forms, but he does not attempt to implode them or to push them to their furthest limit and beyond as Eliot did in The Waste Land, say, or as Pound would do in The Cantos.  In reading through the Collected Poems, I was surprised to see how strongly Wilbur resisted the Modernism that dominated his youth and formative years.  His work is virtually untouched by the poetic techniques of the avant-garde, that cluster of innovations that include montage, imagism, surrealism, the breaking of syntax, fragmentation, and stream of consciousness.  Seen in retrospect, Wilbur’s work forms an important part of a later group of poets who quietly rejected the excesses of Modernism and whose works, taken as a whole, act as a correction to the violence and extremism of its aesthetics. 

    The difference between the Modernists and Wilbur’s practice can be seen in their treatments of spirituality in their verse.  The view that emerges from the works of Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Crane, Robinson Jeffers, and other Modernist poets is that the life of faith involves a great and continual struggle, one which is often individual, paradoxical, and shaped by a wide array of traditions culled from both Europe and Asia.  Donne and Hopkins were admired as models for religious poets – both are as well known for their questionings and doubts as for their faith.  The spirit, for the Modernists, was something that was often elusive, and nearly always difficult.  Turning from these views to Wilbur’s “The Beacon,” then, comes as something of a shock.  Here one finds a God who, if not always available, still acts as a beacon of hope through the turbulations of the world:

    Founded on rock and facing the night-fouled sea
    A beacon blinks at its own brilliance,
    Over and over with cutlass gaze
    Solving the Gordian waters . . .

                . . . but look:
    The beacon-blaze unsheathing turns
    The face of darkness pale

    And now with one grand chop gives clearance to
    Our human visions . . .

There is much darkness in Wilbur’s vision here, but the central image of God as a beacon of aid is reassuring.  The presence of angels in the laundry in “Love Calls Us to Things of This World,” too, reveals a vision of the sacred in the everyday world, a presence which can delight us and surprise us with its immediacy.  “The Beautiful Changes” also, I think, expresses this view of the divine, as do the final lines from “A World without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness”:  “the spirit’s right / Oasis, light incarnate.”

Running parallel to this deep faith in God is another theme:  a pessimistic view of the limits of the human mind, one which cuts deeper than any Modernist explication of this idea of which I am aware.  Wilbur is drawn by types of semi-consciousness such as dreams, the state between sleep and waking, and even the paranormal, not for their potential to open grand visions or spiritual vistas, but for their ability to reveal the ambiguity and weakness inherent in all human perception.  His long poem “Walking to Sleep” (four pages in the Collected Poems) contains the following advice:

    Try to remember this:  what you project
    Is what you will perceive; what you perceive
    With any passion, be it love or terror,
    May take on whims and powers of its own.
    Therefore a numb and grudging circumspection
    Will serve you best . . . 

The world we perceive is, at least in part, a product of our imagination, but even these perceptions lie beyond our control.  The implications of this belief are immense.  Wilbur here suggests that we can never truly know the world, since our perceptions are our own creations.  Wallace Stevens raised similar concerns, but not to the same extent.  While Stevens doubts poetry’s ability to depict the world accurately, Wilbur questions the very nature of perception of the human mind.  “The Bat,” “A Chronic Condition,” and “The Sleepwalker” provide further examples of Wilbur’s skepticism that the mind can ever fully perceive reality.  In his comments on another longer poem, “Lying,” Wilbur has argued that the act of lying is creative, similar to the act of writing a poem.  Only a writer who is deeply suspicious of the mind’s ability to perceive the world truly could make such a declaration.

Of course, in other ways Wilbur is a heir to the Modernists.  I find it difficult to imagine “Two Voices in a Meadow” being written without the shade of Yeats peering over the poet’s shoulder, and other Wilburian staples such as “Sonnet,” “The Ride,” and “In Trackless Woods” receive my vote as the greatest Frostian poems not written by Frost himself.  But there is a stronger sense in which Wilbur is swerving away from Modernist aesthetics.  In rereading the Collected Poems, I thought I detected the beginnings of one those shifts in sensibility that revitalizes poetry every two or three generations as a new group of writers resurrects modes of verse that had, for far too long, been laid aside or neglected.  For Wilbur, this meant a quieter and subtler poetry, one that returned to the old beauties of metre and rhyme, a simple and deep joy in the presence of God, suspicion of the power of human imagination and perception, and a consolation in the everyday – styles and themes that mark his departure from the constellation of Modernist poets that had come before him.

For this reason, we must look for Wilbur’s sources and influences in poets from before the 20th century.  Daniel Mark Epstein, in an essay published recently in The New Criterion, has argued that Wilbur is a metaphysical poet, suggesting that Wilbur is both a spiritual heir to the verse of Donne and Herbert and arguing explicitly that he is a poet obsessed with philosophical questions that have, for the most part, been set aside by the philosophers of our age.  Epstein is, I think, right in the main, though his view requires some qualifications.  When I read Wilbur’s verse against the true philosophical poets in our tradition – Milton, say, or Shelley, or Stevens, or even an unoriginal thinker like Pope – I can’t help but notice the distance that separates their prolonged campaigns of system-building or questionings and Wilbur’s shorter sorties into the philosophic realm.  Wilbur is more like a La Rochefoucauld in verse – a poet interested in philosophy with highly intriguing observations and gleanings, but whose work does not quite amount to a full-blown metaphysics.  Nor is he quite a metaphysical poet in the literary sense.  I can’t read Donne’s poetry without noticing how different it is from Wilbur’s:  the aggressiveness, the outrageousness, and the rough metre (Ben Jonson is said to have remarked that, for the breaking of the metre, Donne “deserved hanging”) are all foreign to Wilbur’s sensibility, though at times Wilbur does approach the deep sense of peace of George Herbert’s spiritual poetry, a remark which I intend as very high praise indeed. 

Wilbur’s polished style and subtle wit do not derive from the late Renaissance of English poetry, but they do remind me of the polish and courtly wit of the 16th century and early 17th.  Lyrics like “A Simile for Her Smile,” in which Wilbur praises a smile by comparing it to the raising of a bridge to let a paddlewheel pass by, reveal his impulse to turn poetry to compliments garnished by elaborate conceits.  Throughout the Collected Poems, this mode of poetry is always intruding into the lines:

    Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
    They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
    In such kind ways,
    Wishing ever to sunder
    Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose
    For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.  (“The Beautiful Changes”)

“The Catch” is another, more recent, example.  Not only does Wilbur adapt this approach from the Renaissance, but his style – erudite, playful in its details and puns, and prone to older turns of phrase like “ever to sunder” – would be at home in a poem written by the sonneteers of the 1590’s.  It is one of the oddities of literary history that a poet from the United States in the 20th century and early part of the 21st should turn to this stream of English verse which, one might think, had little to offer an age filled with horrors.  In these qualities he resembles another poet who stands on the fringes of the metaphysical school, but who is as worth reading as any of them:  Andrew Marvell.

    The parallels between Marvell’s and Wilbur’s verse are striking, and they allow us to predict, perhaps, the lasting place that Wilbur has carved for himself in American poetry.  Both poets have proven to be masters of the short or medium-length lyric, which they write with flair and intelligence.  Both poets have shown that they are incapable of writing a bad poem, and even their minor work contains some image or turn of phrase that makes them worthwhile.  Both have produced political poetry that is highly critical of their societies, but which is oblique rather than direct in its criticisms; in neither case did the unrest of the world at large (the Puritan revolution and the regicide of Charles I for Andrew Marvell, the horrors of World War II and the Vietnam War for Wilbur) prevent them from writing beautiful poems.  Both delight in incorporating philosophical ideas in their lyrics, which they use to illuminate their moods and intuitions.  Both have produced measured phrases as moving as any in the language, making their poems into perfect anthology pieces:  “To His Coy Mistress,” “The Garden,” and “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” by Marvell have delighted readers for four centuries now, and their appeal appears to be permanent.  It is easy to predict a similar fate for Wilbur’s best-known lyrics such as “Love Calls Us to Things of This World,” “Ceremony,” and “The Beautiful Changes,” as well as for recent or lesser-known poems such as “Mayflies,” “The Ride,” “The Beacon,” “In a Country Graveyard” (a personal favourite), “Exeunt,” “Two Voices in  Meadow,” and “A Simile for her Smile.”  As our age passes into history, Wilbur’s will be one of the voices which represents us to our descendents, who will read his lines and credit our era with more beauty and elegance than we deserve.

                                                                                        Edward Zuk