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Forty Years of Richard Wilbur: the Loving Work of An Equilibrist

ISSUE:  Summer 1990

The publication of Richard Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $8.95) brings under one cover his six previous books, plus 27 new poems and translations. Reading through four decades of work, comprising almost 250 poems, invitingly arranged in reverse chronological order, ringingly emphasizes the justice of his reputation as the master of his craft. His poetry celebrates the power of metaphorical language to divine the human implications of natural patternment, and it affirms the capacity of strict metrics to contain both the dictates of civility and the promptings of joy.

While Wilbur has extended his range of topic, theme, and metrical form, and while he has gradually become more direct, he has never found it necessary to alter the fundamental cast of his poetry as did, for example, Robert Lowell or James Wright. He has remained steadfast in his commitment to formalism, or, more precisely, to the indissolubility of form and value. Wilbur, like his mentor, Frost, has always been an equilibrist, up on the tightrope performing feats of association in the process of his search for an equilibrium between apparently opposed objects of desire. Most often, that opposition is construed in the poems as a yearning for a formal perfection beyond the depredations of time and an equally strong impulse to harrow the pleasures of the physical world. Put another way, the major theme in Wilbur’s work reflects the central tension in Western metaphysics, between the ideal and the real, between being and becoming. At times, by virtue of his interest in essences, archetypes, and caught moments of perfection, Wilbur seems to express an informal neo-Platonism. For example, in “Complaint,” he has shown himself willing to explore—in good faith, seasoned with comic irony—Ficino’s proposition that, “In reality, each love is that of the divine image and each is pure.” Eden recurs several times in these poems, most recently in an almost nostalgic way, as the place “where we first mislaid / Simplicity of wish and will.” And in the wonderful poem “In Limbo,” the speaker goes so far as to call himself “a truant portion of the all / Misshaped by time, incorrigible desire / And dear attachment to a sleeping hand.”

The spiritualizing side of consciousness has moments, in Wilbur’s work, when it accepts its truancy into earthly existence only with a shudder. In “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” the soul, entranced by the angelic billowing of laundry on the line, somewhat shockingly describes mundane existence as “the punctual rape of every blessed day.” For a moment, the soul hangs back from the onset of day and wishes for an existence comprised of shadowless felicity, “clear dances done in the sight of heaven.” Only the heat of the sun reconciles the soul, in a mood of “bitter love,” to accept that lovers will and must walk out in their fresh clothes “to be undone” and that even nuns must be clothed in “dark habits” to keep their “difficult balance.” Finding that difficult balance between being and becoming, and between felicity and gravitas, is precisely Wilbur’s forte. His work takes no particular position on formal religion, but it does seem to lean a bit, at times, in the direction of granting the archetypes a metaphysical rather than a merely psychological existence.

But the presence of metaphysical pathos in his work only intensifies the poignancy of Wilbur’s devotion to physicality. It would be hard to find a contemporary poet more evidently solicitous of the irreducible particularity of the natural world. His aesthetic appreciation of the visible world is suffused with wonder and a sense of kinship. While he is no Whitman seeking to liquefy and merge with the scent of lilacs or to ventriloquize the barbaric yawp of a spotted hawk, Wilbur’s poetry has always affirmed, as he puts it in the title poem of his second book, that “ceremony never did conceal . . . How much we are the woods we wander in.” As contemporary connections with the major literary figures of the American 19th century grow more tenuous, there is still perceptible in Wilbur a direct lineage, through Frost, back to Emerson’s insistence that we can liberate ourselves, and create a liberating literature, by exploring the implications of the proposition that “natural facts are signs of spiritual facts.”

Instances of the seminal reciprocity between nature and spirit abound in Wilbur. Opening the New and Collected Poems at random, I find, in “Fern-Beds in Hampshire County,” this characteristic surmise:

Whatever at the heart
Of creatures makes them branch and burst apart,
Or at the core of star or tree may burn
At last to turn
And make an end of time.

The human, the natural, and the interstellar world are all of a piece in this passage, by virtue of the fact that their growth, their fission, is fueled by the fire of procreation which is also the fire of de-creation.

Because the end of time imagined in the “Fern-Beds” seems a remote astrophysical event, the poet speaks with understandable detachment, but Wilbur’s voice can be considerably more urgent when considering the possibility that humankind may end time and destroy nature prematurely. He does this most memorably in his widely anthologized “Advice to a Prophet,” and , in the process, he shows his mastery of all the elements of poetry that interest him: the musical, the lyrical, the metaphorical, the descriptive, the dialectical, even the high rhetorical, to which he rises in the peroration that ends the poem:

            What should we be without
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,

These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken

In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.

Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.

The tendency to think of Wilbur as a cool formalist, detached, ironic, witty, has a basis in fact. But detachment and engagement are not necessarily opposites in poetry; moreover, there are any number of poems in the vein of “Advice to a Prophet,” poems that boil high emotionally, that verge on hymns, that passionately apostrophize, and most of all, that celebrate. In fact, Wilbur is, first and last, a celebratory poet, most often of the transient epiphanic glories of the natural world. And whether the subject is natural or human, the central value in his work is love.

Perhaps it is this combination of devotion to craft and a capacity for joyful love, Wilbur’s form and value, that has kept his work so vital for so long. Though he is nearing 70, the 27 New Poems, as they are referred to in the table of contents, show him near the top of his powers. All the characteristic interests are here renewed: a preoccupation with the relationship between what lies within and what lies beyond our ken, a probing for implications in minute particulars in the natural world, an affirmation of the capacity of art to make the world seem more like itself through metaphor. What sign is there, then, of Wilbur’s relationship to his advancing years? Congenitally optative, devoted to what survives rather than to what is lost, he has never been much attracted to the elegiac mode, and has been most comfortable treating death as an event in the cyclical process of renewal. This doesn’t change in the New Poems; however, one may detect, if not a faint valedictory mood, at least an increased attention to what lies outside the light.

In the first poem, “The Ride,” the speaker, in a dream, rides through a nightscape of “shattering vacancies / On into what was not.” Characteristically, though, the vacancies do not bother him; he survives them, and his main worry is how to keep alive the nocturnal mare that carried him through, and beyond, uncreation. Similarly in “Alatus,” dedicated to “R.P.W.,” whom we must assume is the late Robert Penn Warren, the poet meditates on autumnal change. Such change is figured first as a battle which the leaves lose: “Their supply lines cut, / The leaves go down to defeat.” But this un-Wilburian conceit gets overturned in favor of a celebration of time’s brave condescension:

This time’s true valor
Is a rash consent to change,
To crumbling pallor,

Dust, and dark re-merge.
See how the fire-bush, circled
By a crimson verge

Of its own sifting.
Bristles aloft its every
Naked stem, lifting

Beyond the faint sun,
Toward the hid pulse of things, its
Winged skeleton.

No getting tangled in the bare ruin’d choirs for Wilbur. In fact, no “nothing” for Wilbur. In “Lying,” a wonderfully supple aesthetic meditation, the poet denies ontological status to “nothing,” referring to it instead as a “conception,” albeit “most rare.” Much as Borges denies “oblivion” in a sonnet Wilbur translated in Walking to Sleep, he finds “nothing” to be nothing in itself. Instead, it is “something missed,” not gone in an absolute sense but redistributed elsewhere in the universe: “It is the water of a dried-up well / Gone to assail the cliffs of Labrador.” This is the poetry of a man for whom wells are not forbidding cylinders of absence but vessels that can generally be counted on to spontaneously refill themselves from unfathomable sources. Whatever else he believes, Wilbur trusts that we all lie in the lap of an immense intelligence. “Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind,” he counsels in “Walking to Sleep,” “Something will come to you.” How so? By virtue of an imperial faith that more things wait on us than we can ever know: “As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there, / Or a general raises his hand and is given the field glasses.”

Given his bent toward affirmation, it is not so surprising that the saddest, most valedictory moment in the New Poems is not strictly Wilbur’s own, but his masterful translation of Joseph Brodsky’s “Six Years Later,” which concerns a love relationship that endured while all manner of change and dissolution occurred in its environs. The poem, whose refrain is the increasingly poignant “So long had life together been,” closes with the couple drifting away through the double door that their life had comprised, out “into the future, into the night.” Wilbur has spent years rendering new English versions of Moliere and, more recently and just as brilliantly, of Racine. He has few peers as a translator of poetry, and no one since Pound has made better use of translation for expanding the evident range of his or her poetic sympathies. It might even said that his translations dovetail so well into his individual collections that they should be considered aspects of his vision. The uprooted Brodsky breathes in air of loss which is not Wilbur’s own, but is one for which he has evident sympathy. The closest Wilbur himself comes to Brodsky’s pathos is in the gravely comic apocalypse of “Leaving,” a poem about a moment of transformation brought by the descent of evening upon a garden party. As they leave the party, the speaker and his companion look back and discover that shadows have worked aesthetic magic:

Curt shadows in the grass
Hatched every blade,
And now on pedestals
Of mounting shade

Stood all our friends—iconic,
Now, in mien,
Half-lost in dignities
Till now unseen.

At the moment of departure, the archetypes intrude. Briefly the world becomes a stage, or gallery, which seems not less, but more, real than ordinary life. Wilbur’s speaker is evidently moved but also embarrassed by having become iconic. He says he and his friends have “blundered into grand / Identities.” It is important for Wilbur’s sense of propriety that the dignities are not consciously assumed but rather revealed by an act of nature: “We had not played so surely, / Had we known.”

After “Leaving,” the New Poems primarily seek Wilbur’s most familiar terrain, not the “outer dark,” as he puts it in “Icarium Mare,” but “a small province haunted by the good, / Where something may be understood.” As it happens, rivers and oceans run through that province, and Wilbur goes a-fishing in them. In “Trolling for Blues,” “Shad-Time,” and “Hamlen Brook,” Wilbur angles after metaphysical insight and aesthetic delight. “Hamlin Brook,” the last of the new poems—excepting the somewhat disappointing libretto for the cantata, On Freedom’s Ground—shows the poet in particularly fine and playful form. The issue the poem addresses might be described as one of gustatory epistemology: how do we “drink in” the instantaneous configurations that flow by us in such astonishing profusion? The opening of the poem might stand as object lesson to young poets about how to establish a dramatic situation, and the speaker’s relation to it, with utmost economy and precision:

      At the alder-darkened brink
     Where the stream slows to a lucid jet
   I lean to the water, dinting its top with sweat,
      And see, before I can drink,

     A startled inchling trout
     of spotted near-transparency,
    Trawling a shadow solider than he.

The musical and descriptive delicacy of this passage matches the delicacy of the inchling itself. As in “Leaving,” a shadow creates perspective by incongruity and, paradoxically, grants a substantiality to the young trout that the creature ordinarily lacks. The masterstroke is the unobtrusive use of the figuratively exact word “trawling” just where the sway of idiom would have us expect “trailing.”

The poem goes on to detail the “flicked slew / Of sparks and glittering silt,” as well as other minute glories in the stream before it pans back suddenly to show us, first, sky reflected on the water’s surface and, then, birch trees which seem sublimely both to plunge and soar, “Toward where the azures of the zenith drown.” After flirting with vertigo, the poet then springs the central question, “How shall I drink all this?” The concluding answer, for Wilbur is an answerer, shows a characteristic doubleness:

 Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
  Nothing can satisfy.

Wilbur affirms the importance of poems ending with a window and a door. Enough, and a thirst for more. A feeling of completion with no pretense that Hamlen Brook has been contained. The brook will clearly percolate onward, swelling, evaporating, re-emerging to assail the cliffs of Labrador.

If “Hamlin Brook” were, God forbid, to be Wilbur’s last poem, it would be a fitting epitome. And New Poems would be a highly respectable finale. In poems I have not mentioned, it may be that Wilbur indulges his epigrammatic or hoary Horatian side a bit too fully, at least from the perspective of one who prefers his lyricism. But in reading backwards through Wilbur’s collected poems, New Poems does not suffer much by comparison. That being said, The Mind-Reader (1976) seems to me to edge out the others as Wilbur’s best—or, at least, his most urgently moving—volume. I trust I am not merely displaying the vagrant prejudice of a crisisburdened age toward the urgently personal in poetry, when I say I find “The Writer” and “Cottage Street, 1953,” both in The Mind-Reader, if not the best, then the two most affecting poems that Wilbur has written. Part of the reason they hit with uncommon impact may be that Wilbur is usually so reticent. The reader, therefore, has the sense that, against certain ingrained commitments to preserving his privacy in the inevitably self-revealing vocation of poetry, Wilbur has, in these two poems, something quite private to which he simply must give public form.

Both poems are, of course, not mere autobiography but its transfiguration into something different, namely, poetry. Technically speaking, both are beautifully accomplished, though neither poem is particularly preoccupied with the pyrotechnic feats of metaphorical phrasing that leave us seeing stars in other of Wilbur’s masterpieces, for example, “On the Eyes of an SS Officer” or “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra.”

“Cottage Street: 1953” draws no Frostian veil over its historicity. The poem is about Wilbur’s agonizingly poignant encounter with Sylvia Plath soon after her penultimate suicide attempt. Inevitably, the poem breathes in an air of fatedness. Wilbur has been invited by the redoubtable Edna Ward to meet Plath and to serve her as a role model of the fulfilled poet, thereby lifting her spirits. Wilbur’s description of this impossible situation is unforgettable:

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,
And stares through water now with eyes of pearl.

What makes this stanza so distinctively rich is not the borrowing of Shakespeare’s pearls, however apt that borrowing may be, but the paradoxical use of the word “immensely” in the phrase “immensely drowned.” As we accede to the stanza’s conceit of a seaside drowning, the details of its geography tempt us momentarily to forget it is not literal, until we come to “immensely,” which reminds us we are considering not just a beach accident which has unceremoniously snuffed a consciousness, but a self-induced drowning of the soul which, horribly, the body has survived, though it wears an uncannily posthumous stare.

As a feat of narrative poetry, “Cottage Street, 1953” is electrified by the contrast between the speaker’s sense of helplessness, which links him to Plath, and the tremendously purposive decorum of the speaker’s verse form which links him to the character of Edna Ward who, by her commanding civility, is attempting to catalyze a resurrection of Plath’s spirit. We do not discover whether, in the short term, Ward’s efforts have any positive effect. We suspect they do not, though there is no suggestion that Ward is behaving shallowly or hubristically by inviting them to tea. On the contrary, she is being true to herself. The ending of the poem dramatizes the stunning contrast between the tempered armature of Ward’s sympathetic grace and the phosphorous trail of Plath’s descending comet:

And Edna Ward shall die in fifteen years,
After her eight-and-eighty summers of
Such grace and courage as permit no tears,
The thin hand reaching out, the last word love,

Outliving Sylvia who, condemned to live,
Shall study for a decade, as she must,
To state at last her brilliant negative
In poems free and helpless and unjust.

It is a tribute to Wilbur’s sure-footed sense of justice that he can end the poem with the Johnsonian judgment that her poems, though brilliant, are “unjust” and yet be confident that his judgment neither stings nor condescends because it occurs in such an intensely sympathetic context.

It is precisely this same intensity of sympathy, or, if you will, love, which brings Wilbur’s justly famous “The Writer” so indelibly alive. All well-written poems implicitly justify the act that brings them into being. It happens that “The Writer” explicitly justifies the act as well. It shows, in the context of Wilbur’s relationship with his daughter, why the act of writing is, when scrupulously practiced, also an act of love, one that can be simultaneously personal and yet disinterested in an almost pure, Spinozan sense. Both love poem and ars poetica, its two modalities coalesce as perfectly as value and form ever do. Other poems of Wilbur’s are more dazzling, will astonish us more with their Nijinskian or Michael Jordan-like air time, their liberating sense of difficulties overcome, their deceptively effortless articulation of ineluctable intricacy, but there is something uniquely moving about “The Writer.” Wilbur is often a surprising poet, but the quality of surprise in this poem is so fine, so retrospectively inevitable, that the poem seems, as only the finest feats of craft do, to possess an authenticity beyond the reach of artfulness.

As with “Cottage Street, 1953,” “The Writer” touches on the struggle of a woman writer, in this case Wilbur’s daughter. As we eventually discover, the stakes of her struggle are also high, though, thankfully, her situation is infinitely less dire than Plath’s. She is caught up in the strenuous business of creation, to which Wilbur is especially sympathetic because it is his daughter who is laboring and because he is acutely aware, from experience, how fraught writing can become at the junction of ink and page. The expository part of the poem is simply rendered; the poet is thinking of his daughter, who is upstairs writing a story. He figures her situation in nautical terms, the first of two conceits which carry the poem’s freight. The sound of her typewriter reminds him of a “chain hauled over a gunwale” which, in turn, leads him to imagine her interior life as “a great cargo, and some of it heavy.” There is nothing particularly surprising or distinctive about the opening section of the poem, which, as it turns out, is precisely the point.

The poem changes direction when the daughter’s typewriter falls silent, implying an impasse in her search for the mot juste. The poet personalizes that pause, as if it were an implicit rejection of his too “easy” imagining of her life as a voyage. As her typewriter begins again with a “bunched clamor” and then once more ceases, he is carried by the winds of association to a more precise, more intense, more completely adequate analogy that lifts this poem to greatness. The on-again, off-again rhythm of his daughter’s typing reminds him of the fitful struggle of a bird that had once strayed into her room:

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room,
 two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour,
 through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

The poem might have ended with the successful escape, and memorably. The strongly stressed set of adjectives describing the bird as a “sleek, wild, dark, / And iridescent creature” help objectify the struggle of creative energy to free itself through form. And the final phrase, “the sill of the world,” makes clear that the issuance of the struggle is a moment of transcendence, the sudden sense of liberation that occurs the instant a stumbling block transforms itself into a stepping stone. But Wilbur has one more stanza for us, one that brings the largest implications of what has happened into even clearer relief:

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

And here we have it, exposed through explicit statement, the fundamental impulse that drives Wilbur’s scrupulous decorum. The finding of the right analogy for his daughter’s situation is both the measure of the quality of his love and of the quality of his poem. Craftsmanship, in this instance, becomes a kind of exemplary categorical imperative with existentialist overtones: either we are exacting in our search for what is right and, thereby, affirm life or we are seduced by fatal ease and become, symbolically, unquickened. “The Writer,” a poem that begins as a caterpillar but becomes a butterfly, is only one example among many why, as long as we care about poetry, Richard Wilbur will be among the quick and not the dead, why he will remain a figure we turn to in order to renew the terms of our care, and not for poetry alone.


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