Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
Ernest Hilbert

Peerless on Parnassus


Collected Poems by Richard Wilbur. Harcourt, 2004. 585 pages, $35. 

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          Richard Wilbur has been one of America’s most tireless, successful, and recognizable poets since the end of World War II. He has remained consistent in both his conventional idea of the poet’s role in the republic of letters and his adherence to formal poetic practice and a muted style. The Collected Poems of his inevitable foil—and one of his closest contemporaries—Robert Lowell, was published just a year before Wilbur’s, and it drew enormous attention at the time. Lowell’s star rose early and burned intensely. Although Wilbur and Lowell were regularly compared in the earlier days of their careers, Lowell became a famous shapeshifter, whose style mutated from a dense, ornate Catholic formalism to a brash, confessional free verse in the course of little more than a decade, establishing the model for most poets of his own and immediately succeeding generations. This not only matched the nearly universal sense of emotional and intellectual liberation enjoyed by most writers in this period but also brought the social ideal of the poet back into line with the wooly garret dweller of the English Romantics more than a century before. Lowell suffered a serious decline after his death, but his Collected Poems, hitherto awaited only by diehard fans, sucked all of the oxygen out of the room at the time of its publication. Nonetheless, Mr. Wilbur’s book deserves a close look as well. His Collected Poems: 1943-2004—which supplants the Pulitzer Prize-winning New and Collected Poems of 1989—is arranged in a very confident manner, with the most recent poems placed at the beginning and the earliest at the end, a strange yet pleasing inverted chronology. Happily, Mr. Wilbur has included many of his fine translations and even made provisions for his excellent children’s poems and song lyrics. 

Mr. Wilbur’s poetry is almost implausibly serene and steady, and this equilibrium is his greatest strength. Mr. Wilbur is the hedgehog to Lowell’s fox. In a time of ruthlessly, and thoughtlessly, scattered free verse and countless bland choruses of self-regard, Mr. Wilbur’s poems seem to hail from another age altogether. Upon closer examination, however, his poems seem perfectly suited to our age but are willfully set apart on a hill of their own imagining. As Adam Kirsch puts it: “Wilbur has always been conscious that his particular poetic gifts and spiritual resilience were untimely.” 

He began his career fully in sync with his time and generation. They believed in an untrammeled tradition of elegant lyric poetry, in the natural world as a source of spiritual wisdom, and in keeping most of the rage and raw bits behind the measured gates of their quiet poetics. By the early 1960s, however, Mr. Wilbur was falling out of step with the march of poetic progress and by 1970 he was almost peerless. The stairs of Parnassus have grown crowded with young tourists, smoking and strumming guitars; he remains in the nave, meditating alone. Mr. Wilbur’s own thoughts on the harsh, self-involved confessional mode that dominates American poetry can be found in his poem “Flippancies”: “If fictive music fails your lyre, confess— / Though not, of course, to any happiness.” In a 1995 interview, he observed that it leads to “self-dramatization and celebrity posturing, neither of which make good poems.” The greater share of Mr. Wilbur’s poems is given over to themes of nature: the changing course of the seasons, the details of flora and fauna. In this he owes debts to his experiences growing up on a New Jersey farm but also to Robert Frost, whom he met while studying at Harvard. One may also sense the gravitational effects on Mr. Wilbur of Edmund Spenser’s 16th-century “Shepheard’s Calendar” and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Cities and towns seem hardly to exist in Mr. Wilbur’s world. When they do, they are squares of light in the distance. 

There is a tendency while celebrating Mr. Wilbur’s landscapes to neglect their devotional sensibility. Most poems published in English before the 19th century were in one way or another devotional—even metaphysical poetry is functionally devotional—but the type is almost entirely absent from serious contemporary American poetry. In Mr. Wilbur the natural world, as Dana Gioia put it, “becomes a sacramental means of revealing the divine order.” Mr. Wilbur’s earlier poems are colored by hues of inherited poetic diction, proceeding more from Thomas Hardy and even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow than from T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound. Despite some slightly archaic notes, they are remarkably accomplished and distinctively similar in tone to the poems he has written right through to the present. “Mined Country,” from his first book, 1947’s The Beautiful Changes, is the triumph of his early career, addressing the lasting effects of war through the invisible image of the as-yet-undiscovered land mine: 

But it’s going to be long before

                        Their war’s gone for good.

                        I tell you it hits at childhood more than churches

                        Full up with sky or buried town fountains,

                        Rooms laid open or anything

                        Cut stone or cut wood,

                        Seeing the boys come swinging slow over the grass

                        (Like playing pendulum) their silver plates,

                        Stepping with care and listening

                        Hard for hid metal’s cry. 

A Wilbur poem is insightful and enjoyable, humorous and touching. He avoids any grand historical or hysterical private adventures in his poems, believing, unlike Lowell, that the lyric poem was never intended to bear such weight. 

Even before the rise of poetry manuals like the Norton, Wilbur had already scored a few hits on the big board of larger cultural recognition. Three stand out in particular. “Junk” from Advice for a Prophet, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, makes use of the alliterative Anglo-Saxon style of Beowulf and Piers Plowman. (It has an Anglo-Saxon fragment as epigraph and adopts the medial or mid-line caesura common to the first English-language poetry.) The poem is a call for an enduring work ethic and a consequent desire for perfection, as opposed to the unfinished, the haphazard: 

                        Haul them off! Hide them!

                                                                        The heart winces

                        For junk and gimcrack,

for Jerry built things

                        And the men who make them. 

This is all the more defiant given the poet’s admission that eventually everything will be “buried” in the “making dark” where all “work / is worn away.” “Advice for a Prophet,” essentially a nature poem outfitted for the Age of Anxiety, takes on the unthinkable—a nuclear war—by suggesting what would happen not to humans but to the rest of the world: “Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race. / How should we dream of this place without us?” Wilbur has remarked that the poem provided him with “a way of feeling the enormity of nuclear war, should it come,” a way to feel something “besides a kind of abstract horror, a puzzlement.” 

Translation is a central duty of the poet to Mr. Wilbur, and he is one of our most accomplished. Aside from W. S. Merwin, it is difficult to think of another living American poet who has undertaken such an ambitious array of translations. In addition to his translations for the stage (including Racine and Moliere), Wilbur included verse translations in nearly every one of his books of poetry from his 1956 collection Things of This World on. His stable includes Voltaire, Villon, Valery, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Borges, Akhmatova, Brodsky, and Dante. He displays incredible technical facility in maintaining the original poetic forms of sonnets, rondeaux, and ballades. Portions of his dramatic translations of Racine and Moliere are included in “Collected Poems.” 

Mr. Wilbur has not allowed himself to be washed forward by the sea changes that have swept over postwar America. He is a constant reminder of what poetry once was and can still be. With a small coterie of others, he helped to balance the keel of American poetry when it hit the hard rains that have fallen since 1965. No bookshelf of American poetry can be complete without his Collected Poems. That said, one hopes Mr. Wilbur will be remembered as much for his playful pentameters and wry humor as transcendental naturalism. These properties are most visible in his books “for children and others,” accompanied by his own simple but charming illustrations. (He has also written song lyrics and libretti; the lyric for Leonard Bernstein’s “Glitter and Be Gay” has come to be a standard of American musical theater.) Though whimsical, they are sophisticated in a way reminiscent of no one so much as Ogden Nash. 

                        The opposite of a doughnut? Wait

                        A minute while I meditate.

                        This isn’t easy. Ah, I’ve found it!

                        A cookie with a hole around it.



[Editor's Note: This review originally appeared in the New York Sun, November 30th, 2004. Reprinted with permission.]


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