The Catbird’s Song (Magill Book Reviews)
Richard Wilbur has published many books of poetry and translation as well as one previous collection of essays. The varied contents of this book include prose pieces as short as three pages and as long as twenty-five pages. A number of them were intended as introductions to books or to individual poems by Wilbur or other writers, others memorialized poet-friends, while still others originated as short speeches or lectures.
The selections are consistent, however, in representing longstanding interests and convictions of their author. Edgar Allan Poe, one of Wilbur’s favorite poets, is the subject of two in which the author shows the intellectual range and subtlety of a poet many readers mistakenly regard as simple. Two other entries discuss the art of translation; Wilbur has made successful verse translations of plays by the seventeenth century French masters Jean-Baptiste Moliere and Jean Racine. The longest essay is a fascinating study of the history of the riddle dotted by examples the answers to which readers will enjoy trying to guess.
Wilbur’s poetic convictions include dedication to formally constructed poetry. He defends his frequent use of meter and rhyme as devices which, far from inhibiting creativity, actually promote it. A good example is his discussion of one of his own poems, “Cottage Street, 1953,” about a visit to the renowned poet Sylvia Plath and her mother when Sylvia was a precocious but emotionally disturbed...
(The entire section is 304 words.)
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The Catbird’s Song (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
In a preface to The Catbird’s Song: Prose Pieces 1963- 1995, Richard Wilbur advises the reader not to regard the contents as essays, as if anticipating the criticism that the book is merely a grab bag of fugitive items. Indeed, his “prose pieces” range considerably in length. Elizabeth Bishop receives five pages, Witter Bynner forty-six—but it should be noted that these pieces differ considerably in purpose and occasion, the former, for instance, being a memorial tribute given at a meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the latter an introduction to a volume of selected poems edited by Wilbur. The contents of The Catbird’s Song, though defying facile classification, offer a rewarding if uneven reading experience.
Many of the twenty-two selections reflect long-standing interests of the author. Two focus on Edgar Allan Poe, whose poems Wilbur has edited; two more pertain to the translator’s art, which Wilbur has practiced with distinction. Others pay tribute to particular literary friends: John Ciardi, Elizabeth Bishop, and May Swenson. One of the best, “The Persistence of Riddles,” originally a lecture at the Library of Congress, bears out Wilbur’s assertion that he has collected riddles “for decades” and studied their significance closely.
Wilbur does not disdain writing on poets now out of fashion. The opening piece, “A Word from Cummington,” concedes that William Cullen Bryant often...
(The entire section is 1947 words.)