Richard Wilbur is one of the best poets of his generation, winner of both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. He has been well-known since his first book, The Beautiful Changes, appeared in 1947, yet it is difficult for him to get a wide hearing. The reason for this should be obvious by now. In the ongoing controversy between the redskins and the palefaces or, as Robert Lowell put it, raw poetry and cooked poetry, he is decidedly in favor of cooked verse. He has said himself that the strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle; but this is an age when the bottle has been uncorked or, better, smashed to bits and pieces. Nor has Wilbur paid frequent court to the Social Muse or embraced the Tragic Vision of post-World War II poets. He has chosen to write in strict forms, for the most part, in a literary mode that is unfashionable—a course which, one must observe, requires a certain amount of courage.
Theodore Roethke once observed that Wilburcan look at a thing, and talk about it beautifully, can turn it over in his mind, and draw truths from a scene, easily and effortlessly (it would seem)—though his kind of writing requires the hardest kind of discipline, it must be remembered. Not a graceful mind—that’s a mistake—but a mind of grace, an altogether different and higher thing.
This sums up succinctly the quality of the mind behind the poetry in The Mind-Reader, with its emphasis on looking, discipline, and grace. Wilbur has always been a poet primarily of the eye, one looking at the things of this world—and admittedly half-creating them at times. One is reminded that Wilbur’s father was a painter and that the poet has written beautiful poems about painting and sculpture.
Of his new collection, his critics (and they are numerous) might say that here is the mixture as before, the same brilliant surface, impeccable rhythms, and skillful rhymes, but put in the service of themes that are less than urgent or overpowering. This is true, but only up to a point.
Wilbur, of course, has never been a Johnny-one-note; within his limitations he has always been capable of a dazzling variety of forms and themes, as this new collection attests. There are some developments in his recent work—though there is no fresh ground broken—and they need to be noted. Ten years ago it looked as though Wilbur’s lines were loosening up, like those of almost all contemporary poets who began as strict formalists, such as Lowell and Roethke. But in The Mind-Reader there has been a drawing in, a tightening up of his forms, though he can break out of a quatrain when he needs to. In any case, he has seldom been tyrannized by his fixed patterns.
Wilbur also seems to have lost interest in the anti-poetic: one recalls his “Potato” or his memorable poem about a junk heap, a trendy theme of the 1950’s. Except for “Children of the Darkness,” a poem about fungi, few of his images are deliberately ugly; and even so, the rootless parasites are pronounced good in the end. This poem may be too long, but it is a brilliant tour de force nevertheless.
Also, at least for the time being, Wilbur has turned away from his famous animals. There is nothing in the present volume to recall A Bestiary—no toads, horses, or unicorns. For once, like Frost, Wilbur seems to be drawn more to trees and New England landscapes. And there are changes simply because Wilbur is older. He is, of course, no Archibald MacLeish brooding on death and writing about lost...