Wilbur, Richard 1921–
Wilbur is an American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, critic, and editor. The formal wit and grace of his poetry have inspired comparison with the metaphysical poets. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Aristotle praised the [poet's] gift of metaphor-making, the power to fuse the elements of a scattered or fragmented reality into meaningful new unities. Richard Wilbur has that gift, that power, and, in addition, the patience and perseverance of the craftsman, the carpenter, who respects his medium and submits himself to the slow task of fitting matter to design, theme to object. This combination of qualities has enabled him to write poems that are eminently well made: they are brilliant, strong in structure, and elegant. He works in traditional metrical forms and stanzas because, as he puts it, "The strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle." He evidently likes the resistance that formal obstacles represent and enjoys the triumph that makes them seem easy. It is perhaps this commitment to the forms, the nets, of tradition that enables him to sing. In this he is unlike many of his contemporaries, who merely talk. (pp. 93-4)
It must be said that public issues have not been particularly fruitful sources of subject matter for Mr. Wilbur, although he returns to them again and again, apparently feeling duty-bound to show his readers that he, too, worries about the atom bomb and … injustices…. (p. 94)
For the most part, [his first book, The Beautiful Changes,] is a joyous celebration of all that is wild and free and full of life. Wilbur praises the moral-free singing of the grasshopper, the nearly gravity-free leap of a sailboat in a race, the wild luxuriance of a garden which triumphs over all walls. He takes pleasure in the beauty of objects, for "the beautiful changes/In such kind ways," and delights in all particularities, rarities, and oddities…. He enjoys the play of the imagination, the ability to see summer where winter rules, a dazzle of light where there is gloom, for such play suggests a "prime/In the heart." Understandably, he rejects abstraction, the circles of geometry, liking them only when they return to nature and borrow flesh and content from it. (pp. 95-6)
This love of concrete reality, of particulars, is evident also in Ceremony (1950), a deftly written, fluent book full of the poet's experience of objects under varying conditions of light and weather. (pp. 96-7)
But … in Ceremony [and in Things of This World (1956)], the poet speculates about the reality of this world he renders with such love and precision. Is he dreaming it? Is he alone in space and imagining the properties of reality? Without a man to hear it, will a tree "fall to nothing without a sound"?… Over and over again the poet speaks of dreaming, of "dreamt land," of dream-laden reality. And his attitude toward the dream is both positive and negative. It is positive in poems where the imagination serves as a source of value and creative power; it is negative where the dream is delusional, divorced from work and responsibility. (p. 101)
[In] Advice to a Prophet [(1961)], his epistemological concern is again manifest. What is appearance? What is reality? When does one become the other? These questions make for witty paradox…. (p. 103)
In the title poem, "Advice to a Prophet," the poet deals with the prospect of atomic war, stirring the reader to a sense of what such a conflict would mean by presenting images not of a manless world, which is the conventional approach, but of a worldless man. This brilliant paradox suggests the wit of a poet who sees the world as both shadow and substance, subject and object.
But, whatever his doubts about the reality of the world, Wilbur has no doubt about the importance of making a vivid report of its characteristics. Each poem is a carefully articulated structure of sound and sense. The metaphors are exact, making the reality they describe brilliant. (p. 105)
Richard Wilbur is unquestionably one of the most accomplished of contemporary poets. It can, no doubt, be said that his commitment to traditional techniques is confining; the postulates of the verbal and metrical system that he has adopted rule out a great deal of everyday experience and also the sort of technical experimentation that sees every poem as a challenging new genre. But his excellence, within his limits, is real. His achievement is due to his submission to his art, his craft; it is an effect of will, patience, and love. (pp. 105-06)
Stephen Stepanchev, "Richard Wilbur," in his American Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 93-106.
The most notable mark of Richard Wilbur's Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations … is a heaviness of beat and rhyme that ought not to be—we are conditioned to believe—but is nevertheless a pleasure to the ear. It is like some of Pope or Ciardi's Dante. There is something game-like, even childlike, about it….
One relishes reading a poet who finds joy in the simplest devices of poetry. Wilbur may be among our most innocent poets, and so among our most wise. The cow has jumped over the moon for a long time in the lines of no mean poem. Which is not to imply anything simplistic about Wilbur's work, but only that he has not become overly sophisticated, overly intellectual. He is no Prufrock. He still celebrates repeated patterns of sound and sight that gave rise to the first poetry and which must remain a part of any poetry that lasts.
He writes of rocks and gulls and fern beds and seed leaves, and I am surprised to find myself caring what he has to say about them. It is something in his matter-of-factness and purity of statement—a sense of his fascination with the things of earth as Roethke was fascinated—that holds me and makes me care. Few poets—Whitman, Neruda, Roethke, Dickey and one or two others of extraordinary spirit—have communicated so deep and glad a compassion for everything. Wilbur's "Seed Leaves" should be in the introduction to every botany text. (p. 33)
[Often], in the poems that come through to me most strongly, he is unwinding a story from the world within his head…. In "The Agent" Wilbur tells a moving story and demonstrates that if there is, as I suspect, a move afoot toward short fiction built on the devices of poetry, he will be among the innovators of the form. It is this, the handling of fictional details in verse, that has been of greatest interest in the later work of both Ciardi and Dickey. (pp. 33-4)
Wilbur's re-creations of the poems of Borges, Akhmatova, Voznesensky, D'Orléans and Villon are excellent…. There is no hint of the "translated" sound that rides so rudely on the lines of poems which have been jerked out of one language and set in another like draftees in boot camp who are still obviously farmers from Idaho. These works are clearly Wilbur, as Wilbur reads his colleagues, past and present. Some of them are close to Wilbur at his best. It is a worn-out thing to say that this section alone is worth the price of the book. When it is true, it is difficult not to say it. (p. 34)
Miller Williams, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 14, 1969.
Richard Wilbur's poems [in "Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations"] are so carefully modulated, so nicely tuned, so finished, that one reads them in an anguish of hope. When will this cool mastery collide with a theme worthy of it? All poets find themselves on the boundary between tradition and innovation. Mr. Wilbur toes the line with far too rigorous a caution. He casts a poem about lilacs in Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse (a gesture of Mr. Pound's), allows the beauty of the lilacs to remind him of death and transitoriness (a quiet echo of Whitman), and tosses in the phrase "death's kingdom" (folding Mr. Eliot into his business). The result is a poem of mirrored beauty by a poet who proves again and again that he is capable of looking and feeling for himself….
Mr. Wilbur's voice is quiet and tense, and is at its best describing in elegies and eulogies …, and in exploring inward and private emotions. The title poem is a meditation on going to sleep that Robert Frost might have written, if the subject had occurred to him. (p. 54)
The sure-footed sense of words which makes Mr. Wilbur so good a translator also raises his poems to their calm elegance. Poetic diction is rare in our time, but there is nothing else one can say of Mr. Wilbur's range of words but that they exist within a conscious purity of diction completely free of either the vulgar or the precious. A style so well behaved misses both the native genius of English which Frost caught so splendidly and the ragged ambiguities of more strenuous demands of language.
Perhaps it is Mr. Wilbur's equanimity of temperament that makes his polish seem all the more unfitting to his subjects. Wallace Stevens was even more polished, but he sat on a volcano as he wrote, and his fluent ironies became seismographic from time to time. William Carlos Williams was as severely restricted as Mr. Wilbur in his subject-matter, but his struggle with it has a raw sincerity that Mr. Wilbur seems to have smoothed away. (pp. 54-5)
Guy Davenport, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 14, 1969.
Richard Wilbur's poetry has consistently provided us with so many pleasures that one must feel almost ungrateful to question the premises upon which he has founded his art. So serene and altogether orderly a style would hardly seem possible to us today were it not for his exemplary presence, and the epithet "classical" inevitably forms at the lips when one thinks of his characteristic virtues, so often remarked by others: poise, tact, formal and metrical regularity, musicality of diction, ingenuity of phrasing, and a basic human decency that permits him to deal with a wide range of subjects without ever betraying a tendency towards unkindness or casual cynicism. Where he has been critical of people or views of one kind or another, of political expediency or middle-class timidity, he has been so in a way at once charitable and forgiving. Wilbur's is the sage, liberally earnest, slightly rhetorical voice of a fellow we should very much like to know, if we believed he really existed, an extremely intelligent, witty, and entertaining fellow who neither beats his wife nor is likely to be found in the company of indecorous multitudes of whatever persuasion. In short, the voice that pulses ever so lightly in Wilbur's verse suggests a refinement of sensibility and a soundness of judgment so satisfying that one is hard-put to discern in it the contours of a man as we have been accustomed to men in our experience. One is stirred by Wilbur's verse, stirred not to feeling but to admiration and to a rather evenheaded delight that falls quite short of ecstasy. (p. 76)
[Although] Wilbur was aware of [Williams'] example, as which American poet is not, he has proven all but incapable of learning from it. It is not only the rhetoric that obscures the things themselves, though the swelling orotundities of Wilbur's lovely verse do often distract attention from what are his ostensible concerns. More significant is the fact that Wilbur does not really care for things. What his verse celebrates is not the hard things of this world, but the imagination…. For Wilbur, and there is no mistaking this, the call to things is equivalent to what he describes as "the punctual rape of every blessed day." The hero is not the man who submits, but the audacious artist, the visionary, Wilbur's "Juggler": "For him we batter our hands/Who has won for once over the world's weight."
Clearly, then, there is a tension implicit in Wilbur's verse, just the sort of tension that might direct the poet's energies, leading him to the difficult resolutions we look for in a poem by Robert Lowell, or in a very different way by Stevens. Instead, we get an elegant, contrapuntal playing off of effects, a few touches of airy whimsicality, and an almost total failure to establish relevant contexts for the observation of particulars. Thus a poem like "The Death of a Toad" which promises a limited pathos, despite its mock-heroic accents, dissolves in a kind of absurdity, Wilbur's essentially romantic imagination and purple diction conjuring for the dying creature "some deep monotone," "misted and ebullient seas and cooling shores," and "lost Amphibia's emperies." One can only wish it were all a put-on, but it is not. What utterly beautiful poetry is wasted by the proximity of these few silly lines. (p. 77)
[A] fundamental failing in his work … is the sense it evokes of ideas, people, things played with as counters in a not very important game. It is not that Wilbur doesn't care for the toad, but that he cares for it primarily to the degree that it releases particular imaginative faculties that make for poetry. Ultimately, it would seem, to care for the things of this world only as they may be transmuted into the materials of poetry is to make of poetry something less substantial, less fully human, less important than we should want it to be. (pp. 77-8)
Robert Boyers, "On Richard Wilbur," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1970 by Skidmore College), Spring, 1970, pp. 76-82.
Wilbur's poetry is usually a poetry of analysis. After first presenting a scene or situation, Wilbur weighs possible responses or interpretations. That Wilbur's type of poetry has been relatively neglected is, then, an interesting comment on readers of poetry. Apparently, most readers exclusively prefer a poetry that features a dramatic immediacy and that contains simple statements or that only intensifies their prejudices; they do not want a poetry that stimulates their intellect as well as their emotions….
[Wilbur believes] that each poem should be a separate entity in which the particular form a poem takes evolves as the total poem evolves. In contrast, free verse writers, scorning all other forms as "too limiting," are often unaware that, in using only the free verse form, they have in fact limited themselves much more than Wilbur has. They also refuse to see that the traditional forms Wilbur frequently uses have dealt with our most complex experiences just as successfully as free verse forms have.
Finally, concerning subject matter, Wilbur's work contains more variety than most free verse poetry. The latter focuses obsessively on the poets' personal lives, on abstract concepts, and on the esoteric. Wilbur, on the other hand, takes his subjects not only from these areas but also from quotidian reality. Indeed, Wilbur is almost a poet-revolutionary in his inclusion of the diversified daily world—(even the suburban daily world!)—in his poetry. Yet Wilbur's use of such material, when noticed at all, has gained him only scorn, not praise. (p. 210)
One major concern is tangible reality, a reality seen—in "Driftwood" for instance—as composed of enduring elements. The assurance that such elements do endure offers Wilbur—living in a world filled with uncertainty and destruction—a much-needed solace. Scenic beauty also offers this solace, the point implied in "First Snow in Alsace." However, Wilbur believes that man is helplessly cut off from that reality. A key poem that delineates his views here is "The Beacon," a poem in some ways quite similar to Wallace Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West." The beacon, representing man's mind, not only reveals the sea but creates an order—"searoads"—out of it. But once the beacon's light is turned away, we have only the chaotic "sea-in-itself," a reality that is beyond our knowledge. We may sometimes sense hidden layers of reality (Wilbur's theme in "A Hole in the Floor"); but, as stated in "The Lilacs," all that nature clearly reveals is "death's kingdom."
This view of reality triggers one primary emotional response in Wilbur: fear—the emotion depicted in "The Pardon." It also causes Wilbur to turn his attention to man's imaginative powers and to a separate ideal realm…. But the vision [of an ideal realm] is … judged to be only subjective, and, so, worthless.
Mindful, then, of the many pitfalls that exist in both the actual world and the path to the ideal world, Wilbur ultimately strives to maintain a sense of balance between both worlds, a balance that will also enable him to better observe human experience. In "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," Wilbur admires the nuns who manage to "keep their difficult balance" between those two worlds. However, the struggle for balance is a formidable one because Wilbur has an intense longing for the ideal world. This problem is defined again and again in such poems as "In the Elegy Season," "Castles and Distances," and "'A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness.'" (pp. 211-12)
Wilbur's powerful individual poems on various aspects of these themes constitute the major reason why he must be ranked as one of our finest living poets. Wilbur is a master of descriptive writing, of rhythm and sound-patterns, and, especially, of rime. And his best poems, replete with his almost peerless craftsmanship, present vivid definitive studies of contemporary problems, choices, and reactions. Nonetheless, the overall position that his poems formulate is, I think, seriously flawed. First of all, for someone who wants to focus primarily on the tangible world, Wilbur too often fails to do so. One is, in fact, prompted to ask: if Wilbur so highly values and is enamored by this tangible world, why is he so often—and so easily and gladly—lured away from it? and, secondly, why—as in "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World"—does he feel so regretfully duty-bound, even "bitter," about returning to the tangible world?
So, too, the tangible world seems to be something that Wilbur celebrates only when it is immediately attractive. When the scene or situation is unattractive, Wilbur almost always quickly retreats from it in one way or another. For instance, in "Junk" he gains an all-too-quick comfort from the fact that a pile of junk can, in the hands of a "Hephaestus," be re-used—(why can't he accept junk as junk?). Similarly, in "Stop" he quickly likens the color of a truck parked at a drab railroad station to "the phosphorus of Lethe/Or Queen Persephone's gaze." He does not really enhance these scenes by introducing mythological elements into them; rather, he uses mythology only to soften these scenes' drabness, to "prettify" them. This is not so much a way of coping with reality as it is a way of evading it. At other times, as in "First Snow in Alsace," he enjoys a pretty snowfall only in order to escape from other grim segments of reality—a natural but not very positive reaction. And rarely does he confront—or even allude to—the existence of evil in the world. Thus, we are dubious about Wilbur's celebration of the tangible world.
It also seems that Wilbur does surrender "the Earth to Science." Actually, he is a product of the scientific point of view; for, despite his desire (stated in "Poplar, Sycamore") to "never know the dry disease/Of thinking things no more than what he sees," Wilbur finds precious little in tangible reality other than "what he sees." What more he does find he usually decides is chaotic—and terrifying. Most often, however, he finds nothing at all.
As a result, the imagination, for Wilbur, does become a "refuge"—not an expedition moving toward the hidden treasure of richer levels of reality, but a citadel where one can find protection from reality…. [He] describes no experience that instigates any deep lasting spiritual rapport with the tangible world…. As "Clearness" … typically indicates, his spiritual visions are ultimately judged to be totally subjective, invalid. The world is always something irrevocably "outside" of him. This also holds true concerning other people; even in his love poems, the lovers do not "fuse"—they only "counter" one another.
Wilbur's yearnings for an ideal world are interesting in this connection too, for they remind one of the poets of the Romantic Period. But [unlike Keats] … Wilbur almost never sees objects in the tangible world as valid messengers of the ideal world. Consequently, in this respect, Keats valued the tangible world much more highly than Wilbur does—even though Wilbur wants to focus on this world, while Keats saw it only as a flawed replica of a better world and wanted more than anything else to transcend this world. Wilbur, in truth, does not feel at all certain about that ideal realm…. Unlike Keats,… Wilbur does not really want to go to that ideal realm—or, more precisely, he often wants to go there but never wants to attempt to go there. Consequently, his insistence on not renouncing this world turns out to be not an affirmation of this world, but only the result of his uncertainty about the existence of any other world.
What does such a man have left? His mind, his imagination—a subject that particularly interests Wilbur, as it did … Wallace Stevens. Stevens, denied the traditional Absolutes, wanted us to view the tangible world via a mind shaped by his theory of poetry. This desire led him to study the nature of reality and, more, the means by which man gained knowledge of reality—that is, the workings of the mind itself. As a result, Stevens' poetry presents us with an almost innumerable number of detailed findings concerning this fundamental area of human experience. Wilbur's poetry, in comparison, suffers. From Wilbur we learn that the imagination can enrich reality (and so, too, our lives) and that, at other times, it can trick us into false dreams or idle mental constructions. Because this subject most excites Wilbur, the majority of his most exciting poems are on this topic. But he tends only to repeat the same observations in poem after poem; he does not give us nearly the variety of valuable, vibrant insights that Stevens does.
Another difference between these two poets is that Stevens committed himself, while Wilbur … insists on remaining detached in order to better judge particular experiences as they occur. Here, then, we have a stance that is admirable in some contexts but flawed in others. (pp. 212-15)
With regard to this desire to remain an observer, Wilbur is more like Robert Frost than Stevens. Like Frost, Wilbur is willing to lean toward heaven; but wants to dip back toward earth—and, so, to wholly abide in neither world. Like Frost, Wilbur will admit that the woods of complex reality are lovely, dark, and deep; but won't go into those woods. Unfortunately, although this role offers one the chance never to be wrong, it does not offer one the chance to be ever dynamically right…. Frost, when harrassed, fell back on an unexamined Emersonian belief that life was, after all, basically good. Wilbur is too honest and too thoroughly analytical to allow himself this bland escape-hatch belief. However, instead, he offers us nothing.
Does this mean that Wilbur's poetry contains little of serious value? Not at all. [There are] several praise-worthy qualities present in Wilbur's work—his skill at descriptive writing, his mastery of rhythm, sound-patterns, and rime, and, most of all, his ability to vividly capture the particular scenes and situations, thoughts and feelings that he does use as his subject matter…. [There are] still other values. First, there is Wilbur's continuous, brilliantly formulated questionings, questionings which make him more valuable than the vast majority of poets. For I would assume it is clear that merely for a poet to offer us an emphatic affirmative belief—however unexamined, sentimental, and illogical—does not, by any means, automatically make his work more valuable than Wilbur's.
Finally, although the lack of a vibrant commitment denies Wilbur's poetry the momentum, density, and power that the works of our greatest poets provide, his readers are offered an incisive portrait of a man caught in the dilemma of the modern world, a man who has been pressured into denying himself any lasting assurance either in the existence of any metaphysical realm or in his ability to comprehend the physical world. My final point, then, is that Wilbur's poetry should be read from quite a different approach than that which reading an anthology-selection of his pieces might suggest. That is, what we will find in Wilbur's collected poetry is not the portrait of a poet who will offer us a confident, exuberant affirmation of life, but a poet who is entangled in all the same fundamental problems that we must confront and must work through—as Wilbur might yet do. (pp. 215-16)
Kenneth Johnson, "Virtues in Style, Defect in Content: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur," in The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French (copyright © 1970 by Warren French; reprinted by permission of Everett/Edwards, Inc., Deland, Fla.), Everett/Edwards, 1970, pp. 210-216.
Opposites claims to have originated from the Wilbur supper table where instead of fighting about morality and society they fight about what's the opposite of this or that word. Being a poet, Dad was able to turn these arguments to imaginative use…. What saves these poems from coyness, lollipops for the kids, is, along with his usual brilliance of ear, Wilbur's jaunty and unsaccharine response to the pleasures and strangenesses of using words. He has also illustrated them with his own figure drawings which do not remind us of Rembrandt but are otherwise acceptably amusing. (p. 590)
William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Autumn, 1973.