Wilbur, Richard 1921–
Wilbur is an American poet, critic, translator, and editor. The formal wit and elegance of his poetry have elicited comparison with the metaphysical poets. He received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for 1957. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Wilbur's first book, "The Beautiful Changes" (1947), marked him immediately as something special. A trace of indebtedness to Yeats and a clear line of descent from Marianne Moore were visible as signs that his talent was still emergent, but of the existence of that talent there could be no doubt. The poems, richly worded and strictly formal, nevertheless moved within their strictures with an ease and assurance that marked Wilbur as the possessor of as fine an ear for the smooth-flowing line and the self-rounding stanza rhythm as could be claimed by any man now writing in English. He had, moreover, achieved a metaphoric sense undeniably his own. Consider for example this description of a ballet dancer fresh from the formal perfections of her dance and now slumped into the shapelessness of human fatigue:
So she will turn and walk through metal halls
To where some ancient woman will unmesh
Her small strict shape, and yawns will turn her face
Into a little wilderness of flesh.
And rich as are the immediate physical sensations of such a description, it is the nature of Wilbur's talent that these physical punctualities are precisely that which is thought with…. The passage is not only a description of a particular tired dancer, but of the boundary between life and artifice, a boundary crossed and recrossed in Wilbur's poems, always with the central driving intention of finding that artifice which will most include the most of life. For Wilbur is a poet at mortal play, an artificer. Even the title of his first book ("changes" must be read both as a noun and as a verb) attest how carefully he plans his double meanings.
This theme of artifice—I am tempted almost to call it the theology and humanism of artifice—rose free of the earlier indebtednesses and emerged deepened and enriched in "Ceremony and Other Poems" (1950). And here, too, it became apparent both immediately and by hindsight that Wilbur was emerging as a master of a subtle, urbane, and self-convincing diction that was peculiarly his own, the mark of his own way of seeing and saying. (p. 18)
[With] "Things of This World," his enormous gifts grown into their mature assurance, Wilbur certainly emerges as our serenest, urbanest, and most...
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[In] Things of This World Richard Wilbur seems beset by a sort of ennui, the result of a conceptual dependence which bedevils him with an especially treasonous subtlety. Though he is still one of our better poets, the things his poetry says and lives by are so much of the essence of the modern Anglo-American heritage that others have already preëmpted the original and audacious modes of expression he might otherwise use. Compare his "An Event" with Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," for instance. The younger poet has been almost forced into a blander, more discursive tack, for which even his highly developed grace and skill of rhetoric cannot fully compensate. Rhetoric, incidentally, is put to sharper use in the one political piece here: "Speech for the Repeal of the McCarran Act." Genuine poetic energy and concreteness quicken the effect of this piece, which augurs the revival of a genre recently much neglected. But this poet's main chance does not lie in a political direction.
Wilbur's own medicine for his disease is, for him, a good one: translation, and a turn of emphasis toward French sources that goes with it. His dominating vision has always been the aesthetic-secular one of the post-Romantic tradition:
I take this world for better or for worse,
But seeing rose carafes conceive the sun
My thirst conceives a fierier universe.
Still, Wilbur finds it difficult, in his usual voice, to present this vision as truth; he rather argues for it as an ideal. Everything changes, however, when he takes on a different voice or mask by translating from the French. Then, particularly in rendering Baudelaire's "L'Invitation au Voyage" and Valéry's "Helen," he is at once far within the vision. Again, with Jammes' "A Prayer to Go to Paradise with the Donkeys," he is from the start at a pitch of pure elation for which he strives in vain elsewhere. Moreover, of the successful poems here that are not translations, the best are those most closely approaching the dream-atmosphere of the French Symbolist tradition (as opposed to the Emersonian or morally melioristic streak in contemporary American Poetry, which has at times overborne Wilbur's sense of himself). (p. 372)
M. L. Rosenthal, "Tradition and Transition," in The Nation (copyright 1956 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 183, No. 18, November 3, 1956, pp. 372-74.∗
Richard Wilbur, in [Walking to Sleep] shows again the ability of the shape-changer, the capacity to move from form to form, or even from voice to voice, depending on the particular requirements made of him by the development of a given poem. In a period when the identity of the poet is often associated with the singularity of his voice (Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens), Wilbur's ability to mute the insistence of personality may make the level of his accomplishment less immediately evident, because the accomplishment is expressed in so many different ways. Wilbur is both a translator and a theatre-poet: situations in which one must speak another's words, or hear another voice speaking one's own.
The title of Wilbur's second book was Ceremony, and that word still expresses, I think, much of his most central approach to the poem. To Wilbur … it seems to me that form is a means of understanding, the shape of the poem one of the most serious comments on the meaning of the poem. And it seems also that form functions as a kind of charm: ceremony is the way in which the tissue of events is not only understood, but made moral and substantial. The long title poem of this book, "Walking to Sleep," is an exercise in how to control and formalize language to a given purpose…. The poem is a magic by which to go to sleep; it is also a comment on the way such magics work: they permit us to achieve an agreement with the world of which we are a part. That agreement is not a submission, or even necessarily a reconciliation, but it is an awareness of an order…. (pp. 363-64)
An intelligent affection, and an intelligent remorse; a sense of event in a long and various context: these are the qualities that seem most central here. They will not allow a poetry of extremes: the howl of absolute emotion or the arid geometries of absolute intellection. Aware both of people and their contexts, they celebrate that difficult thing: the simultaneous tenuousness and necessity of civilization. (p. 364)
William Dickey, "A Place in the Country," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1969 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer, 1969, pp. 347-64.∗
Richard Wilbur does what he does well and gladly, learns new ways and enjoys them too. The charges against him are mostly compliments. Yes, he has mastered the iambic line and some other meters; yes, he wears his grace with ease; yes, his poems respond to his control. But these virtues do not set him necessary limits. The counter-evidence is too much present in his work for anyone truly to claim, "Here in a well-lit salon you must of need stay, the crystal polished, the corners cleared." The counterevidence is the pure loveliness becoming, sometimes against his protestations, in its very purity transcendent; lies in the many fine and memorable phrasings; and must include, among poems published in books prior to 1976, "Two Voices in a Meadow" and the longer poem Walking to Sleep. (p. 294)
[I speak] as an early and continuing admirer, and speak in approval. And yet? And yet. The counterevidence does need to be carefully selected. Wilbur has seldom published a bad poem, and seldom a poem from which one does not derive some genuine pleasure; yet the really first-rate poems, the poems that illumine the secret places and to which one returns with a deeper gratitude, are fewer than I would wish. Theodore Roethke, as quoted on the dustjacket of The Mind-Reader, found in Wilbur not a "graceful mind" but a "mind of grace." Well, both; almost always the former; sometimes, blessedly, the latter.
Wilbur himself makes the point in "On My Own Work" in his critical collection, Responses…. (pp. 294-95)
Responses is … occasional criticism. The title means responses to occasions and hence is less relativistic and impressionistic than it may sound. Wilbur is not saying that all responses are equal or that the essays are merely responses, but he is not very far from the comfort of that fastness. His criticism could hardly be called bellicose, nor is it much engaged in finding true grounds for its being. He is, though, to his credit, not antitheoretical, for at times he accepts and defends John Crowe Ransom's view of poetry as world-bodying, as opposed to the Shelleyan or transcendant view….
As a reader of the poetry would expect, Wilbur's prose often pleases: apt unpredicted metaphors, frisky asides, pungent balancings. Yet an idle copy-editor named (pseudonymously, since I am inventing her) Darleen Longhans has failed him in her task of bashing out verbosely indirect constructions….
One also expects—and receives—astute respondings. Wilbur is at his best "one on one," reading poems he likes of poets he likes,...
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Richard Wilbur's "Beasts" expresses nostalgia for a lost Eden, not of childhood, but of unconscious animal existence. Evil is man's alone, created by recognition of suffering and intensified by human efforts to resolve or lessen it. Thus the animals dwell in "major freedom." Wilbur's survey of the chain of being progresses from beasts to man by way of the halfway creature, the werewolf. (One remembers that in traditional descriptions of the chain, man occupies this position.) Reason is now the substitute for transcendent divinity, but it brings with it disintegrating harmony: "major" to "minor"; "concordance" to discord; peace to war; "slumber" to waking, present contentment to unsatisfied yearning.
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When it came out in 1976, The Mind-Reader didn't change any minds. As Richard Wilbur's latest collection of poems, the book was reviewed about eighteen times in predictable ways: people who had understood and liked his work before had more nice things to say (William Pritchard, for example, in the Hudson Review), and people who were stuck on the old idea that Wilbur is a safe soul, somebody to be arch about, did their usual dance. Wilbur has spent thirty years sharpening our sense of irony and showing us that wit and passionate intensity can have everything to do with each other. That is the kind of cause that divides people for good—and so it is no surprise that some of The Mind-Reader's...
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