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 “sounds like a statue” instead of a personality but goes on to discuss “To a Waterfowl” as possibly “America’s first flawless poem.” The earliest selection in the book, a review of Newton Arvin’s Longfellow: His Life and Work (1963), conveys, along with his acknowledgment of the old-fashioned propensities of both author and subject, an “awakened sense” of the achievement of this nineteenth century luminary, now generally rated as of lesser magnitude.
The long summation of Bynner’s poetic output illustrates Wilbur’s inclination to reevaluate independently the work of the sort of poet who at one point earns plaudits from respected critics and fellow poets but later sinks into obscurity. Wilbur claims to have taken on the job of editing an edition of Bynner’s poetry for two reasons: to please a friend who had also been a friend of Bynner and to exercise his “mistrust of reputation.” Because the second of these motives hardly seems sufficient, the amiable weakness represented by the first may have been the truly operational motive.
No doubt Wilbur would be enrolled among Poe admirers no matter what the state of Poe’s reputation. Poe encouraged posterity in fairly simple-minded reader-response interpretations of his work in essays such as “The Philosophy of Composition,” which “explains” his famous poem “The Raven” largely with reference to its aural and emotional qualities, and in his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (second series, 1842), which is remembered less for its insistence on the importance of the “single effect” of a short story than for limiting its length to “one sitting” on the part of its readers. Yet even some professional students of Poe may be surprised at the complexities Wilbur has discovered in this intriguing nineteenth century American writer.
The family name in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” to take one of Poe’s best-known short stories, is a case in point. Wilbur notes that Poe invites speculation on its significance by having the doorkeeper “usher” the narrator into the mysterious residence. Furthermore, the derivation of “usher,” from the Latin os (mouth), connects with what Wilbur calls the story’s “architectural symbolism.” Poe’s employment of another meaning of “usher” in “William Wilson,” that of “assistant schoolmaster,” suggests that the narrator is being instructed by his host. To clarify the nature of the lesson, Wilbur notes that a seventeenth century English divine, James Ussher—to whom Poe refers several times elsewhere in his work—was known for a chronology of world history. Since the last sentence in Poe’s story alludes to an apocalyptic passage in the final book of the Bible, the collapse of the house might signify also the “uncreation of the world.”
Aware of the common notion that Poe does not require such close reading, Wilbur, by this and other examples, presents a strong case that while the “meanings” he proposes are not susceptible of proof, the reader ignores such possibilities at the cost of missing much of Poe’s richness. It is well to remember that this essay, aptly titled “Poe and the Art of Suggestion,” is the work of a poet in whom critics have found similarly...