The Catbird’s Song
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 teenager. The poem, though written in a traditionally tight form two decades after the visit, conveys the disorder anxiety Wilbur sensed in his visit.
This and several other essays also reflect Wilbur’s belief that the meaning of a good poem is discoverable by a trained reader.
Sources for Further Study
The Christian Science Monitor. July 21, 1997, p. 14.
Kirkus Reviews. LXV, March 1, 1997, p. 371.
Library Journal. CXXII, April 15, 1997, p. 83.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, February 6, 1997, p. 72.