The Catbird’s Song

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.

The Catbird’s Song

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 1947 words.)