“This book begins with some new work from the last few years,” Wilbur says in his introductory note, “and then offers all of my previous books of poems in reverse order of publication. Nothing has been thrown out, and any changes of wording are too few and too slight to mention.” Why Wilbur chose to present his works in reverse chronological order he does not say, but as he includes some new, previously uncollected poems, he apparently wishes to continue presenting his work from the most recent to the earliest. The volume also includes, in an appendix, five small books of verse for children, complete with his own drawings to illustrate the verse.
Appropriately, the first poem in the book is titled “The Reader” and begins: “She is going back, these days, to the great stories/ That charmed her younger mind.” Readers of this collection will likewise find themselves going back to Wilbur's poems, charmed again by much of the poetry but also discovering new poems or poems not well remembered and therefore having the effect of new poems. They may be like the reader, too, in Wilbur's poem, who knows the outcomes of the books she rereads:
But the true wonder of it is that she,
For all that she may know of consequences,
Still turns enchanted to the next bright page
Like some Natasha in the ballroom door—
Caught in the flow of things wherever bound,
The blind delight of being, ready still
To enter life on life and see them through.
Wilbur was early recognized as a poet who has a good eye for observing both the world of nature and the world of human beings. He is unfailingly precise in his observations, as in “Year's End” and “Grasse: The Olive Trees” from his early collection Ceremony, and Other Poems(1950) or in the title poem in Mayflies: New Poems and Translations(2000). Typically, observations of natural phenomena, beautiful and exact as they are, do not stand alone. In “Mayflies,” for example, the speaker moves from the swarm of flies he describes in the first two stanzas to a reflection upon himself in the third and last stanza:
Watching those lifelong dancers of a day
As night closed in, I felt myself alone
In a life too much my own,
More mortal in my separateness than they—
Unless, I thought, I had been called to be
Not a fly or star
But one whose task is joyfully to see
How fair the fiats of the caller are.
The last two lines aptly describe Wilbur's sense of his vocation. A religious man, he does not usually or ostentatiously impose his convictions upon the reader but, as here, alludes to them gently and fittingly.
Wilbur's facility with words is one of the most outstanding features of his poetry—part and parcel of his wit. In “In the Elegy Season,” for example, referring to the leaflessness of trees around the beginning of November, he says: “A giant absence mopes upon the trees.” “Mopes” is the mot juste here, but it also prepares the reader for the attitude of the speaker that develops as the poem goes on—as he longs for the days of summer and finally settles for what his imagination conjures up:
Green boughs arise
Through all the boundless backward of the eyes,
And the soul bathes in warm conceptual lakes.
Occasionally, Wilbur coins a neologism that perfectly suits his meaning, as in his poem “For the Student Strikers,” in which he notes how “the blunt/ Slogan fuddles the mind toward force.”
Like a seventeenth century metaphysical poet, whose influence he acknowledges, Wilbur's wit can surprise the reader by yoking dissimilar images or ideas in a hitherto unsuspected resemblance, as in a line from “A Wood.” The poem describes a forest of oak trees in which nothing else apparently can grow, except for a diminutive dogwood that “cranes its way to sunlight after all,/ And signs the air of May with Maltese crosses.” Similarly, in “Crow's Nests” the “lofty stand of trees” that appeared like “a great fleet of galleons…. Full-rigged and swift” coursing through summer storms, now in winter no longer looks like ships. It would not be hard, the speaker says, using his imagination, to take them for
A roadstead full of naked mast and spar
In which we see now where the crow's nests are.
Wilbur's humor, more or less ubiquitous, is sometimes almost unrestrained, as in the two “Flippancies.” In the first one, “The Star System,” the speaker counsels a young person to...
(The entire section is 1889 words.)