The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Richard Wilbur’s “The Mind-Reader,” a dramatic monologue of 151 lines, unveils the inner world of a fortune-teller. Although Wilbur leaves gender unspecified, out of convention the reader may regard the aged figure as a woman. The reader cannot rely on convention, however, when it comes to judging her psychic talents. While not able to see the future, she can see past appearances. She can read minds and has a special talent for finding lost items by probing people’s memories. Nothing put into a mind is ever truly lost: “What can be wiped from memory?” she asks, adding that “Nothing can be forgotten, as I am not/ Permitted to forget.”

Unnamed in the poem, the mind-reader begins her monologue by ruminating on loss. Things that no one sees disappear are “truly lost,” she says. She imagines a hat that slips over a cliff. “The sun-hat falls,/ With what free flirts and stoops you can imagine,/ Down through that reeling vista or another,/ Unseen by any, even by you or me.” She likewise imagines a “pipe-wrench, catapulted/ From the jounced back of a pick-up truck,” and a book sliding from beneath the chair of a reader on the deck of a ship, into the “printless sea.”

The mind-reader then tells of her childhood, when her talent was used for finding missing objects. She likens exploring a mind to exploring a landscape: “you would come/ At once upon dilapidated cairns,/ Abraded moss, and half-healed blazes leading/ To...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Mind-Reader” is in the form of a dramatic monologue, a poetic form in which the poet assumes and speaks through the identity of another. (Nineteenth century poet Robert Browning is known for refining the dramatic monologue into a unique way of examining character and human nature and of producing unexpected or ironic revelations.) Within this framework, Wilbur achieves many of his poetic effects through introducing richly imaginative details that dovetail unexpectedly with metaphor. The reader, by the end of the first stanza, for instance, has vividly seen a sun-hat “plunge down/ Through mica shimmer to a moss of pines/ Amidst which, here or there, a half-seen river/ Lobs up a blink of light,” as well as a catapulted pipe-wrench, and the book lost to sea. As concrete and factual as these objects and events seem, by poem’s end they have come to represent an unattainable and immaterial goal: oblivion.

Metaphors serve the mind-reader well in describing her own mind and the minds of others. Finding lost objects becomes a search through strange landscapes with their paths and “dried-up stream-beds.” She describes a lost thing as someone waiting at a railway platform, where long cars with fogged windows arrive. There is “a young woman standing amidst her luggage,/ Expecting to be met by you, a stranger.” Elsewhere she describes her own talent, her “sixth/ And never-resting sense,” as “a cheap room/ Black with the anger of insomnia,/ Whose wall-boards vibrate with the mutters, plaints/ And flushings of the race.”

Wilbur composed “The Mind-Reader” in blank verse. Although many of the lines fall within a strict pattern of iambic pentameter, Wilbur freely adds syllables, sometimes resulting in hexameter passages. In the lines set in regular pentameter, he frequently employs elision, as in the following example: “See how she turns her head, the eyes engaging.” The vowels in “the eyes” elide to make a single syllable, making this line a regular ten-syllable, or five-foot, line.

The Mind-Reader

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Richard Wilbur is one of the best poets of his generation, winner of both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. He has been well-known since his first book, The Beautiful Changes, appeared in 1947, yet it is difficult for him to get a wide hearing. The reason for this should be obvious by now. In the ongoing controversy between the redskins and the palefaces or, as Robert Lowell put it, raw poetry and cooked poetry, he is decidedly in favor of cooked verse. He has said himself that the strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle; but this is an age when the bottle has been uncorked or, better, smashed to bits and pieces. Nor has Wilbur paid frequent court to the Social Muse or embraced the Tragic Vision of post-World War II poets. He has chosen to write in strict forms, for the most part, in a literary mode that is unfashionable—a course which, one must observe, requires a certain amount of courage.

Theodore Roethke once observed that Wilburcan look at a thing, and talk about it beautifully, can turn it over in his mind, and draw truths from a scene, easily and effortlessly (it would seem)—though his kind of writing requires the hardest kind of discipline, it must be remembered. Not a graceful mind—that’s a mistake—but a mind of grace, an altogether different and higher thing.

This sums up succinctly the quality of the mind behind the poetry in The Mind-Reader, with its emphasis on looking, discipline, and grace. Wilbur has always been a poet primarily of the eye, one looking at the things of this world—and admittedly half-creating them at times. One is reminded that Wilbur’s father was a painter and that the poet has written beautiful poems about painting and sculpture.

Of his new collection, his critics (and they are numerous) might say that here is the mixture as before, the same brilliant surface, impeccable rhythms, and skillful rhymes, but put in the service of themes that are less than urgent or overpowering. This is true, but only up to a point.

Wilbur, of course, has never been a Johnny-one-note; within his limitations he has always been capable of a dazzling variety of forms and themes, as this new collection attests. There are some developments in his recent work—though there is no fresh ground broken—and they need to be noted. Ten years ago it looked as though Wilbur’s lines were loosening up, like those of almost all contemporary poets who began as strict formalists, such as Lowell and Roethke. But in The Mind-Reader there has been a drawing in, a tightening up of his forms, though he can break out of a quatrain when he needs to. In any case, he has seldom been tyrannized by his fixed patterns.

Wilbur also seems to have lost interest in the anti-poetic: one recalls his “Potato” or his memorable poem about a junk heap, a trendy theme of the 1950’s. Except for “Children of the Darkness,” a poem about fungi, few of his images are deliberately ugly; and even so, the rootless parasites are pronounced good in the end. This poem may be too long, but it is a brilliant tour de force nevertheless.

Also, at least for the time being, Wilbur has turned away from his famous animals. There is nothing in the present volume to recall A Bestiary—no toads, horses, or unicorns. For once, like Frost, Wilbur seems to be drawn more to trees and New England landscapes. And there are changes simply because Wilbur is older. He is, of course, no Archibald MacLeish brooding on death and writing about lost...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bixler, Frances. Richard Wilbur: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.

Hougen, John B. Ecstasy Within Discipline: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.

Michelson, Bruce. Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

Reibetang, John. “What Love Sees: Poetry and Vision in Richard Wilbur.” Modern Poetry Studies 11 (1982): 60-85.

Salinger, Wendy, ed. Richard Wilbur’s Creation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Stitt, Peter. The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.