The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

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....

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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 where, around the turning of a fear,/ The lost thing shone.” Her youthful experience led to her lowly profession: “It was not far/ From that to this—this corner café table” where she sits and drinks “at the receipt of custom.” She describes the people who come to her, ranging from those who put faith in her talent to those who outwardly scoff but seek her nonetheless. Skeptics arrive, too, “bent on proving me a fraud.”

She describes how she performs for customers. She hands them writing materials, turns away, and smokes. Then she touches their hands and engages in the “trumpery” that her audience expects. She recognizes her own showmanship and explains that she obtains the information she needs through her natural ability: It gives her the thoughts of her customers. Within herself, she sees those thoughts unfold “Like paper flowers in a water-glass.” She rues that when her talent fails her she is thought a “charlatan.” Of actual fortune-telling, she says, “I have no answers.” Yet her customers leave satisfied; “It makes no difference that my lies are bald/ And my evasions casual.”

The mind-reader concludes with a brief revery, wondering about the existence of a divine level of intelligence: “Is there some huge attention, do you think,/ Which suffers us and is inviolate?” She then notes that she distracts herself from the burdens of her talent by fleshly concerns. Yet she still yearns for the place where “the wrench beds in mud, the sun-hat hangs/ In densest branches, and the book is drowned.” The one who can find lost things wishes, above all, to lose herself.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 324

“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

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1456

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 friends. But there is a poem here about his daughter who is growing up and learning to write herself. “A Wedding Toast” celebrates the marriage of his son:

May you not lack for water,And may that water smack of Cana’s wine.

But there is also a great deal that recalls the old Wilbur, and nowhere is there a decline in his art. There are three of four purely comic poems, though none quite so fine as “Pangloss’ Song.” “For the Student Strikers” is about the Vietnam War’s impact on his college campus, which reminds us that Wilbur has written some powerful war poems; in fact, he began writing seriously when he was a soldier in Europe. “Teresa” and “Peter,” a retelling of Peter’s betrayal of Christ, serve to remind us that Wilbur might be classified as a religious poet. There are other poems that spring from his reading: a poem about Johnny Appleseed, “April 5, 1974,” which relates Lewis Carroll and General Grant at Vicksburg to the Negro Rights movement. A number of these poems are “academic,” but none of them are mere exercises. Only “Sleepless at Crown Point” might have been omitted.

Richard Wilbur is one of our best translators, and his translations of Molière’s The Misanthrope and Tartuffe are well-known. The nine translations offered here, from the classical French and modern Russian, are not included to pad out a slim collection. Wilbur has a way of feeling his way into the poems he translates, always offering new renderings rather than mere translations. One feels that these are poems he might have written himself. Especially memorable are his modern treatments of Villon’s “Ballade of Forgiveness” and Voltaire’s “To Madame du Chatelet.” De la Fontaine’s often-translated “The Grasshopper and the Ant” is the kind of poem well-suited for Wilbur’s brand of wit.

Wilbur’s style in his latest poems is what we have become accustomed to. It is marked by grace, delicacy, wit, and a supple strength. There is always balance and control, never an awkward line or disruptive image. These poems are obviously well-wrought works of art, and the maker is proud of their polish. In fact, they are quintessential “cooked poems,” just the type to enrage the defenders of the new naked poetry.

When all is said, it must be added that the poems in this volume are not all of a piece; they employ a variety of voices. A number are written in an elegant, fastidious style—though there is not much of the dandified diction of Wallace Stevens. The translation of De Bellay’s “Happy the Man” is written in a plain, almost journalistic style. “A Black Birch in Winter” begins with a Frostian monosyllabic line: “You might not know this old tree by its bark,” though he soon turns to the un-Frostlike diction of striate, Lateran, and tesserae. Wilbur obviously has not repudiated his old “literary” style; one still discovers here such “poetic” diction as “lewd espials” and “sanctuaried fanes.”

Perhaps one final point needs to be made. A truculent note creeps into a few of these poems—as though Wilbur had suffered long enough from the barbs of his critics and now would like to strike back. For example, in “What’s Good for the Soul Is Good for Sales,” he lashes out at all confessional poets, who when “fictive music fails your lyre” write about Nixon, hangovers, or “God’s death, the memory of your rockinghorse, /Entropy, housework, Buchenwald, divorce, . . .” One might sympathize with his impatience with the confessional school, but still point out that not all poems about Nixon or Buchenwald or divorce are written for the sake of fame or sales.

The same ungenerous note enters the conclusion of “Cottage Street, 1953.” This poem is based on a true incident, according to the notes, in which Wilbur was invited to tea with Sylvia Plath and his mother-in-law. This was after Plath’s first suicide attempt, and his role was that of the successful poet who might possibly cheer her up. In the end he notes that Sylvia went on to live another decade, outliving their hostess, “To state at last her brilliant negative / In poems free and helpless and unjust.” No doubt it is too early for anyone to label Sylvia Plath’s poems as “unjust” without seeming to be condescending.

The Mind-Reader, then, is not quite the mixture as before, though it includes no radical departures for the poet. Wilbur continues to celebrate the things his eye beholds, though he admits that he sings in a diminished world. If there are no poems here that seem to obsess the poet or haunt the reader (the title poem is the most ambitious, a superb dramatic monologue), there is still much of the very highest order. Richard Wilbur has rediscovered the language of praise in an age that is bleak and thorny, and he employs it in poems of rare imagination and felicity. Perhaps one should not ask for more.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 101

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.

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