Richard Wilbur Wilbur, Richard (Vol. 9) - Essay

Wilbur, Richard (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wilbur, Richard 1921–

Wilbur is an American poet, critic, and editor. His poetry is distinguished by its formal, academic style, its structural elegance warmed by wit and vitality. Wilber received the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. (See also CLC, Vols. 3,6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Wilbur's verse, like that of Stevens, is charged with responsiveness to the lustres and tones of a physical world most happily furnished, and shows him alert to less perceptible matters. His scenes are alive with light, be it the light coined by "the minting shade of the trees" that shines on clinking glasses and laughing eyes, or one of a wintrier brightness. He manipulates his stanzas with musicianly effects. His poetry engages the eye, the ear, the mind. More often and more intimately than that of Stevens, it speaks of human things. Wilbur's poems are not similarly weakened by abstract meditations, yet for all their wit and their athleticism, they lack the infectious hilarity, as also the grandeur, of Stevens' major structures. (p. 284)

Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright © 1963 by Babette Deutsch; 1963 by Doubleday; reprinted by permission of Babette Deutsch), revised edition, Doubleday, 1963.

[Wilbur] has exquisite control of verbal patterns, the sounds of words, the rhythms of speech; he has intelligence, learning, and moral wisdom. But to these he must still add something like the ambition and self-assurance of his inferiors.

The truth is that Mr. Wilbur has never allowed his gifts the freedom they deserve. He has shortened the leash whenever the creatures ran too near the onlooker…. [His] brilliant descriptive powers are never stretched so far as to indulge the poet at the risk of tiring the reader. Perhaps they might be. Mr. Wilbur's humour (two attempts at satire fail) irradiates his wit and word play. In 'Seed Leaves', a poem that Herrick could not improve, it gives the most benign humanity to the birth of a plant. But sometimes wit should run wild. These hints are not meant to say that the poet should transform himself into another person. Rather they mean he should be more himself. He should let his audience find him whoever he decides to be. (p. 580)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 21, 1971.

Richard Wilbur's celebrated panache has carried him to most of our poetry prizes but not, I think, all the way to Parnassus. He is a bell too conscious of its clapper, clapper-happy. Pert but proper, always safe rather than sorry, his poetry is completely without risks, a prize pupil's performance. His ideas are always cut exactly to the size of his poems; he is never puzzled. And the ideas are all sentiments, aware of their potential high-minded emotional value and determined to snuggle into it.

In [The Mind-Reader] Wilbur deplores poets who reject "fictive music" to "confess"—he is one of those who patronize Sylvia Plath, a sure sign of moral complacency…. But, less helpless than most poets if less free, she wrote with a shattering originality beside which Wilbur's lines appear fusty, and safe as gingersnaps. Wilbur attacks her Achilles' heel while hardly noticing the winged foot. (p. 21)

The long title poem of the new volume is the fictive confession of a mind-reader who has "the burden" of being ceaselessly usurped by "the world."… How he would like to become fuddled enough to escape his "gift"! You know right off that it is all about being a poet—you know and do not care, for Wilbur himself cheats quite a lot. His conception is self-congratulatory and too simple and he himself has been usurped not by the world but by English poetry, whose familiar rhythms and diction—"crenellate shade," "plaints"—he relies on instead of invention. (p. 22)

Calvin Bedient, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 5, 1976.

Richard Wilbur knows his own temptations; to write "poems that are too small for him or too safe for him." "Everybody," he has said, "creates a doily now and then." Well, not everybody, because doilies aren't that easy. There are doilies in [The Mind-Reader: New Poems], and pretty things they are. But not every poem is slight which seems so. "The Eye," the title poem of the book's major section, is a test of the reader's perception as well as a testimony to the poet's.

        One morning in St. Thomas, when I tried
        Our host's binoculars, what was magnified?

He courts dismissal as a writer of elegant trivia, while recording his detachment in 24 lines of weightless iambics, in which he throws away passing images each of which could be the substance of somebody else's poem. The undifferentiated green of tropical foliage is "brisked," by the binoculars, "into fronds and paddles," the page of a newspaper spied on a terrace is "sun-blank"—trivial, cheerfully exact perceptions which take on an adventitious import "within the sudden premise of a frame." Light verse about that popular subject, perception? Well, yes—but the poem has more to it: a second part, in which neat rhymes are abandoned, the skipping iambics slowed to the rhythms of prayer. Lucy, patron of vision, is addressed, whose name means light, to whom "benighted Dante … was beholden." No less precise than before, the adjectives are now surcharged, for Dante's darkness was not of the eye but of the spirit; and hell is the absence of the Spirit's light, in a poem which turns out to be about how visual and intellectual perception are separate from spiritual perception and moral responsibility, unless we pray for grace to join them.

The beholder is responsible for his vision….

Wilbur is a poet of due regard, of the love which enjoins difficult balance between spontaneity and form, passion and precision, our needs and other people's, this world and another.

"Not a graceful mind," Theodore Roethke said of Wilbur, "that's a mistake—but a mind of grace, an altogether different, and higher thing." In an ungrateful time, grace is hard to forgive. Yet we should be glad for poems which testify yet again that it is both possible and admirable….

Clara C. Park, "The Fastidious Eye," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), July 25, 1976, p. G2.

The Mind-Reader: New Poems … calls attention once again to [Wilbur's] way of seeing into the blazing life of commonplace things by presenting them with extraordinary precision of language and in exact detail…. From [his] first book to the present one, the poems are remarkable for a wild energy which beats against the set forms he uses. They abound in sudden, propulsive outcries that cut across rhythmic expectations of the blank verse pattern:

      Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry …

Or the basic iambic trimeter:

                Shatter me, great wind:
                I shall possess the field….

Often, as in those lines, the passionate rhythm enforces his celebration of ordinary things. "Obscurely yet most surely called to praise," he writes at the outset of "Praise in Summer" (1947), a witty, emphatic invocation to earth's beauty. In Wilbur's poetry, the awareness of physical particularities intimates knowledge of a hidden world of absolute clarity; it recalls Baudelaire's work in its accumulation of facts that betray transcendent reality. And Wilbur's use of received forms serves the intensity of his utterances by providing conventional structures against which that force is perceived.

In his best work that railing power is used to emphasize the baffling contradictions of the world we know….

Curiously, his poetry has been linked with the word "quietism," a strange word for an even stranger notion that a writer can make a doctrine of tranquillity, especially one with an enormous vocabulary and a fine command of strong verbs. In any case, calmness is not, as it has been thought, an effect of his poetry. To be sure, his elegant, quiet statements are invariably the most urgent, but that method enables him to risk grave utterances without resorting to public rhetoric….

Although the poet has cherished lucidity from his early work ("There is a poignancy in all things clear" he declares in "Clearness," 1950), he depicts lucid moments in ways that evoke eclipse. So, too, his concern with order evokes savagery, for those opposite impulses are joined in his poetry…. His poems are charms to preserve order against encroaching blackness: many of them recall certain primitive incantations in their fierce energy and in their phrases similar in meaning and structure.

Wilbur's colloquial force derives from his use of long, flowing sentences enabling the poet to approximate many of the phrases of natural speech. It comes too as a result of his use of falling rhythm and clusters of hovering accents…. (p. 344)

[Excited] rhythms distinguish what I feel is his best book, Things of This World (1956).

The striking poems of his earlier books have themes that prefigure the prevalent concerns of the 1956 volume. "The Beautiful Changes," title poem from the 1947 collection, is a meditation on how love heightens the senses and clarifies perceptions, awakening the lover to earth's beauty….

The poet's dominant concern is the creative process, the fortunate, mysterious force that lives in the mind and in the language, waiting to be released…. In the 1956 volume, "Mind" embodies the poet's belief in the transcendent freedom of human inquiry….

In that wonderful poem, the image of the graceful, imprisoned mind recalls Marianne Moore's figure in "What Are Years" of the one who achieves transcendence through containment, rising upon himself "like the sea in a chasm." In Wilbur's poem, though, it is the radiant performance of wit and style that is his central focus….

From his earliest poetry, Richard Wilbur has conveyed with urgency and power the wonder of ordinary things and of the mind that perceives them. He is a poet who treasures words, and he presents precisely detailed, accurate pictures of the beauty he reveals. And in "The Writer" (1976), he offers one of the best metaphors I know for his own poetry and for the creative process. Watching his daughter write a story, the speaker is reminded of a dazed starling unable to fly out of the window of a room it is trapped in. Injured from battering itself against the pane, it finally finds its way and flies to freedom. Then:

          It is always a matter, my darling
          Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
          What I wished you before, but harder.

It is exactly in that graceful, daring way, restrained by form and yet transcending it, risking all, that the poetry of Richard Wilbur is a matter of life or death. (p. 346)

Grace Schulman, "'To Shake Our Gravity Up': The Poetry of Richard Wilbur," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), October 9, 1976, pp. 344, 346.

The technical virtuosity [in The Mind Reader: New Poems] is dazzling, as readers expect from Wilbur. His diction is faultless; his polish and craftsmanship enable him to use traditional forms without their seeming stale or dated. It is a delight to read Wilbur's work, and to discover that pleasure is still a legitimate aim of poetry.

In an early poem ("Praise in Summer," 1974), Wilbur spoke of the "praiseful eye," and the phrase is still useful to describe his method. His is a poetry of ceremony, of truth shaped by texture. His graceful mastery of words is awesome, and several of the poems in this collection can be read as metaphors for his artistic process; as in the closing lines of "Teresa," Wilbur manages to "lock the O of ecstasy within/The tempered consonants of discipline."

But Wilbur's discipline, while graceful, is never easy. He acknowledges the anguish of the poet's "burden" of an almost intolerable awareness, of seeing beyond surfaces, but transmutes that anguish in his art. In the title poem, perhaps the most impressive of this collection, he writes of the poet as magus: "I tell you this/Because you know that I have the gift, the burden./Whether or not I put my mind to it,/The world usurps me ceaselessly."

Wilbur is unexcelled at distilling event to essence, whether celebrating the beginnings of spring thaw in a meadow ("April 5, 1974") or the moment of awakening ("In Limbo"). These poems remind us, in case we have forgotten, that poetry is a powerful weapon in the struggle of order against chaos; also that language will bow to its master, and that the making of poetry is, or always should be, an act which transforms. (p. 15)

Rebecca B. Faery, in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1977 by Hollins College), April, 1977.

Let me try to list some of the virtues that distinguish the poetry of Richard Wilbur. First of all, a superb ear (unequalled, I think, in the work of any poet now writing in English) for stately measure, cadences of a slow, processional grandeur, and rich, ceremonial orchestration. A philosophic bent and a religious temper, which are by no means the same thing, but which here consort comfortably together. Wit, polish, a formal elegance that is never haughty or condescending, though certain freewheeling poets take it for a chilling frigidity. And an unfeigned gusto, a naturally happy and grateful response to the physical beauty of life, of women, of works of art, landscapes, weather, and the perceiving, constructing mind that tries to know them. But in a way I think most characteristic of all, his is the most kinetic poetry I know: verbs are among his conspicuously important tools, and his poetry is everywhere a vision of action, of motion and performance.

That this is no mere casual habit but instead deliberate policy can be shown, I think, by the fact that pivotal and energetic verbs so often are placed in a rhyming position, and by that slight but potent musical device call some attention to themselves….

Wilbur has been from the first a poet with a gymnastic sense of bodily agility and control, a delight in the fluencies we all admire in a trained athlete, in the vitality and importance of stamina and focused energy….

This delight in nimbleness, this lively sense of coordinated and practised skill is, first of all, a clear extension of the dexterity the verse itself performs. If it were no more than this it might be suspected for an exercise in that self-approval which, like one of the poet's fountains, patters "its own applause". But it is more. For again and again in Wilbur's poems this admirable grace or strength of body is a sign of or symbol for the inward motions of the mind or condition of the soul. Most obviously in "Mind" the very executive operations of the mind correspond to the speed, the passage, the radar intelligence of a bat. But think also of how the two contrasted fountains (in the Baroque Fountain poem) represent two alternative postures of the spirit, one of relaxed and worldly grace, and the other of strenuous, earth-denying effort…. This poet's recurrent subject is not only the motion of change and transition but how that motion … is the very motion of the mind itself….

It is, I think, remarkable that this double fluency, of style and of subject, should be so singularly Wilbur's own, and that his poetry should exhibit so often the most important and best aspects of cinematic film: the observation of things in motion from a viewpoint that can, if it cares to, move with an equal and astonishing grace. But what these poems can do so magnificently that is probably beyond the range of motion pictures is, specifically, a transition, or, rather, a translation, of outward physical action (the heave of a weight, the bounce of a ball, the sprint of a runner) into a condition of the imagination; a dissolving of one realm of reality into another….

That mind of grace is brilliantly at work in The Mind-Reader … and nowhere more than in the title poem, a dramatic monologue of immense poignancy and mastery, which opens with these lines:

  Some things are truly lost. Think of a sun-hat
  Laid for a moment on a parapet
  While three young women—one, perhaps, in mourning—
  Talk in the crenellate shade. A slight wind plucks
  And budges it; it scuffs to the edge and cartwheels
  Into a giant view of some description:
  Haggard escarpments, if you like, 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. The sun-hat falls,
  With what free flirts and scoops you can imagine,
  Down through that reeling vista or another,
  Unseen by any, even by you or me.
  It is as when a pipe-wrench, catapulted
  From the jounced back of a pick-up truck, dives headlong
  Into a bushy culvert; or a book
  Whose reader is asleep, garbling the story,
  Glides from beneath a steamer chair and yields
  Its flurried pages to the printless sea.

This deserves to be savoured carefully and at length. There is the superb visualization of motion, of diminution into irretrievable distances; but for all the specificity of imagery, the event is all conjectural, hypothetical, the work and motion of the mind itself. The sun-hat is merely proposed as a subject for thought, everything it moves through is contingent ("a giant view of some description: / Haggard escarpments, if you like,…") as is its own motion ("With what free flirts and scoops you can imagine …"). And so, initially, this floating, limpid descent becomes a metaphor for the imagination, the graceful motions of the mind. In this sense, it is part of that important vein of modern poetry, of which Wallace Stevens is one of the grand practitioners, a poetry about poetry….

Splendid as this poem is, it represents only one aspect of a remarkable versatility. A reviewer can scarcely hope to do justice to all the skills and graces here exhibited, so I must resort, weakly, to a sort of list. Few other poets could render so faithfully both the slum-bred, vulgar vitality of a Villon ballade and the fastidious, well-bred wit of La Fontaine and Voltaire. And there are the poet's utterly comfortable, colloquial translations from the modern Russian of Brodsky, Vozneshensky and Nikolai Morshen. There is a little group of truly funny poems…. And there is, finally (though first in the volume) a group of twenty-two new lyric poems, some of them as brilliant as anything Wilbur has done. "The Fourth of July", for example, bids fair to be the best thing to come out of the American Bicentennial. But in this poetic era of arrogant solipsism and limp narcissism—when great, shaggy herds of poets write only about themselves, or about the casual workings of their rather tedious minds—it is essential to our sanity, salutary to our humility, and a minimal obeisance to the truth to acknowledge, with Wilbur, in poem after poem,… the vast alterity, the "otherness" of the world, that huge corrective to our self-sufficiency. (p. 602)

Anthony Hecht, in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 20, 1977.