Richard Wilbur Wilbur, Richard (Vol. 14)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wilbur, Richard 1921–

Wilbur is an American poet, critic, translator, and editor. The formal wit and elegance of his poetry have elicited comparison with the metaphysical poets. He received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for 1957. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

John Ciardi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wilbur's first book, "The Beautiful Changes" (1947), marked him immediately as something special. A trace of indebtedness to Yeats and a clear line of descent from Marianne Moore were visible as signs that his talent was still emergent, but of the existence of that talent there could be no doubt. The poems, richly worded and strictly formal, nevertheless moved within their strictures with an ease and assurance that marked Wilbur as the possessor of as fine an ear for the smooth-flowing line and the self-rounding stanza rhythm as could be claimed by any man now writing in English. He had, moreover, achieved a metaphoric sense undeniably his own. Consider for example this description of a ballet dancer fresh from the formal perfections of her dance and now slumped into the shapelessness of human fatigue:

     So she will turn and walk through metal halls
     To where some ancient woman will unmesh
     Her small strict shape, and yawns will turn her face
     Into a little wilderness of flesh.

And rich as are the immediate physical sensations of such a description, it is the nature of Wilbur's talent that these physical punctualities are precisely that which is thought with…. The passage is not only a description of a particular tired dancer, but of the boundary between life and artifice, a boundary crossed and recrossed in Wilbur's poems, always with the central driving intention of finding that artifice which will most include the most of life. For Wilbur is a poet at mortal play, an artificer. Even the title of his first book ("changes" must be read both as a noun and as a verb) attest how carefully he plans his double meanings.

This theme of artifice—I am tempted almost to call it the theology and humanism of artifice—rose free of the earlier indebtednesses and emerged deepened and enriched in "Ceremony and Other Poems" (1950). And here, too, it became apparent both immediately and by hindsight that Wilbur was emerging as a master of a subtle, urbane, and self-convincing diction that was peculiarly his own, the mark of his own way of seeing and saying. (p. 18)

[With] "Things of This World," his enormous gifts grown into their mature assurance, Wilbur certainly emerges as our serenest, urbanest, and most melodic poet. To say Wilbur has matured is not to imply that he will not accomplish finer things yet, and I would suggest for instance that in his search for a serene diction he might place less reliance on such adjectives as "clear," "pure," "calm," and "graceful." It is exactly the qualities labeled by these adjectives that best describe the best Wilbur poems, but it is very much to the point, I believe, that in those best poems the clarity, purity, calm and grace emerge thing-wise and self-living, not by adjectival assertion. Minor qualifications aside (and Wilbur's successes would sustain far greater flaws than these) there is a kind of unmistakable inevitability in a typical Wilbur passage. There is nothing flashy about; in fact, Wilbur makes it look so easy that one might almost overlook how good it really is. Consider these lines for example, a passage following a reference to children at play:

        Above their heads the maples with a stiff
         Compliance entertain the air
        In abrupt gusts, losing the look of trees
        In rushed and cloudy metamorphoses,
        Their shadows all a brilliant disrepair.

The self-rounding of the total stanza rhythm is one Wilbur signature. The quality of the metaphor, physically suggestive yet alive with idea, is another. So are the play and paradox of "stiff compliance." And there is a fourth, to me even more impressive...

(The entire section is 4,524 words.)