Richard Wilbur is the author of a poem reprinted on the back of a package of breakfast cereal. “A Wood” decorates the recycled paperboard container of an organic granola which calls itself “Absolutely Nuts.”
When I was a freshman at Harvard, I read in the New Yorker one of Louise Bogan’s adroit and decorous poetry reviews. She praised a first book of poems by Richard Wilbur. The name was new to me and I was stunned by the quoted poetry’s wit, intelligence, and precision. “Tywater” spoke of a soldier killed in the war — Wilbur was an infantryman, 1942–5, at Anzio, in France and Germany — whose
body turnedTo clumsy dirt before it fell.And what to say of him, God knows.Such violence. And such repose.
I crossed Mass Ave. to Gordon Cairnie’s Grolier Poetry Bookshop, where I bought The Beautiful Changes. A year later I met Wilbur while he was a junior fellow in Harvard’s Society of Fellows — which gave him three years of unfettered time. I was twenty, sodden with admiration, and showed him what I was trying to write. In turn he let me see the poems that would become his second book, Ceremony.
Now he is ninety-two, still writing beautiful poems, co-teaching one term a year at Amherst, and looking approximately forty-seven-years-old. His appearance and demeanor have always resembled his work — handsome, formal, warm, wry, and as dandified as the curls of his studied italic hand. His wife (Charlotte Ward, known as Charlee) told me about first meeting his family. When the couple parked outside the New Jersey house of Wilbur’s childhood, Charlee watched a young fellow skip down the stairs, dressed in tennis whites and carrying a racquet. It was Wilbur’s father — and Charlee told me, “I knew what I was in for.” She aged like a human being, and died in 2007.
Robert Lowell had published Lord Weary’s Castle, his magnificent, aggressive, iambic thunderstorm, a year before Wilbur’s first book. “Wilbur and Lowell” became the young poets at the center of the universe, in line for Pulitzers, Guggenheims — all the prizes cited in introductions at poetry readings. But reputations soar and crash, flash and fizzle — then come to life again. In 1959 W.D. Snodgrass walked naked in Heart’s Needle, acknowledging desperate personal feeling. Sylvia Plath wrote powerful poems, devastating and enraged, about things usually private, then killed herself. Lowell’s work altered entirely, from majestic pentameters to the swift free verse of For the Union Dead, and “Skunk Hour” with “my mind’s not right.” In the forties, when we first met, I remember Wilbur saying that he was not about to spill out his guts for anybody. In the heyday of confessionalism, Wilbur’s reticence was grounds for dismissal.
There is nothing wrong, I hope, in writing out of your own life. If there is, we are not permitted to admire Wordsworth. But the seventeenth century, the greatest moment of English poetry, rarely provided a display of one’s guts. Milton wrote a sonnet on his blindness, but Andrew Marvell was not conducting a courtship in “To His Coy Mistress.” If we must mention something so vulgar as a subject, I suppose Marvell wrote about death. The poem also defines itself as tetrameter couplets, always octosyllabic, that bow to each other like courtiers, line by line, and within each line by caesuras — until it ends with a monstrous enjambment swooping to the poem’s conclusion.
But I write about acquaintance, not about prosody. I omit speaking of Wilbur’s many translations, major work, especially his immaculate, hilarious, and popular renderings of Molière. I attended the first production of The Misanthrope, and have continued to see Richard Wilbur. We have read together, served on committees, corresponded, and Charlee and Dick came calling at my house. For me, the early memories remain most notable.
Sixty years ago, he was generous to talk to an incipient poet ripe with ambition and incompetence. I brought him the draft of a blank verse poem which I considered finished. Wilbur praised it but gently noted that it didn’t end. (I went back to it.) Meanwhile he showed me the poems of Ceremony as he wrote them, and the way he worked astonished me. He showed me some stanzas under the title “A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness” (a sentence from Traherne), lines that mocked and entertained asceticism. It began, “The tall camels of the spirit / Steer for their deserts.” When he first showed it to me, it occupied half a page, twelve lines and a fragment, inked by a Bic, in handsome, complex rhymed stanzas with lines of differing length. It stopped mid-line mid-stanza, at a semicolon; Wilbur was stuck. For a month or two, whenever I dropped by, I asked about the progress of his tall camels. They remained stalled. One day he handed me the completed poem, twenty- eight lines on the same piece of paper, continued in pencil after the blue semicolon, without a word crossed out. This beautiful, deft poem — clear and complex in thought, rhymed and metered with art — took one draft, over a month or so. I expressed my amazement. He told me he did a lot of walking up and down.