Anyone who has seen Richard Wilbur in person or even in a book jacket photo knows that he must keep a portrait of himself in the attic which is aging horribly. Nothing else can explain the poet’s preternatural youthfulness. Collected Poems brings together in one volume work written over the course of sixty years—the earliest from 1943, when Wilbur saw combat in World War II. Rudimentary math suggests that the poet is now over eighty. In fact, he was born in 1921. And yet he looks fifty or sixty. How can this be?
Like his face, his poems show no deterioration over time. Early and late, they are powered by elegant rhyme and beautiful metric patterning. Here are iambic pentameters and tetrameters, trimeters and dimeters, villanelles and sonnets, quatrains ringing all possible changes on a and b—the whole arsenal of traditional poetic pleasure. The poems are, almost invariably, occasional or lyrics. Often they are based on a metaphysical conceit. They are witty, imaginative, and ultimately reassuring, because of the consistency of rhyme and meter and the impulse to closure. The later poems are as elegant and intricate, as devoted to musical pleasures, as fully achieved, as the earliest.
Two of the best love poems written in my lifetime are by Richard Wilbur, “A Late Aubade” and “For C.” An aubade is a lover’s farewell song, usually sung at dawn (aube in French). This one is “sung” by the poet to a woman with whom he has naughtily spent the morning and who finally insists she must go on with her day. The poem consists of seven quatrains, the first three of which cite things she might have been doing if she were not in bed with the poet. She might be
planting a raucous bed
Of salvia, in rubber gloves,
Or lunching through a screed of someone’s loves
With pitying head,
Or making some unhappy setter
Heel, or listening to a bleak
Lecture on Schoenberg’s serial technique.
Isn’t this better?
Much better to spend the morning on sex with your husband than on no-matter-what course of self-improvement. For surely this gardening, lunching, dog-training, Schoenberg-liking woman must be Wilbur’s wife. The whole tone of the poem is domestic, even connubial.
“For C.” ran initially in a Valentine’s Day issue of the New Yorker. I remember, because I was jealous and thought, “Why don’t I get valentines like that?” The poem is for Charlee, Mrs. Wilbur, the same dog-training, hard-gardening object of the poet’s affections as in the aubade of thirty years before. It contains five stanzas of six lines each, with the kind of intricate rhyming that Wilbur seems to toss off effortlessly and that his fans delight in. The first three stanzas describe dramatic farewells between movie lovers, whose passions have been intense and tempestuous, but brief. They leave each other “with stricken eye” or “weighed down by grief.” In the second half of the poem the poet addresses his wife:
We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse
And bittersweet regrets, and cannot share
The frequent vistas of their large despair,
Where love and all are swept to nothingness;
Still, there’s a certain scope in that long love
Which constant spirits are the keepers of,
And which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the heart,
A passion joined to courtesy and art
Which has the quality of something made.
How Richard Wilbur and how refreshing, this celebration of long-lasting love, the “wild sostenuto of the heart,” emotion shaped and sustained by “courtesy and art.” Wilbur is the poet of the long run. Perhaps that’s why he’s such a long-running poet.
The poem often cited as typical of Wilbur was written fifty years ago. “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” from Things of This World (1956) opens with a vision of laundry hung to dry on clotheslines outside an apartment window—laundry seen instinct with spirit, bodied out in the breeze, laundry imagined as angels. Americans don’t even dry laundry like that anymore. A contemporary version of this poem would have to be set in a laundromat, a meditation upon a clothes dryer. Wilbur’s conceit, his yoking of radically different entities, laundry and angels, rescues the reality of clothes drying on a line and makes it permanent in the way that John Donne’s image of two lovers’ souls as “stiff twin compasses” preserves the visual and practical reality of the compass. That is not, of course, the primary purpose of the conceit, to preserve the world that has provided the imagery, but it is a side benefit, and my pleasure in “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” is all the greater because the imagery is of my time while the poetry is formally traditional. I enjoy the imaginative transformation of the laundry into something greater than itself in the same way that, were I a sixteenth-century Venetian, I would have enjoyed a painting of the Madonna for which my niece had sat as a model, the sacred thrillingly tied to the known and everyday. But the poem in its conclusion insists that the laundry remain after all laundry, untransformed. Though we are tempted to dwell in an abstract realm of imagination and appreciation—
“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
—we must descend into reality, where clothes are worn, clean laundry goes onto the backs of lovers and thieves, and the clothes need washing again tomorrow.
For many of us who were educated under the old curriculum of Great Books and Masterpieces of English Literature, who spent a semester on the Metaphysical Poets, another on the Romantics, a semester on Milton, and another on Spenser, Richard Wilbur is the greatest living English-language poet. Wilbur is our Donne, our Milton. As postmodern buildings pay homage to architectural styles of the past, Wilbur’s poetry pays homage to the great poets of the past, and we, his readers, take a kind of generational pride in seeing how he recalls and measures up to them. He was schooled in their verse and uses poetry to the same ends they did, conceiving his function as a public one and offering language that delights and instructs—though it doesn’t instruct by preaching but by clarification. Wilbur never harangues or bullies. He always seems graciously to assume we will understand him. He doesn’t try to impress or ask us to admire him. Other poets force us to observe their ambition, to note how style changes or themes evolve, to attend to their careers. Wilbur offers poem after poem, discrete pleasures. The shape of his career is of little interest. In a sense he has had no “career,” has merely produced a body of work of singular, self-effacing consistency and absence of unseemly over-reaching. The unchanging devotion to form, clarity, and brevity relieve us of much. We like—or do not like—the poems. If we like them, we rejoice whenever another is given us. They are gifts.
Wilbur started writing poetry in college and then as a soldier under fire in World War II. He wrote poems in wartime to calm his nerves. He was a cryptographer with a front-line unit at Monte Cassino, one of the most horrendous pitched battles of the Americans’ war in Europe and, according to military historians, the one most resembling the trench warfare of World War I. All through the winter of 1943-1944 the Allies tried to take the well-defended position above them. The Benedictine monastery of St. Gregory sat on the top of the hill, and in February Allied bombs flattened all but the walls in a few hours. The Germans then used the fifteen-foot-thick walls to hide behind. The battle wasn’t over until May. Wilbur, who was living in foxholes under continual bombardment, has alluded in interviews to the fear, horror, and incredulity of battle. “When you are living in a hole on a hillside subject to harassing artillery fire, you can never quite escape anxiety.” But you do the best you can, he said, by sleeping, chatting, reading, daydreaming, or writing. Wilbur read Poe at Monte Cassino and wrote poetry. It’s not hard to see how, for such a man in such a situation, rhyme and meter might impose a useful discipline on nightmarish chaos, reducing anxiety. Where an ordinary person might get nervous trying to come up with a rhyme or sustaining a meter, Wilbur finds the effort calming, reassuring. Perhaps it is too easy to suggest that a man who has known death intimately while young does not fool around with violence later. Not all writers who fought in World War II went on to praise peace and everyday pleasures in traditional forms. But there seems to me a connection in Wilbur’s case, and behind the civil elegancies of his verse I always sense something unruly and threatening he is trying to contain.
From his 1947 poem, “Potato,” in praise of the tuber which is “beautiful only to hunger” up to recent poems like “Bone Key,” in which he praises the mangrove, capable of finding nourishment in salt water, and the screw pine, which attaches itself to bits of rock, Wilbur admires survivors and that which furthers survival. In “Still, Citizen Sparrow,” he recommends to the innocuous sparrow the virtues of the vulture, which recycles life and thus helps it continue, comparing the carrion bird to Noah, who “carried on” the human race. In one of his rare autobiographical poems, “Cottage Street, 1953,” Wilbur reconstructs a meeting over tea with Sylvia Plath and her mother. He has been summoned to exemplify to the suicidal Sylvia “the published poet in his happiness”:
How large is her refusal; and how slight
The genteel chat whereby we recommend
Life, of a summer afternoon, despite
The brewing dusk which hints that it may end.
Wilbur knows exactly how refined and wimpy he will seem to the eye of history compared to the tempestuous, raging young suicide. The last stanza contrasts his feat in “outliving Sylvia” to her own achievement in stating “her brilliant negative/In poems free and helpless and unjust.” Neither accomplishment is underrated.
Wilbur is a bard of everyday pleasures. Many of his poems have domestic settings, although none are any more confessional or self-revealing than, let us say, Yeats’s “Prayer for My Daughter.” In “C Minor,” he thanks his wife for turning off the radio when, during breakfast, it starts to broadcast Beethoven. “Beethoven during breakfast?” To begin with Beethoven a day likely to be spent doing nothing more violent than chopping wood or perhaps breaking a plate is absurdly inappropriate. Wilbur doesn’t reveal his preferred breakfast music. I would guess Mozart or Bach. But without question sturm und drung so early in the day is as unseemly as getting sloshed before sundown would be.
Another wonderful domestic poem, “The Writer,” is based—as so many Wilbur poems are—on a yoking of two not obviously related images: first, the image of his daughter in her room sitting at a typewriter trying to write a short story, and that of a bird, accidentally trapped in the same room two years before, battering itself as it tries to find its way out. At the conclusion of the first section, about his daughter, in which the poet imagines her as the captain of a ship, its cargo her life, he wishes her “lucky passage.” The clattering of the typewriter stops, “As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.” Then the image of the bird tearing itself apart trying to get free comes to mind and deepens the poet’s understanding of his daughter’s attempts to write herself into being:
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.
The simple, unpretentious language and the prosaic rhythms are, I think, far from flat. I love the use of the word “harder” in combination with “wish.” The phrase is so deeply rooted in American vernacular speech. “Wish hard,” you say to a child, “and blow out the candle.” “I wish what I wished you before, but harder.” This is the music of daily life.
As I was reading over Wilbur’s collected work, I found myself returning again and again—guiltily—to the pieces printed in an appendix at the end, the “poems for children.” Their limerick-like lines are insidious. When I closed the volume, instead of hearing in my head “Still, citizen sparrow, this vulture which you call/Unnatural,” I would hear, “What is the opposite of riot? It’s lots of people being quiet.” These loveable ditties, accompanied by Wilbur’s own drawings, seem to me less and less appendictory the more I think about them. They are exercises in contrast, comparison, definition, and appreciation, like most of Wilbur’s best poems:
What is the opposite of road?
I’d say the answer is abode.
“What’s an abode?” you ask. I’d say
It’s ground that doesn’t lead away—
Some patch of earth where you abide
Because it makes you satisfied.
Abodes don’t take you anywhere,
Because you are already there.
They draw substance from Wilbur’s savoring of negative space, his recognition that certain absences are positives and worth celebrating:
When ships send out an S.O.S..
It means that they are in distress.
Is there an opposite sort of call
Which means “There’s nothing wrong at all”?
Of course not. Ships would think it sappy
To send us word that they are happy.
If you hear nothing from a liner,
It means that things could not be finer.
In their spirit of game and play, too, these unpretentious pieces are typical of Wilbur’s larger body of work. The poet who sees the “pig” in “spigot” and the mother’s “sob” in the child’s “disobey,” who prays that the letter “K” will not disappear from the alphabet, lest his KAYAK be “scuttled fore and aft,” or who realizes that without the letter “N” birds would have WIGS instead of WINGS, is someone for whom the poet’s business is centrally word-play. It makes one want to play, too, so here goes: “What is the opposite of poet?” “A tactless boor who doesn’t know it,” I’d say, in tribute to Wilbur, who epitomizes the poet as courteous and mannerly, graceful, good-natured and funny, responsible, and sane.
If you go to the website of the Academy of American Poets (www.poets.org), you can hear Richard Wilbur reading “The Prisoner of Zenda.” This is well worth doing. He is a great reader, of tremendous warmth of voice as well as dignity. In this sound clip, you hear the connection between poet and audience—how much they enjoy the poem, how neatly and satisfyingly its couplets fall on the ears:
At the end a
“The Prisoner of Zenda,”
The King being out of danger,
(As Rudolph Rassendyll)
Must swallow a bitter pill
By renouncing his co-star,
This poem teeters on the edge of being a jingle, and I was initially indignant that the Academy of American Poets hadn’t put something heavier-hitting on its website to represent Wilbur. Then I thought that if you don’t enjoy “The Prisoner of Zenda,” you probably won’t like any of Richard Wilbur’s poetry, and if you do, you’ll look for more. So maybe it’s a good choice. And I got increasingly fascinated by the interaction on the sound clip between poet and audience. The audience laughs to show it appreciates the poet’s wit, which the poet offers as though to people who are surely civilized enough to appreciate it. You can almost hear the roomful of people becoming more and more civilized as each rhyme snaps into place. There is a fascinating reciprocity at work, and it occurred to me that the reading is a ritual in which the worth and rewards of orderliness itself are celebrated.
It’s hard to over-emphasize the importance of verbal play in Wilbur’s poetry. I, for one, can spend a long time savoring just one pentameter couplet, like the mention in “The Eye” of “Charlotte Amalie, with its duty-free/Leicas, binoculars, and jewelry.” The internal rhymes and consonant patterning delight me quite apart from the structure of the poem they are embedded in, a structure which leads us—for this is a heavier-hitting poem—from observations about observation, “An astounded/Sense of the import of a thing surrounded,” to a prayer for an irradiation of vision by Christian love. The Christian love part leaves me cold. It’s the Leicas and binoculars I love.
So imbued are many of us with the romantic myth linking poetry and youth, poetry and explosive energy, that there’s something incongruous in the idea of a long-lived poet. Keats died young, right? And Wordsworth should have, along with Coleridge, at least as far as their poetry was concerned. Relatively youthful suicides in twentieth-century American poetry are depressingly abundant. Besides Plath, one immediately thinks of Sexton and Berryman. “We poets in our youth begin in gladness;/But thereof come in the end despondency and madness,” Wordsworth wrote, and literary people have never stopped quoting him in a tone of regret not unmixed with self-congratulation. What place, then, do we have in our literary mythology for an eighty-four-year-old poet who still writes love poems to his wife, who does not complain about how he, personally, has been betrayed by the decline of the body or by the fact of death itself? Nothing could be further from Wilbur’s mannerly stance than such whining and raging. His sensibility is religious. He celebrates, and, aristocratically, never complains. All of this is deeply unfashionable in our breast-beating, whiney, midriff-baring, youth-oriented culture.
But Wilbur, however famous, however loved and respected he has been throughout his career, has rarely if ever been fashionable. He was unfashionable when vadic hipster utterance was in vogue. He was unfashionable when confessional poetry was all the rage. He was unfashionable when difficult, highly intellectual, deconstructive poetry was respected. His devotion to a tightly constructed formalist poetry has seemed retro for decades. He has been famous for my entire adult life without ever being (in that cursed vulgarism) “hot.” But in the annals of the last laugh, Richard Wilbur must be at the top of the list. For he is still alive, in every sense of the word. The very fact that he has not changed will no doubt soon make him a hero to an age of spin and calculation. Masses of students turned out by MFA programs, more devoted to their own careers than to their work, must look in wonder at a literary personage who doesn’t really care how high his stock stands. Perhaps this smart and self-contained man knew all along that if he lasted long enough, his time would come. What seemed recalcitrance would come to seem integrity. WASP coolness would turn into vision, moderation, and character. Not that Wilbur chose calculatingly to be contrarian; rather he had the self-possession to endure it. Imagine the strength of character it takes to stand against the currents of one’s time. This writer of short poems is a person of sustained emotion.
Wilbur has made no secret of his devotion to physical activity. He is a dedicated tennis player. In one of the legendary Paris Review interviews, published almost thirty years ago, Wilbur reported a conversation he’d had with Stanley Kunitz (another long-lived poet, just turned 100) which was prompted by John Berryman’s suicide. They were talking about how hard it is to live as a poet in our culture, which is never satisfied with what has been done but is always asking what next?—always demanding expansion and growth from the poet as though he were a small-cap enterprise. Publish one book of poetry in this country, Kunitz said, and “you are in the prison of poetry.” Wilbur had his own thoughts about Berryman’s suicide. He said Berryman lived only for poetry, and Wilbur, while he admired that, thought it wasn’t a good thing. “I think it can break up your health and destroy your joy in life and art.” You almost have to go back to the Victorians, to Matthew Arnold, to hear a poet talking about “health.” Wilbur’s public concern for “joy” in life and art is almost as astonishing. To live a life of freedom in this country, self-determined, outside the “prison of poetry,” or any other prison created by public expectation and demand, requires silence and cunning. And maybe tennis.
I have had the luck to share a community with Richard Wilbur at two points in my life. I don’t know him well, but I have been able to witness for myself some of what I believe to be true about the man. For twenty years he was a professor of English at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where my own teaching career has taken place. We overlapped for the first seven years of my career, in the early seventies. He was at the pinnacle of accomplishment, esteem, and fame. A more worthy carrier of the torch of literary merit, more dignified, more genuinely humble (not condescendingly humble as some famous people are), could not be imagined. Punctilious about fulfilling his university responsibilities, he always attended our interminable and boring department meetings, I noted with respect. Once I sat next to him and could see that he was holding under the table a volume of Ben Jonson’s poetry at which he would now and then discreetly glance. This made me respect him even more.
More recently, I have been spending the winter in Key West, where many fortunate artists live for some if not all of the year. Here, too, Richard Wilbur preceded me, living in a compound which originally included John Ciardi and Ralph Ellison as well as John and Barbara Hersey. Here the sociable Wilburs would entertain, and I recall one eye-opening conversation about traveling with dogs between New England and Florida, in which the former cryptographer and master of language revealed to me that “I’d like a ground-floor room” is code for “I have a dog.” In Key West Wilbur was friends with Leonard Bernstein, with whom he collaborated on Candide, writing the brilliant lyrics, some of which are also (appropriately) reprinted in Collected Poems. Here the poet who saw the “pig” in “spigot” participated in a long-running game of anagrams with, among others, the poet John Malcolm Brinnin. And here the poet and his muse and yours truly all do leg-lifts and lat-pulldowns at the same gym. “We poets at the gym begin in fatness,/Whereof come in the end resiliency and flatness.”
Perhaps Wilbur has a Jekyll/Hyde side unknown to any but intimates, but from my oblique view he seems to be as clever, courteous, responsible, courtly, witty, generous, and authentic in life as he is in his art. I’ve never glimpsed up close a writer in whom there was less of a gap between public and private. I imagine he is as much the poet when he plays tennis as he is a tennis player when he writes poetry. He seems to move easily inside his life and identity, and being a poet needn’t be turned on and off. Once in Key West we both attended a performance by a young actress of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. Not only did she read Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, but she also acted Elizabeth Bishop reading. I happened to walk down the street next to Wilbur afterwards, and I asked him, as someone who had known Bishop, whether the young actress had gotten her right. “She was better at being Elizabeth Bishop than Elizabeth was,” he said, revealing, incidentally, much about Bishop. Wilbur, by contrast, has never seemed to play Richard Wilbur. He is the splendid person whose name he bears.
Sensible, elegant Richard Wilbur, with his commitment to sanity and concreteness, his savoring of what endures. How I love him. How I value his Miltonic sense of the poet’s role as a public one, a service to the community, and how also I value what he has denied himself. What a relief to pick up Collected Poems and find nothing long, no Changing Light at Sandover, no bid to write a work that might sit on the shelf next to The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost, no effort to boost his oeuvre into a higher sphere. In his acceptance of the marginality of poetry, Wilbur may come to seem the wisest and also the most timely poet of our days.
Phyllis Rose is the author of Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (Vintage, 1984) and The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time (Counterpoint Press, 2000), among other works.