Legend has it that at a party in San Francisco back when the Beat Generation was first howling, some barefoot youngsters in distressed jeans were standing around sipping weed, talking with gentlemanly, buttoned-down-collar poet Richard Wilbur. Full of romantic dreams about riding the rods, one lad was demonstrating the right way to grasp a boxcar handle and swing yourself aboard. But a fact soon became evident: Among all there, the only one who had ever actually hopped a freight train and hoboed around the country was--of all people--Wilbur.
I can't vouch for this story, but it rings true for me. There's more to Wilbur and his poetry than a respectable, polished exterior. The anecdote reflects Wilbur the man: modest, unpretentious, playful, full of know-how and surprise, a celebrant of the delights of this world.
To bestow the 1988 Los Angeles Times Book Prize on Wilbur's 40-year harvest of "New and Collected Poems" seems unarguable. It's a little like handing Mt. McKinley a blue ribbon as 1988's No. 1 North American protuberance. Still, though Wilbur's work has been in view for a long while, it hasn't always had active notice. When I began writing verse in 1950, there were only two young poets whom younger poets imitated. Depending on your bent, you attempted either reckless, word-drunk formal verse like Robert Lowell's, or else smooth, graciously mannered formal verse like Wilbur's. (Just to recall those days makes me want to tug my graying beard and mourn, Ah! so few possibilities! Wasn't life for poets back then much easier?) In the 1960s meter and rhyme, whether wildly or graciously managed, went out of style. For 20 years, I suspect, few young poets adorned their walls with pinups of Wilbur. But today, in a stampede back to traditional forms, they've rediscovered him.
Some poets--Theodore Roethke, James Dickey--live in furious change, razing their work and rebuilding it every year or two, like Picasso going through his variously colored periods. With Wilbur any change has been slow and nonviolent. How firmly he has persisted in what he does so well, refusing to cut his coat to passing fashion. He has devoted himself to shaping not a career but individual poems, and he has made them to last. In his "New and Collected Poems," he discards nothing from any earlier collection, and he slightly alters only a few words.
Not that he hasn't learned. Although his earlier books may boast more, and more spectacular, anthology pieces--"In the Elegy Season," "Still, Citizen Sparrow," "Juggler," "Year's End," "Beasts" and more--yet his new work displays new virtues. For one thing, his recent poems are more easily speakable--a result, I suspect, of his translating so much of Moliere. More often now, the poems tell stories. Moreover, the gifts Wilbur has always had--an impeccable ear, an eye for a metaphor--today shine brightly as ever. In a new poem, "Transit," a woman steps out of her town house:
Still, nothing changes as her perfect feet
Click down the walk that issues in the street,
Leaving the stations of her body there
As a whip maps the countries of the air.
In the new work, the speaker's voice seems less often barricaded from its subject by cool irony; indeed, poems such as "The Ride" and "The Catch" show the poet (or someone like him) stepping into a poem as a participant.
And yet Wilbur never has trumpeted his personal history in poetry. Unlike Lowell, he hasn't reminded us of his descent through 11 generations of New England Yankees. Though he took part in the invasions of Italy and Southern France in World War II, his early war poems do not reek of shot and shell like Wilfred Owen's. Much of Wilbur's life has been spent in the New England academe: studying at Amherst and Harvard, then teaching at Harvard, Wellesley, Wesleyan and Smith. Now retired after 36 years of teaching, having served his term at the Library of Congress as our official Poet Laureate, he divides his time between Key West and western Massachusetts. A recent interviewer, J. D. McClatchy, visiting Wilbur at home, found him cultivating his garden, looking forward to a certain kind of saffron-colored broccoli whose florets reminded him of the domes of Buddhist temples. It is the kind of exact comparison between common and sublime you'd expect of a man who could portray "A Black November Turkey"--
The pale-blue bony head
Set on its shepherd's crook
Like a saint's death-mask ...
For sheer variety, Wilbur's work is remarkable. His essay collection "Responses" proves him a wise and capacious critic; his children's book "Loudmouse" fell apart in my children's hands. His editions of the poems of Shakespeare and Poe contribute fresh insights. In translating plays of Moliere and Racine, Wilbur not only keeps the sense, he renders it into rhymed English couplets more concise than the French originals. His skills--he has called them "whatever knacks I have"--have served Broadway, in his lyrics for Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman's "Candide." He has even written a cantata for the birthday of the Statue of Libery, a task likely to lead a poet into grandiosity. Yet the result, "On Freedom's Ground," is singable, readable, and no more pompous than the Gettysburg Address.
In sum, Wilbur is the opposite of Poe, that hater of nature who imposed his inexorable will upon language and reality. Noting the ingenious-looking symmetry of many of Wilbur's poems, people have blamed him for taking a tricky form and forcing words to it. "No poem of mine is ever undertaken as a technical experiment," Wilbur has protested (in an essay "On My Own Work"); "the form which it takes, whether conventional or innovating, develops naturally as the poem develops."
Another stale blast you hear now and again is that Wilbur lacks passion. The charge ignores what George Garrett has called the "coiled fury of his chosen reticence," for Wilbur's poems seem the winners of fierce wrestling matches. A rage for symmetry struggles with an urge for truth. Form quakes from inner explosions of content--"The strength of the genie," Wilbur has said, "comes of his being confined in a bottle." Above all, a desire to chide the human mind, that organizing, officious faculty, battles an urge to give that faculty a fair hearing. Poem after poem reconciles observer with reality--to prevail like those memorable nuns in "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," and "walk in a pure floating/ Of dark habits,/ keeping their difficult balance."
Like Whitman, whose big-breathed lines his own lines don't resemble, Wilbur is an affirmer, a yea-sayer. Yet his affirmations seem difficult victories. I'd expect his wonderful lyrics and narratives to be read and cherished and learned by heart when many an ambitious major poem of today sits eroding in the desert being sand-blasted.
by Richard Wilbur
I read how Quixote in his random ride
Came to a crossing once, and lest he lose
The purity of chance, would not decide
Whither to fare, but wished his horse to choose.
For glory lay wherever he might turn.
His head was light with pride, his horse's shoes
Were heavy, and he headed for the barn.
SELECTED POEMS, 1938-1988 by Thomas McGrath, edited and with an introduction by Sam Hamil (Copper Canyon Press)
AMERICAN ODALISQUE by Jane Miller (Copper Canyon Press)
THE IMPERFECT PARADISE by Linda Pastan (W.W. Norton) NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, 1940-1986 by Karl Shapiro (University of Chicago Press) NEW AND COLLECTED POEMS by Richard Wilbur (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)