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Old 10-01-2016, 11:22 PM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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Default Richard Wilbur's Collected Poems, essay-review from Orbis

This is my essay-review on Wilbur's Collected as published Orbis UK in May 2007, Issue 139. It's never been online before, I think, so it's time. (The original italicized text is not reproduced.)

Paradox and Wit in the Poems of Richard Wilbur

The erudition, sensitivity, and music winding through Richard Wilbur’s Collected Poems can easily instill a sense of insufficiency in the poet-reader, except that his humility and humanity are continual reminders that he is one of us.

One of us, and one beyond us. Few poets have attempted the broad spectrum of genres that Mr. Wilbur’s Collected Poems 1943-2004 embraces, from children’s verse to lyrics for Broadway musicals, from translations from the French of Valéry and Baudelaire to those from the Russian of Akhmatova and Voznesensky, the Romanian of Nina Cassian, the Spanish of Borges. His translations comprise a kaleidoscope that circles the world with yearning, wit, and at times horror (as in the Dante). It’s striking that Voltaire, whose Candide is a send-up of optimism of all stripes, moves from dated fustiness (“Whoever will not be his age/ knows nothing of his age but pain”) to youthful surrender to obsession in “To Madame du Châtelet” (translated from Voltaire, from The Mind-Reader, 1976):

Touched by her charms, so fresh they were,
And by her radiance calm and clear,
I followed her; yet shed a tear
That I could follow none but her.

[p. 163]

Mr. Wilbur too knows how to surrender, particularly to the inherent contradictions and ironies he often presents as insights to image and metaphor. In “A Storm in April” (the opening poem of The Mind-Reader), for example:

But the bright, milling snow
Which throngs the air today—
It is a way of leaving
So as to stay.

[p. 127]

The final stanza of his celebrated “Hamlen Brook” (New and Collected Poems, 1987) makes explicit a similar paradox, this time exploding into schadenfreude:

Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.

Fibs, lies, subtle pretense and fraud are contended with in “Lying” (New and Collected, 1987), here in graceful blank verse:

And so with that most rare conception, nothing.
What is it, after all, but something missed?
It is the water of a dried-up well
Gone to assail the cliffs of Labrador.

Later adding, “Odd that a thing is most itself when likened,” he surmises:

…It is a chant
Of the first springs, and it is tributary
To the great lies told with the eyes half-shut
That have the truth in view…

Enigma and ambiguity are the poet’s stock in trade, planted in the fertile ground of his genius. In “Sonnet” (Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems, 1961) the central paradox carries a novel yet comforting frisson, an indication we are in the presence of the ubiquitous: “In what would be the posture of defeat,/ But for that look of rigorous content.”

It’s a short skip and a jump from contradiction to irony to wit, and Mr. Wilbur’s translation of “The Prologue to Moliere’s Amphitryon” (from Mayflies, 2000) traces the distance. Here Mercury complains bitterly to the lady Night that hateful poets have most unjustly deprived him of a chariot:

And, given my unjust and dismal fate,
I owe the poets endless hate
For their unutterable gall
In having heartlessly decreed,
Ever since Homer sang of Troy,
That each god, for his use and need,
Should have a chariot to enjoy,
While I must go on foot, indeed,
Like some mere village errand-boy—

[p. 61-62]

One of the more difficult poems comes from The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947). In “Objects,” the poet clearly pays homage to mysticism and Mother Earth when he sings, as if inspired by Demeter, “they guard the plant/By praising it.” He writes, “…A quick/ Change of the eye and all this calmly passes/ Into a day, into magic.” A different poet might have written “into day”; “into a day” trumps that. The final line, however, approaches the margins of madness, at least the latent madness in the Cheshire grin. “Fearfully free” recalls that existentialism is one of the many nets (among which are religion, philosophy, games, the busyness of life) that save us from free-floating in the Void.

“Antiworlds,” a Voznesensky poem, is one of the numerous tour de force translations rendered in his 1969 Walking to Sleep, and comes to us as a deliriously witty and delicious send-up of sci-fi fantasy.

In “Lot’s Wife,” translated from Anna Akhmatova, one is made more aware of the primacy of seeing. Reading “Who, for a single glance, gave up her life,” one begins to try to comprehend how vision is not merely different from hearing or feeling, it is an alien world, even an antiworld. Contemplated at length, it may seem each of our senses is an anti-universe in itself. What happens when one sense is removed from the others and must stand alone?

Wandering through this spectrum of profound studies in reality, the poet’s investigation careens among the serious and the seriously flippant, through “Rillons, Rillettes,” “April 5, 1974,” and “Flippancies” (all from The Mind-Reader), for example. Agonizing over whether “non-non-A” is simply “A,” the reader may suspect the poet is taking a poke at his puny human intellect, and rightly so. Eerie and mystical, the poem with a date for a title describes a primordial slide that metamorphoses into blossoms; and “Flippancies” is a brilliant ironic performance assuring us that nothing is on hand when it arrives. This is the amusing antiworld of Mr. Wilbur.

Translated from Valeri Petrov, “A Cry from Childhood” (from New Poems, 2004) inhabits pathos subsumed in comical displacement, while Mr. Wilbur’s own “Prisoner of Zenda” (from The Mind-Reader) reverts to a similarly childlike joy in whimsical rhyme and wordplay.

Reading “A Wall in the Woods: Cummington,” one may begin to ask oneself what manner of otherworldly intelligence haunts this encounter. In a vicarious trip to the Northeast woods complete with transformation, those who remain still enough can find, feel, see and hear the movement in this solitary walk’s epiphany:

“Of the brave art of forage/and the good of a few nuts /In burrow-storage. …

“And of how we are enlarged/By what estranges.”

[p. 53]

“Personae,” also from Mayflies, is suffused with the sibling love and rivalry that poets and musicians feel for one another’s work. The humor works in counterpoint to one’s being at a loss to explain the poverty of the poet in comparison to the lifestyle of contemporary pop musicians. Originality, wit, irony, and paradox: these are the weapons brandished in this poem and many others in the Collected. Throughout Richard Wilbur’s lifework, anomaly, acceptance, patient faith and wonder, sly wit, and dazzling correlations are in copious evidence. Over and over he proves modesty, a certain pride in good work, and reserve are among our strongest and most valuable defenses. In this poetry of articulation and paradox, he has planted a standard of lucidity of vision.

The poet, mindful of the daring lives
Of bards who dwelt in garrets, drank in dives,
And bought in little shops within the means
Of working folk their soup-bone, salt, and beans,
Becoming, in the cause of literature,
Adjunctive members of the laboring poor,

Ascends the platform now to read his verse
Dressed like a sandhog, stevedore, or worse,
And wears a collar of memorial blue
To give the brave Bohemian past its due.

Musicians, who remember when their sort
Were hirelings at some duke’s or prince’s court,
Obliged to share the noble patron’s feast
Belowstairs, or below the salt at least,
Now sweep onto the concert stage disguised
As those by whom they once were patronized.

How princely are their tailcoats! How refined
Their airs, their gracious gestures! And behind
The great conductor who urbanely bows
Rise rank on rank on rank of noble brows.

[p. 48]

Terese Coe
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Old 10-03-2016, 07:04 PM
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RCL RCL is offline
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Fine review of a book I love!
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Old 10-06-2016, 10:01 PM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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Thanks for reading and for the kind words, Ralph!
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Old 10-14-2016, 04:11 PM
Gregory Dowling Gregory Dowling is offline
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Coming late to this but just want to say how much I enjoyed it. In particular I like the way you've brought out the full range of Wilbur's poetry. I'm particularly glad you devoted close attention to the translations as well as his original poems. Thanks, Terese!
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Old 10-14-2016, 08:18 PM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Has Dick seen this fine essay, Terese? Please email me, or pm me with your current email address.
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Old 10-18-2016, 08:46 PM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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My pleasure entirely, Gregory. Very pleased, especially coming from you!

And coming from you too, Tim, a special treat for me! I sent this to Richard Wilbur years ago, when it came out. I'll pm you with my email.
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Old 10-18-2016, 08:47 PM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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Dear Tim,

I've lost your email somewhere in cyberspace, so pm me if you wish.



Last edited by Terese Coe; 03-17-2017 at 11:39 AM.
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Old 10-16-2017, 06:33 AM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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Default RIP Richard Wilbur

In Loving Memoriam of Richard Wilbur: my essay-review of his Collected.
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