By Richard Wilbur
Harcourt. 585 pp. $35
In a 1966 essay titled "On My Own Work" -- included in Responses: Prose Pieces 1953-1976 -- Richard Wilbur describes his ars poetica:
"The unit of my poetry, as I experience it, is not the Collected Poems which I may some day publish; nor is it the individual volume, or the sequence or group within the volume; it is the single poem. Every poem of mine is autonomous, or feels so to me in the writing, and consists of an effort to exhaust my present sense of the subject. It is for this reason that a poem sometimes takes years to finish. No poem of mine is ever undertaken as a technical experiment; the form, which it takes, whether conventional or innovating, develops naturally as the poem develops, as part of the utterance. Nor does my poem ever begin as the statement of a fully grasped idea; I think inside my lines and the thought must get where it can amongst the moods and sounds and gravitating particulars which are appearing there."
I suspect that all poets hope to be valued for their "gravitating particulars" -- such charged precision is practically a definition of art. Certainly Wilbur has long been admired (and envied) for his urbane dexterity, his ability to make lines run smoothly, almost effortlessly down the page. Sometimes his vocabulary can reach for the recherché -- "toward lost Amphibia's emperies" -- but his syntax always remains clear, his voice gentlemanly, his verse-music as sparkling and elegant as a Mozart piano sonata played by Mitsuko Ushida.
At certain periods over the almost 60 years of his career -- his first book, The Beautiful Changes, appeared in 1947 -- Wilbur has nonetheless suffered attacks from poets of the wilder shores. Doesn't his suavity and verbal flair signal a glib shallowness, his skills those of a juggler who merely performs while more sensitive spirits plumb the troubled soul's dark night? After all, Wilbur has turned to every poetic form with remarkable success: Now-standard translations of Moliere's plays, the best versions of Baudelaire (and many other poets) in English, the delightful children's verse of Opposites ("What is the opposite of soup?/ It's nuts. . ."), even some of the most dazzling song lyrics in Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," including those to Cunegonde's famous aria, "Glitter and Be Gay."
Obviously, Wilbur isn't confessional like Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell, but do we only want the poetry of self-laceration? Comedy, after all, is harder than tragedy, and Wilbur's consummate linguistic skill always serves deeper purposes than mere display. As is increasingly clear, the work in these 500 or so pages has been one of the saving graces of poetry in our time, as beautiful and moving as it is artful and accomplished. The great merit of this latest edition of Wilbur's Collected Poems lies in its inclusiveness. The 1987 New and Collected left out the verse for children, the show lyrics, Mayflies (published in 2000) and, naturally, the 15 new poems printed in this volume. These last include delightful vers d'occasion (e.g. "An Eightieth Birthday Ballade for Anthony Hecht") and the lovely meditation "The Reader," in which an old woman returns to the books that "charmed her younger mind." Having lived in the world, she now recognizes the folly and tragedies lying in wait for so many of literature's young heroes and heroines:
"But the true wonder of it is that she,/ For all that she may know of consequences,/ Still turns enchanted to the next bright page/ Like some Natasha in the ballroom door -- / Caught in the flow of things wherever bound,/ The blind delight of being, ready still/ To enter life on life and see them through." If, as Wilbur says, the individual poem is what counts, then the great pleasure of a collected edition lies in knowing that all those highly individual poems are in one convenient place, where one can return to old favorites and discover new ones. Such a volume will see a reader through quiet evenings and noisy Metro commutes, indeed through one's whole life.
For me, whenever I first pick up Wilbur I always turn to the opening lines of "Walking to Sleep." They seem so delicately right, the perfect visual correlatives of supreme self-confidence:
"As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,/ Or a general raises his hand and is given the field-glasses,/ Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind./Something will come to you."
Just as "The Reader" focuses on an older woman, so an earlier classic, "The Writer," describes Wilbur's young daughter working on a story, the "commotion of type-writer keys like a chain hauled over a gunwale." The poet wishes her a "lucky passage," a facile bit of wordplay, it would seem, for which he quickly berates himself. But Wilbur makes that jokey phrase into something deeper. He pauses to remember a dazed starling that had once been trapped, frightened, in that very room, and how the iridescent creature had battered itself against windows, floors, walls until it was "bumped and bloody," and then, suddenly, "It lifted off from a chair-back,/ Beating a smooth course for the right window/ And clearing the sill of the world.// It is always a matter, my darling,/ Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish/ What I wished you before, but harder."
Throughout his career Wilbur has shown, within the compass of his classicism, enviable variety. His poems describe fountains and fire trucks, grasshoppers and toads, European cities and country pleasures. All of them are easy to read, while being suffused with an astonishing verbal music and a compacted thoughtfulness that invite sustained reflection. Besides, they are so beautiful one simply wants to go back to them again and again.