This year's officially sanctioned poet has heard many times the jokes about the poet laureate having to write odes to the president's horse. He has ushered a photographer from People magazine into the Cummington, Mass., house where he lives with his wife, and has been forced to flee a Library of Congress balcony when another photographer aroused the concern of the Capitol Police. And he has been asked and asked and asked about The State of Poetry Today.
The initiation process for Richard Wilbur is now complete.
Yesterday Wilbur officially began his tenure as the nation's second poet laureate with a lunch at the Library of Congress and an evening reading of his work. "Frankly, I've found it both delightful and harassing to get as much attention as I've gotten since April," he says, sitting in the library's sun-drenched poetry office. "There have been lots of letters from old schoolteachers and friends, that kind of thing. But what I'm really grateful for is not all the attention to me, but to poetry."
It is the sort of comment expected from any self-respecting laureate. In many ways Wilbur, who succeeds Robert Penn Warren, seems perfectly molded for that title. A supremely articulate man and an erudite writer, he speaks on behalf of poetry in a deep, casually aristocratic voice, and possesses many of the characteristics of a certain breed of poet native to college campuses. Blue blazer, khaki pants, blue button-down shirt, a pipe to fiddle with, a dog at home that needs tending. Easy conversation studded with quotes from Yeats and Pound. An Amherst degree, early successes, 20 years teaching at Wesleyan University, seven at Smith College, a re'sume' studded with Guggenheim and Ford Foundation grants.
Then there are the attributes that place him in the subspecies of poets who succeed on an unusually broad scale. Wilbur has a Pulitzer and a Bollingen prize, the National Book Award, a place in translation history for making Molie`re and Racine widely accessible, a "little pad in Key West" and Broadway credentials from his work as lyricist for Leonard Bernstein's "Candide."
Friends who joined him at lunch yesterday also offered the information that he plays a mean game of ping-pong and was "a real charmer in college."
Throughout the years of prizes and ping-pong, Wilbur has remained devoted to precision of language and expression. Even when speaking of teaching, a job he enjoyed before retiring recently, he bemoans the need to convey information quickly in a classroom, a pressure that compels professors to "settle for second-rate language all day. You settle for whichever words come to you. That erodes the soul."
"It is always a matter, my darling/ Of life or death ..." he wrote once about writing poetry, and says now of those lines, "The feeling of coherence and relief I have when I write a poem that's clarified the world for me, it does feel like that.
"I would feel dead if I didn't have the ability periodically to put my world in order with a poem. I think to be inarticulate is a great suffering, and is especially so to anyone who has a certain knack for poetry."
Since Wilbur published his first book, "The Beautiful Changes," soon after returning from fighting overseas in World War II, he has been praised for his "poetry of ideas," and for the wit and formal grace of his work. The feeling for form, for crafting lines and stanzas and quatrains "comes naturally," he says. "The expressive handling of meter is as natural as a waltz is to a good waltzer."
But the process is hardly as spontaneous as a dance. Wilbur bestows exquisite care on each word and says he writes extremely slowly.
"I'm in danger of self-approval -- if I write a first draft with slovenly words, or leave blanks for clever words to fill in later, what I have written is likely to satisfy me too much," he says. "Writing involves lots of doubt, lots of groping around, waiting for a word that may not be there until next Tuesday. I don't want to go ahead until I'm certain Lines 1, 2 and 3 are right. I do envy my friend Dick Eberhart, who wrote eight poems in one night," he says, smiling, as if that feat seems as impossible as running eight marathons between dusk and dawn.
Some critics have argued that Wilbur's verse, while technically splendid, lacks fire and a feel for the darker side of life. Wilbur has said he believes "that the ultimate character of things is comely and good," a faith that may at times seem out of sync with the realities of the modern world outside the confines of academia. But that faith also gives his work a clear-minded serenity, even when describing the loneliness of an insomniac.
Someone is breathing. Is it I? Or is it
Darkness conspiring in the nursery corner?
Is there another lying here beside me?
Have I a cherished wife of thirty years?
Far overhead, a long susurrus, twisting
Clockwise or counterclockwise, plunges east,
Twin floods of air in which our flagellate cries,
Rising from love-bed, childbed, bed of death,
Swim toward recurrent day. And farther still,
Couched in the void, I hear what I have heard of,
The god who dreams us, breathing out and in.
-- from "In Limbo"
At 66, he worries that like some others who favor the highly personal voice of the lyric poem, he may "dry up utterly. As one grows older it is possible for one's vitality generally to reduce. In writing a poem you draw on everything you are, including your physical reserves."
It hasn't happened yet, although recently he has begun to believe his intellectually peripatetic life may have detracted from his own verse.
"I said for years that there was no conflict at all between translating and writing my poems, but I don't know -- I'm beginning to think I was wrong," he says. "It's been 10 years since I published a book of my own poetry. I think it really did slow me down as a poet. Writing poetry is a habit. You have to have the habit of turning raw material into poetry. The problem with writing slowly is you're likely to lose, before you even know it, the rhythms of spontaneous speech."
Wilbur came to translation not intending to make a subspecialty of it, but as a respite after a failed attempt to write his own verse play.
"I think lyric poetry is considerably less social in nature, less grown up in nature, you might say, than some other forms of writing. The lyric poet can, as Yeats said, know nothing but his blind, stupefied heart. We don't go to the theater to see that -- we want someone who's grown up enough to imagine and understand other people, to understand how the society works ... I learned I was not yet grown up enough to put other people on the stage or divide myself up into other characters."
Having just seen an excellent production of Molie`re's "Le Misanthrope," he decided to attempt a translation, thinking "I'll learn something about writing poetic plays by translating 'Le Misanthrope,' but more than that, I'll pay tribute to a play I love and claim it for our language."
His dramatic translations are now produced frequently. "You're resting a lot of your assurance on the status of the original," he says of translating. "When I do a translation of Molie`re or Racine, it never occurs to me that I'm wasting my time. I know I will probably do a pretty good job, perhaps better than others might, and contribute something to society. I don't feel that way at all when I start to write a poem of my own. It's like that World War II slogan directed at people who were wasting gasoline: 'Is this trip necessary?' That's how you feel when you're beginning a poem. It's so wonderfully uncalled for to write a poem where there was none before.