Commentary by R.S. Stewart
One of the pleasurable highpoints of my writing life was receiving a personal letter from Richard Wilbur dated September 12, 1988, from Cummington, Massachusetts, in response to a packet of poems I had sent him a week earlier. In the letter Wilbur calls himself a cautionary “seasoned reader” who found my poems filled with “felicitous turns.” That letter takes its place with similar ones from William Stafford, Ursula LeGuin, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Wilbur died on October 11 at the age of 97 and leaves behind him a body of work that includes not only two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award for poetry, but also several books for children and a translation of Moliere’s Candide, including the libretto for Leonard Bernstein’s musical version for playwright Lillian Hellman’s script. In 1987 and 1988 he served as United States Poet Laureate.
Richard Wilbur wrote his first poems at the age of eight and then again while in the Army during World War II and had one published in the Saturday Evening Post while still on active duty. Perhaps his most famous poem is “Love Calls Us to the Things of this World,” which gives laundry on pulleys outside an open window in fresh morning air a spiritual jolt–with bodiless bed-sheets, blouses, and smocks experiencing “the deep joy of their impersonal breathing.” In “Juggler” he presents a dervish with five red balls, a plate, a table, and a broom “shaking our gravity up” at the end of the show, winning over “the world’s weight.” Metaphorically, the juggler is the poet who dazzles a reading, listening audience with a dizzying command of language.
Sylvia Plath named Wilbur as one of her favorite poets. In ‘‘Cottage Street, 1953’’ Wilbur recalls a tea to which he was summoned to help restore her life after her first breakdown by seeing him as a ‘‘happy published poet.’’ Instead, borrowing imagery from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Wilbur sees himself as a life-guard who has found Sylvia ‘‘Swept to his shallows by the tide. . ./Who, far from shore, has been immensely drowned,/And stares through water now with eyes of pearl.’’
Creating pitch-perfect poems in rhyming meters and forms, adding touches of his own original structures, has been Wilbur’s hallmark from the beginning. He did not relent even when “traditional poetry” became unpopular and unfashionably out of the mainstream during the 60s and 70s, replaced by more personal and “confessional” poetry. Being the visionary poet that he is, Wilbur knew that rhyme, meter, and form were the ancient tools of poets everywhere and have survived for centuries. Trends come and go, and the various “schools” of poetry that disdainfully exclude rhyme and its accompanying merits have not been as steadfast as the kind of poem that gives Wilbur such joy in composing. In the 80s poetry experienced yet another surge of formal expression. Whole anthologies and literary journals specialized in publishing poems written in form. I myself had a poem published in such a journal. Among the more well-known contemporary practitioners of formal verse are Mark Jarman, Timothy Steele, and Kay Ryan, the true heirs of Frost, Auden, and Wilbur.
”Boy at the Window,” “The Death of a Toad,” “A Grasshopper,” “A Pasture Poem,” and “Still, Citizen Sparrow” among dozens of others, display Wilbur’s love of and transcendental connection to nature and the New England landscape as well as his unsurpassed mastery of form and rhyme. The first triad of “A Pasture Poem” reads “This upstart thistle/Is young and touchy; it is/All barb and bristle.” The influence of Emily Dickinson’s “Further in Summer than the Birds” is very strong when he wrote “Exeunt.” In eight lines he mourns the passage of summer with pure objectivity, sighting a single daisy left blooming at a field’s edge and observing how “A cricket like a dwindled hearse//Crawls from the dry grass.”
R. S. Stewart’s latest poetry publication is in Willawaw Journal’s special issue on Poetry and Art.