Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur: A Biographical Study by Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg. University of Massachusetts Press. 392pp, $32.95.
In 1947, Louise Bogan reviewed for The New Yorker a first collection of poems by a 26-year-old who less than two years earlier had been discharged from the U.S. Army after seeing combat in Italy, France, and Germany. Bogan praises his wit and technical facility, and says he surpasses his contemporaries in “range of imagination and depth of feeling.” He possesses the gift, Bogan says, of “fitting the poetic pattern to the material.” She concludes her review with a forward-looking endorsement, almost a prophecy: “Let us watch Richard Wilbur. He is composed of valid ingredients.”
Robert and Mary Bagg have written the first biography of our greatest living poet, now age ninety-six, borrowing their title from Bogan’s prescient review of The Beautiful Changes, published seventy years ago. The Baggs draw upon previously unpublished journals, family archives, and interviews with Wilbur, his family, and friends, and these constitute the most valuable and interesting portions of the book. Wilbur is eminently quotable, in prose, verse, and conversation, but the book as a whole is a rather plodding affair. More about that below.
In an age when poets have jettisoned prosody and much verse is indistinguishable from prose, Wilbur has “remained true to his own poetic identity, refusing to develop fashionable, and usually transitory, styles,” in the words of his biographers. He has written precisely one poem in free verse, today’s lingua franca. In 2008, Wilbur told an interviewer: “The kind of poetry I like best, and try to write, uses the whole instrument. Meter, rhyme, musical expression—everything is done for the sake of what’s being said, not for the sake of prettiness.” Throughout his writing life, Wilbur has been accused of being effete, reactionary, elegant, and insufficiently transgressive and progressive. We learn from the Baggs, Wilbur was politely left-leaning as a young man, dabbled with pacifism, and has never been particularly interested in politics. Born in 1921, he served in World War II as a cryptographer with the 36th Texas Division. He participated in the landing on the Anzio beachhead and entered Rome on June 5, 1944, the day Mark Clark’s Fifth Army captured the city. The 36th took part in combat longer than any other division during the European campaign. By then, Wilbur was already writing poems, and Italy remains a recurrent setting in his work.
Despite his reputation, Wilbur’s verse is never egregiously “pretty.” Take one of his later poems, “Elsewhere” from Mayflies (2000). By his customary standards, it’s a modest effort almost without pyrotechnics:
The delectable names of harsh places:
Cilicia Aspera, Estremadura.
In that smooth wave of cello-sound, Mojave,
We hear no ill of brittle parch and glare.
So late October’s pasture-fringe,
With aster-blur and ferns of toasted gold,
Invites to barrens where the crop to come
Is stone prized upward by the deepening freeze.
Speechless and cold the stars arise
On the small garden where we have dominion.
Yet in three tongues we speak of Taurus’ name,
And of Aldebaran and the Hyades,
Recalling what at best we know,
That there is beauty bleak and far from ours,
Great reaches where the Lord’s delighting mind,
Though not inhuman, ponders other things.
Wilbur risks portentousness—a failing lesser poets fail to even recognize—but the deliberation of his lines lends them a satisfying rightness. Wilbur has perfected the magician’s art of misdirection, waving his wand while the real magic is going on behind his back, away from his audience’s skeptical eye. It’s a trick he learned from Frost and from nature, which is never merely plain-spoken, never just one thing. Earlier in “Elsewhere,” he seems content to play with an easy irony: Rugged, desolate places carry “delectable” names: “Cilicia Aspera, Estremadura. / In that smooth wave of cello-sound, Mojave.” Cilicia Aspera is in Turkey and Estremadura in Portugal, at the other end of the Mediterranean. The fourth line in the second stanza is, indeed, delectable, and invites reading aloud: “stone prized upward by the deepening freeze.” The “small garden where we have dominion” is our own modest home, Earth. Aldebaran, from the Arabic for “follower,” is an orange giant in the constellation Taurus, from the Latin. The Hyades, their name borrowed from the Greek, are the nearest star cluster to our solar system, our humble neighborhood. Despite our vanity, we’re not the center of things, though we ought to be reassured by “the Lord’s delighting mind.” Wilbur’s verse is highly but quietly allusive. In it you won’t find the sort of arcane exhibitionist learning favored by Pound and his disciples. Readers would be less persuaded by “Elsewhere” if Wilbur’s poem had been delivered in limp prose, the default mode of contemporary poetry.
Eschewing confession, trendy politics, and incoherence, Wilbur since the 1940s has remained a reliable and sophisticated pleasure-giver, in an unapologetically old-fashioned way. The Baggs document that he also has a ferocious work ethic. Wilbur taught for twenty years at Wesleyan University and helped found the Wesleyan University Press poetry series. He spent ten years as writer-in-residence at Smith College, and has written five books of poetry for children (“They are, as I have sometimes said in subtitles, ‘for children and others.’”), along with his eleven for adults. He has sustained, since graduate school at Harvard, a parallel career as a translator from the French, rendering into English such writers as Charles d’Orléans, Villon, Du Bellay, La Fontaine, Voltaire, Baudelaire, Nerval, Apollinaire, Valéry, Ponge and Char. Most influentially, Wilbur has given masterful versions of Molière, Racine, and Corneille to contemporary English readers and theater-goers. Had he never written a poem of his own, we would still be indebted to Wilbur for his contributions to literature.
In his work, the Baggs say, Wilbur has “emerged on the page (much as he does in public) as a quiet, hopeful, and optimistic man. Compared to many twentieth-century poets who found the road to fame running through the valley of despair and self-destruction—from Hart Crane and Delmore Schwartz to Lowell, Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath—Wilbur seems almost suspiciously normal.” The observation is accurate but it also highlights a problem with the book. The Baggs’ prose is frequently slack and hackneyed. “The road to fame”? “The valley of despair and self-destruction”? Wilbur, who seems never to have written a flabby or atonal line in his life, deserves better.
Part of the problem for any biographers of a poet like Wilbur is the essential goodness and conventionality of their subject’s life. In the Army, he was neither hero nor coward. He did his job. He is a Christian. He was married to the same woman, Charlee, for sixty-five years, until her death in 2007, and had four apparently normal children. There is no evidence of marital infidelity, spousal abuse, or other scandal. The Baggs tells us the couple rather naively misused prescription drugs with alcohol in the 1980s, and successfully underwent treatment. That’s about the most shocking thing they have to report. Compare that to the lives of Berryman and Crane.
What the Baggs do offer readers is a generous sampling of the Wilburs’ own words (Charlee, judging from her letters, was a first-rate writer, and served as her husband’s first reader and editor), and a reminder of Wilbur’s quiet mastery. Here is “In Trackless Woods,” one of the new poems in Collected Poems 1943-2004:
In trackless woods, it puzzled me to find
Four great rock maples seemingly aligned,
As if they had been set out in a row
Before some house a century ago,
To edge the property and lend some shade.
I looked to see if ancient wheels had made
Old ruts to which the trees ran parallel,
But there were none, so far as I could tell –
There’d been no roadway. Nor could I find the square
Depression of a cellar anywhere,
And so I tramped on further, to survey
Amazing patterns in a hornbeam spray
Or spirals in a pine-cone, under trees
Not subject to our stiff geometries.
Fourteen iambic lines, all but the ninth—the one in which the poem begins to turn—with precisely ten syllables. “Amazing” is threadbare but the line ends with the lovely “hornbeam spray.” Despite the rhyming couplets, the poem defies the “stiff geometries” it might have calcified into. It touches, even formally, on a favorite Wilbur theme—the persistence of order in a disorderly world.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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