Richard Wilbur gave a splendid reading at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the
I had the priviledge of introducing him, which was a bit like your little brother's garage band warming up for Radiohead. The audience was patient, and I tried to keep it short. Here is what I said:
Richard Wilbur makes it look so easy. His poems are as close as we are likely to come to teasing out of our contemporary speech a classical poise. But don’t be fooled. As T. S. Eliot said of the poems of Ben Jonson, their “polished veneer . . . reflects only the lazy reader's fatuity.” Which is to say his surface tensions span shadowed depths, if we have eyes to see them.
Yet so close do Wilbur’s poems come to seamless utterance, to perfect expression – in their music, argument, energy, wit, and sense (which in Wilbur’s case also means “good sense”) – that one could almost forget that they are hard-won and do not shrink from challenging their own formal elegance. The poems convince us that they have achieved their ideal form, that they could not be written any other way. But their pleasing air of inevitability is by no means inevitable. Wilbur’s poems are the mysterious product of the poet’s lifelong mastery over the momentary: they are stays against transience.
Here’s how the poet Philip Larkin once described the purpose of poetry. “Most people say that the purpose of poetry is communication: that sounds as if one could be contented simply by telling somebody whatever it is one has noticed, felt, or perceived.” “I feel,” Larkin said, that “it is a kind of permanent communication better called preservation. . . . Of course, the process of preservation does imply communication, since that is the only way an experience can be preserved.” Larkin wants to put the emphasis on language-as-preserver rather than language-as-means-of-communication, because, he says, “it makes it sound harder, which it is!” As Robert Frost knew well, “to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of” is the poet’s ultimate ambition. And Wilbur has lodged with us an extraordinary number of poems, indelible and unforgettable.
The teaming list of “moments” that Wilbur has preserved will be different for each reader, since all of his poems perform the function in some way: The bibulous mind-reader at the café table in Rome comparing a sun-hat wafting from a parapet to a thought being forever lost. (The mind-reader, like the poet, is a preserver of moments.) Or the bird that has flown in at a window, “humped and bloody,” making its way, finally, back out to freedom as a father and his daughter look on. Or, outside another open window, a clothes line that fills the morning air with angels, some in bed-sheets, some in smocks. Then there is the marriage of true minds that Wilbur likens to a rose window or the firmament. Indelible moments, unforgettable.
How does he do it? It’s a mystery. Howard Nemerov once proposed an ideal for poetry based on mystery. Good poems posses three indispensable qualities, he believed. “1) a poem must be very mysterious, 2) but it must have an answer (in other words, a meaning) which is precise, literal, and total; that is, which accounts for every item in the poem, 3) it must remain very mysterious, or become even more so, when you know the answer.” Wilbur pulls off this essential bit of wizardry again and again. Take as only one example his classic poem “The Ride”: a journey on horseback “Through shattering vacancies / On into what is not,” which becomes a dream that the poet wakes from and yet inhabits long into waking. Wilbur’s mysterious states of consciousness – in poems such as “The Ride,” “The Mind-Reader,” “A Digression,” “This Pleasing Anxious Being,” are among the clearest views we have of these shadowed depths. As Randall Jarrell once wrote of Wilbur’s work, he “obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing.” Wilbur sheds light on the mysteries of experience, preserving these mysteries by finding the exact words for them for the first time.