Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Richard Wilbur

In a 1988 New York Times review, Robert Richman wrote of Richard Wilbur:
There is much to be said for a poet who refuses against all odds to allow his vision of hope (as manifested in the elegance and attractiveness of the verse) to die. If it were not for writers like him, future students might wonder if there were no poets in the late 20th century who championed beauty (as unlikely a cause as it may have been) or who were capable of rising above all the despair and doubt. Fortunately, we do have Richard Wilbur, and I am confident our age will be deemed the better for it.
Wilbur isn't the most fashionable of poets, though not nearly as unfashionable now as he has been in the past. What his poems are, as Richman writes, is filled with beauty, both in the imagery and the language. No one, reading Wilbur's poetry, would question what separates it from prose. The most direct antecedent to his poetry is Robert Frost and his poems are not in free verse--which Frost famously referred to as being like, "playing tennis without a net"--and this is too often associated with lack of originality, and disconnection with every day life. Although, as Wilbur explains in a Poetry Foundation interview, he always strives to do something different with his poetry:
DHT: As a poet who works in received forms, how do you think about originality? Do you feel a responsibility to use form in original ways? Or do you think of originality as overvalued? Is it even a virtue? What does originality consist of, for you?

RW: I don’t have any interest in the repetition of the past. I regard what you just called “received forms” as so much equipment, really—that’s all that they are. I find that the use of meters, rhymes, and stanzas is a way of saying what I want to say with greater power and pleasure. I would be very troubled if people thought my book of poems had too fearfully traditional an air. I try to make every poem different from the last, and I simply use the meters and the other received, inherited formal elements to enforce what it is that I’m saying.
When I was in high school and, as is usual for high schoolers who think they don't quite fit in, worshipped Allen Ginsberg, I probably wouldn't have liked Wilbur very much, or at least wouldn't have admitted to it. Now though, he's one of my very favorite poets.

Anyway, here are a few of his poems.


who offered a prize at Blois, circa 1457, for the best ballade
employing the line "Je meurs de soif aupres de la fontaine."

Flailed from the heart of water in a bow
He took the falling fly; my line went taut
Foam was in uproar where he drove below;
In spangling air I fought him and was fought.
Then, wearied to the shallows, he was caught,
Gasped in the net, lay still and stony-eyed.
It was no fading iris I had sought.
I die of thirst, here at the fountain-side.

Down in the harbor’s flow and counter-flow
I left my ships with hopes and heroes fraught.
Ten times more golden than the sun could show,
Calypso gave the darkness I besought.
Oh, but her fleecy touch was dearly bought;
All spent, I wakened by my only bride,
Beside whom every vision is but nought,
And die of thirst, here at the fountain-side

Where does that Plenty dwell, I’d n like to know,
Which fathered poor desire, as Plato taught?
Out on the real and endless waters go
Conquistador and stubborn Argonaut.
Where Buddha bathed, the golden bowl he brought
Gilded the stream, but stalled its living tide.
The sunlight withers as the verse is wrought.
I die of thirst, here at the fountain-side.

Duke, keep your coin. All men are born distraught,
And will not for the world be satisfied.
Whether we live in fact, or but in thought,
We die of thirst, here by the fountain-side.


Nashe's old queens who bartered young and fair
Their light tiaras for such ponderous stones:
Of them I'd think, how sunlit still their hair,
And fine as airship frames their balanced bones.

It is, I say, a most material loss.
Kept spirit is corporate; doubly the thought of you,
As air fills air, or wa ether toss,
Out of my wishes and your being grew.

Water and air: such unclenched stuff can last,
But rarest things are visible and firm;
Grace falls the fastest from our failing past,
And I lament for grace's early term,

For casual dances that you body knows,
Whose spirit only sense can understand,
For times when spirit, doomed and single, flows
Into the speeches of your eye and hand.

I also posted his "Love Calls Us to the Things of this World" in one of my first blog posts.

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