“The Exceptional Man”: Rereading Richard Wilbur

IN Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, Brian Boyd reports that Richard Wilbur, when his flight was delayed, arrived tired and hungry for a poetry reading at Cornell University. Standing on the stage about to read, he observed the author of Lolita seated by himself in the front row. Wilbur, who had already written in “Ceremony” of his preference for “wit and wakefulness,” told Boyd that he “passionately wished that I had eaten something, that I felt better, that my poems were better.” He needn’t have worried.

Like his mentor, model, and friend Robert Frost, Wilbur has been routinely misunderstood by admirers and detractors alike. To some among the former, he is safe and wholesome, like oatmeal. To his more emphatic critics, Wilbur commits heresy with every act of elegance, wit, and declaration of faith in the cosmic order. In this sense he was a well-mannered outsider, a fugitive from fashion. If Wilbur, who died October 14 at age 96, ever wrote a mediocre poem — one that is perfunctory, careless, egocentric, or empty — I couldn’t remember having read it. After his death, I resolved to read his Collected Poems 1943–2004 sequentially, cover to cover, wishing to reassess his accomplishment. After all, reading a writer attentively is the truest, most respectful act of criticism.

Collected Poems is arranged in reverse chronological order, beginning with new poems and winding backward to his first volume, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947), published when he was 25 and newly discharged from the Army. Two appendices attached to the back of the book, “Show Lyrics” and “Poems for Children and Others,” suggest Wilbur’s versatility. My goal was to avoid the chestnuts and pay attention to the poems less well remembered. Poems embalmed in anthologies too often blind us to unexpected duds and delights. Here, from among the new poems, is “Green,” one of many that indicate Wilbur was our poet laureate of trees without being, in the banal sense, a nature poet:

Tree-leaves which, till the growing season’s done,
Change into wood the powers of the sun,

Take from that radiance only reds and blues.
Green is a color that they cannot use,

And so their rustling myriads are seen
To wear all summer an extraneous green,

A green with no apparent role, unless
To be the symbol of a great largesse

Which has no end, though autumns may revoke
That shade from yellowed ash and rusted oak.

A reader could almost gloss “Green” as a lecture on photosynthesis, from the Greek for “putting together with light” (which is not a bad way to describe Wilbur’s poetic practice). The fourth couplet expresses the poet’s persistent notion that creation is a gift, a bountiful gratuity for our enjoyment. Wilbur’s working assumptions in most of his poems are quietly, nondenominationally Christian. The world can be a cruel and dangerous place, but randomness is deceptive. Nature is arranged gracefully, like a good poem. The chlorophyll in leaves absorbs red and blue wavelengths of light but reflects the green. For the tree, green is gratuitous; for us, sheer beauty.

In the introduction to a posthumously published collection of her father’s poems, Penelope Fitzgerald writes: “Light verse is a product of civilization, for it is a sign of being civilized to be able to treat serious things gracefully.” Wilbur ranks high among recent poets of civility and civilization. The stridently earnest can be brutish in manners and morals, while the civilized are courteous and deferential. How are we to pigeonhole “To His Skeleton,” published in The Mind-Reader: New Poems (1976)? Is it light or heavy?

Why will you vex me with
These bone-spurs in the ear,
With X-rayed phlebolith
And calculus? See here,

Noblest of armatures,
The grin which bares my teeth
Is mine as yet, not yours.
Did you not stand beneath

This flesh, I could not stand,
But would revert to slime
Informous and unmanned;
And I may come in time

To wish your peace my fate,
Your sculpture my renown.
Still, I have held you straight
And mean to lay you down

Without too much disgrace
When what can perish dies.
For now then, keep your place
And do not colonize.

The speaker is all surface, which is not a slur. His bones are internal scaffolding, concealed. Cartoonish emblem of death, the skeleton is the structure that enables life. Without our bones, we are “informous and unmanned,” like poems unmindful of meter and rhyme. The speaker admonishes his skeleton to bide his time. Call it graveyard humor with a metaphysical bent. Even a minor Wilbur effort such as “To His Skeleton” feels accomplished. As always, Wilbur is the wizard of rhyme, shoring up his poem and amusing us with music: “with”/“phlebolith,” “stand”/“unmanned.” In an essay he wrote 70 years ago, “The Bottles Become New, Too,” Wilbur says:

The presence of potential rhymes sets the imagination working with the same briskness and license with which a patient’s mind responds to the psychologist’s word-association tests. When a poet is fishing among rhymes, he may and must reject most of the spontaneous reconciliations (and all of the hackneyed ones) produced by trial combinations of rhyming words, and keep in mind the preconceived direction and object of his poem; but the suggestions of rhyme are so nimble and so many that it is an invaluable means to the discovery of poetic raw material which is, in the very best sense, far-fetched.

Note the order in which Wilbur describes composition: “fishing” for rhymes, sorting them, winnowing, rejecting most, all the while remembering the “direction and object” of the poem. A good rhyme isn’t the snap of a lock but a key to open the imagination. The ability to write first-rate poetry, like the gifts for mathematics and music (composition and performance), is a freakishly rare combination of rigor and openness. Few have been so lavishly gifted as Wilbur. Tin-eared critics will dismiss rhyme as handcuffs, something artificial to bind the imagination. On the contrary. When Wilbur likens rhyme to a psychologist’s parlor game, he’s not suggesting repressed memories and the unleashing of buried anguish and guilt. Music goes deeper than that. So melodic are some of Wilbur’s poems, so gracefully arranged, one might be tempted not merely to read his lines but intone them, as in these from “A Black Birch in Winter” (The Mind-Reader: New Poems, 1976): “Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth, / New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth.” Ella Fitzgerald would sing this bouncily, allegro moderato, with light stress on the nouns.

Wilbur once wrote that poems “should include every resource which can be made to work,” and in his best poems, no motion is wasted. They resemble happy athletes: the flab has been trimmed, the muscles are limber. They move with confidence and strength, and they make it look effortless. Consider one of his Frostian efforts, “Hamlen Brook” (New and Collected Poems, 1987):

Without broadcasting his erudition, Wilbur will often exploit etymological echoes in commonplace words. The stream’s “jet” is “lucid,” an adjective that customarily describes moments of intelligibility in an otherwise confused consciousness; Wilbur musters the original meaning — shining, luminous — in contrast to the “alder-darkened brink.” As he prepares to drink, he sees “[a] startled inchling trout / Of spotted near-transparency.” Its shadow on the stream bottom appears more solid than its translucent body. “[S]liding glass” suggests a specimen on a slide observed through a microscope, with the reflections of dragonflies, birches, and “deep cloudlets” on the surface of the water adding more layers of visual reality. I wonder if Wilbur had in mind an untitled poem by John Keats, written in 1816, known by its first line, “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill,” which includes these lines:

[S]warms of minnows show their little heads,
Staying their wavy bodies ’gainst the streams,
To taste the luxury of sunny beams
Temper’d with coolness. How they ever wrestle
With their own sweet delight, and ever nestle
Their silver bellies on the pebbly sand.
If you but scantily hold out the hand,
That very instant not one will remain;
But turn your eye, and they are there again.

For both poets, creation is bottomless, more than we can hope to understand or even perceive. George Eliot in Daniel Deronda writes: “Here undoubtedly lies the chief poetic energy — in the force of imagination that pierces or exalts the solid fact, instead of floating among cloud-pictures.” Wilbur adores “solid facts,” but he never deploys them as an end in themselves. His speaker does not drink but asks: “How shall I drink all this?” The final stanza is his answer. The joy-minded — in Wilbur’s case, the attentive and grateful — are “dumbstruck” by nature’s bounty, which slakes our thirst and leaves us thirsty for more. Keats’s rhyming couplets lend a finality to his poem. The minnows, the beams of sunlight, and the speaker’s hand are simply there and raise no questions. “Hamlen Brook” is trickier and more complex. The first and last lines of each stanza rhyme and are written in iambic trimeter. The second and third lines are in iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter, respectively. The form mirrors the multiple visual layers without quite capturing them. There’s no bottom to this stream.

Wilbur’s other mode is a playfulness that respects readers regardless of their age. He published five volumes of poems for children (“and Others”). Wilbur loved writing limericks, riddles, and jokey verse that never descend into Edward Lear–like nonsense. Even his poems for kids feature a logical hinge in the middle, and they frequently skirt the mythical divide separating poetry and light verse. They exhibit the same regard for clarity and craft as his verse for adults. This poem is from More Opposites (1991), a volume dedicated to the poet’s granddaughter:

The opposite of kite, I’d say,
Is yo-yo. On a breezy day
You take your kite and let it rise
Upon its string into the skies,
And then you pull it down with ease
(Unless it crashes in the trees).
A yo-yo, though, drops down, and then
You quickly bring it up again
By pulling deftly on its string
(If you can work the blasted thing).

Like poets, children revel in that species of logic we might call mock-logic. It differs from nonsense by possessing a superficially orderly appearance, like one of Groucho’s gags, but under the surface you’ll find nothing but ridiculousness. We might think of this as the opposite of Wilbur’s understanding of the world. Chaos, observed with a sufficiently discerning mind, discloses an unlikely and sometimes even beneficent order.

Wilbur founded no poetic school, though imitators abound. His mingling of good manners, masterful technique, and philosophical sophistication is rare and increasingly unfashionable. Wilbur wrote “For Dudley” (Walking to Sleep, 1969) after the death of his friend Dudley Fitts, the poet, teacher, and translator from the Greek. It begins:

Even when death has taken
An exceptional man,
It is common things which touch us, gathered
In the house that proved a hostel.

The speaker is visiting the dead man’s house. On his desk he finds an incomplete sentence, “Not to be finished by us, who lack / His gaiety, his Greek.” The “quick sun” illuminates a chair previously in the dark. Wilbur, as ever, is mindful of light and its absence:

It is the light of which
Achilles spoke,
Himself a shadow then, recalling
The splendor of mere being.

To honor the “exceptional” dead is a sacred trust. Their fate will soon be ours. Light is life. The waiting darkness is patient. Fitts was “brave and loved this world,” as did Wilbur. The poem turns to prayer and concludes:

Yet in the mind as in
The shut closet
Where his coats hang in black procession,
There is a covert muster.

One is moved to turn to him,
The exceptional man,
Telling him all these things, and waiting
For the deft, lucid answer.

At the sound of that voice’s deep
Specific silence,
The sun winks and fails in the window.
Light perpetual keep him.


Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.