Archive for March 1st, 2011

Happy 90th birthday, Richard Wilbur!

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011
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Birthday boy (Photo: Stathis Orphanos)

Happy birthday, Richard Wilbur, on your 90th!  Dan Rifenburgh reminded me of the poet’s birthday on Facebook a few days ago, but he didn’t know whether he’d be spending in Cummington, Massachusetts, or Key West.  Either way, he will probably not be celebrating in NYC: I remember a characteristic passage in one his books where he described a brisk walk near his home with a guest: “But my friend from New York, an excellent abstract artist, walks through our Berkshire woods smoking Gauloises and talking of Berlin. It is too bad that he cannot be where he is, enjoying the glades and closures, the climbs, the descents, the flat stretches strewn with Canada Mayflower and wintergreen…”

Richard Woodward in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal called him “our finest living poet.”  Nice to know someone else shares that opinion — I voiced the same thought some months ago here. Here’s what Woodward said:

Richard Wilbur turns 90 on Tuesday, but it’s unlikely that many Americans will stop to pay tribute to our finest living poet. Despite having earned almost every literary award this country has to offer, including a pair of Pulitzers and Bollingens, as well as the title of U.S. Poet Laureate in 1987-88, he has never enjoyed a rapt general following.

I had dinner with Dick Wilbur and his wife Charlotte oh, maybe a decade ago in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  He was as genial as his reputation had suggested, and his obvious, abiding affection for his high school sweetheart, an effervescent and gregarious matron, was charming.  I never made it out for the Key West interview I had envisioned … perhaps there’s still time.

The poet-critic Randall Jarrell said Wilbur “obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing,” but his poems, since Charlotte’s death in 2007, have become increasingly death-haunted.

It’s unusual for poets to be productive so long — conventional wisdom is that they do their best work young, and “dry up” as Thom Gunn told me — but Anterooms: New Poems and Translations, is a marvel.  One poem, “A Measuring Worm,” describes a caterpillar climbing a window screen, hunching his back as he goes:

It’s as if he sent
By a sort of semaphore
Dark omegas meant

To warn of Last Things.
Although he doesn’t know it,
He will soon have wings,

And I too don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.

Woodward notes, “His productivity, never high to begin with, has slowed with age. He finishes poems at the rate that Antonio Stradivari constructed a violin. ‘I often don’t write more than a couple of lines in a day of, let’s say, six hours of staring at the sheet of paper,’ he told the Paris Review in 1977. “Composition for me is, externally at least, scarcely distinguishable from catatonia.”

David Orr in the New York Times writes of Anterooms that “it would be tempting to say that what we have here is a scanty manuscript that will nonetheless be extravagantly praised because its author is still deeply respected and, hey, isn’t it wonderful that he’s still making a go of it at his age? Tempting, but wrong. The better work in Anterooms, however limited in quantity, is as good as anything Wilbur has ever written, and upholds certain virtues other poets would do well to acknowledge, even if they travel roads different from the relatively straight one Wilbur has followed.” He concludes:

“More than 50 years ago, Randall Jarrell claimed that as a poet, Wilbur ‘never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.’ The observation is invariably quoted whenever Wilbur gets reviewed (far be it from me to break the chain). But to write convincingly about death — and also, as Wilbur has increasingly done, about grief — isn’t a matter of ‘going’ anywhere. It’s a matter of remaining poised in the face of a vast and freezing indifference. And while the strong, spare poems here are unlikely to strike many readers as the illustrious pronouncements of a Grand Old Man — the kind of figure Jarrell had in mind — they are wholly successful in meeting the darkest of subjects with their own quiet light. Which is, surely, a far grander thing.”

Anterooms includes some of two translations of poems by Joseph Brodsky (I still think his translations of J.B. are the best) one poem by Stéphane Mallarmé and an unpublished poem by Paul Verlaine.  Wilbur has always had a affinity for French (his verse translations of Molière are unmatched) — and so was the perfect lyricist for Leonard Bernstein‘s Candide, in the spirit of Voltaire. Composer Stephen Sondheim called Wilbur’s lyrics “the most scintillating set of songs yet written for the musical theater.”  I still occasionally find myself, on a sunny day, humming —

What a day! What a day!
For an auto-da-fé!

See the Lincoln Center’s 1986 version below (or for a real treat, check out Kristin Chenoweth in Candide on youtube).

Postscript: Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence celebrates the birthday here.