David Yezzi on poet Richard Wilbur: “lines of gemlike endurance”

Share

I’ve spent several onerous days emptying cabinets and boxes in the garage, throwing away many back issues of magazines and journals. It’s a sad business. But it has a few delights and surprises: the occasional rediscovery of a forgotten poem or essay, or the discovery of an article I never read in the first place. This one caught my eye. Poet, librettist, and playwright David Yezzi, a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford (and editor of Hopkins Review), reviewed Richard Wilbur‘s slim collection of poems, Mayflies, in the February 2001 of Poetry. 

An excerpt:

The combination of Wilbur’s self-proclaimed work ethic and his fondness for formal resistance produces lines of gemlike endurance. The poems’ polished surfaces betray very few flaws, each word inexorably, memorably placed, each separate lyric hardened by passionate thought and considered feeling into a vivid object that continues to reflect new shades of meaning.

Wilbur rejects perfection as a description of formal excellence (it suggests “immobility”), preferring instead to “endanger” his chosen forms. Most poets seek a degree of spontaneity, their patterns of utterance meant to seem, as Yeats says, but a moment’s thought. One strategy involves an attempt to capture something of the verve of first-thought-best-thought discovery. Wilbur affects spontaneity of a different kind – one that lies not with the maker in making the poem but with the reader in reading it. He takes pains to ensure that sounds and movements worked deeply into the texture of his poems are not quickly expended but continue to enliven the work, occurring as a series of structural and semantic discoveries. Take the opening line of “Mayflies,” a poem of later life in the vein of “The Wild Swans at Coole”:

In somber forest, when the sun was low,
I saw from unseen pools a mist of flies,
.    In their quadrillions rise,
And animate a ragged patch of glow,
With sudden glittering – as when a crowd
    Of stars appear,
Through a brief gap in black and driven cloud
One arc of their great round-dance showing clear.

***

Howard Nemerov, who like Wilbur was fond of enigmas, once proposed an ideal for poetry based on the riddle: “1. a poem must seem very mysterious, 2. but it must have an answer (= 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 even become more so, when you know the answer.” Poets who employ opaque and private imagery hope their poems will hold readers with an immediate and cryptic surface beauty. The problem: often no answer to such riddling imagery exists, or none that the poem persuades us to keep looking for. Like Virgil leading us responsibly onward, Wilbur takes great pains – through acute description and careful reasoning – always to let us know exactly where we are. What lends his poems their enduring mystery is the fact that, though we recognize the scenery (it’s straight out of the tradition), we have never been this way before. Like a shudder of déjà-vu, Wilbur’s correspondences return us to remote places completely new to us. It’s a way of possessing our lives, which but for poetry we would never have so palpably again.

I’ve said it before, Dick Wilbur is, in my very humble opinion, America’s greatest living poet. And at 96 years old, we’re lucky to have him with us. David Yezzi’s article is online at Poetry here.*

Postscript on 7/18:  We received an early comment from poet R.S. Gwynnwhose observation was so good we thought we’d share it in this post: “’One arc of their great round-dance’–This is typical of Wilbur’s genius–to associate the Mayflies with both celestial motion and the ’round-dances’ of the Maypole and fertility rites. The adult (imago) mayfly rises for only a single day to reproduce, then dies to complete its own ’round-dance.’”


Tags: , ,

2 Responses to “David Yezzi on poet Richard Wilbur: “lines of gemlike endurance””

  1. Sam Gwynn Says:

    “One arc of their great round-dance”–This is typical of Wilbur’s genius–to associate the Mayflies with both celestial motion and the “round-dances” of the Maypole and fertility rites. The adult (imago) mayfly rises for only a single day to reproduce, then dies to complete its own “round-dance.”

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for this, Sam! I adore this poem!

Leave a Reply