Archive for October 15th, 2017

The most perfect poet in the English language: Richard Wilbur is dead at 96

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

Au revoir to a gracious soul.

I had dinner Richard Wilbur at the West Chester Poetry Conference, where he was a guest of honor, about 16 years ago. He was attending with his beloved wife, Charlotte. He was as genial and charming as his reputation had suggested, and his obvious, abiding affection for his college sweetheart, an effervescent and gregarious matron, was charming and heartwarming.

I had intended to make a long interview with him at a future date, but other work and other projects intervened, and I never made it out for a Key West rendezvous (or Cummington, Massachusetts, his other home) that I had envisioned … and now I never will.

Dick Wilbur died peacefully last night at 10:45 p.m. with his family at hand. He was 96. No one can take his place. No one comes even close.

Richard Woodward in The Wall Street Journal a few years ago  called him “our finest living poet.” He was hardly alone. Poet and historian Robert Conquest told me that Dick Wilbur was his favorite American living poet. Excellent taste, and it coincides exactly with my own (here). But his death will likely go largely unremarked, except among the people who know his worth. As Woodward added, “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.” (He also one the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Prize in 2006.) More people are likelier to know his work in as a translator – his translations of Molière are unmatched, and probably unmatchable.

Woodward added, “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.”

The poet-critic Randall Jarrell famously said Wilbur “obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing,” Similarly, Jay Parini wrote that, in this poem, one of two in “Two Voices in a Meadow”: “Wilbur aspires to a Blakean intensity, with his casual lyricism achieving a kind of perfection rarely found among his contemporaries.” It’s a short one and easy to memorize, so you can carry it around with you. I recommend it.

The Wilbur wedding, 1942

However, his poems, since Charlotte’s death in 2007, had become increasingly death-haunted. David Orr wrote in the New York Times: “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.” While his recent poems “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.”

Back to that dinner years ago at West Chester. Many have wondered if envy and resentment played a role in the … well, if not neglect, the subdued acclaim for this perfect poet, perfectly married, and living a rich and happy life with every possible award short of the Nobel. The dinner had ended by then, and the Wilburs were getting up to leave. With a merry look, Charlee answered … I can’t recall what exactly, the words will come back to me eventually … but something to the effect of “tough luck on them!” And they walked away, arm in arm.

When I heard the news today from Dana Gioia, among my first thoughts was that he would be back with Charlee at last.

From “For C.,” for his wife Charlotte. He compares their long union to the brief encounters where “bright Perseids flash and crumble”:

We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse
And bittersweet regrets, and cannot share
The frequent vistas of their large despair,
Where love and all are swept to nothingness;
Still, there’s a certain scope in that long love
Which constant spirits are the keepers of,

And which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the heart …

Well, you can read the whole thing here.
Postscript: The New York Times just put up a beautiful obituary here.
Postscript on 10/16: Two great comments from our regular Book Haven readers I’m including below:
Jeff SypeckSad news–but what an earthly legacy. I like to think that his influence is at least part of the reason the ninth-graders at our local high school are one again learning the formal aspects of poetry, and certainly any poet who emphasizes form owes him gratitude. But I also appreciate how Wilbur exemplified something I’m increasingly seeing among professional (but by no means famous) artists I meet: that one need not wallow in self-destruction to create humane and beautiful work.
Sam Gwynn: For many years he was an Episcopal lay reader. He wasn’t showy about his faith and rarely wrote religious poems; there is one hymn and others that touch on metaphysical subjects. “One the Marginal Way,” one of his most impressive lyrics, reveals him to be a Christian Darwinist who believed (or hoped) that there was a “vast motive” in nature working for good. His greatest fear was nuclear war, the subject of “Years End” and “Advice to a Prophet.” He was no mystic, but he has many links to the tradition of American transcendentalism. As Jeff notes, he kept his head when many seemed to be losing theirs. I knew him for almost 50 years, and he was always the same–courtly, courteous, and civilized. He showed a lot of us how to live as both a person and as a poet.
Another postscript on 10/16: And a new letter just came in:

Peter Grudin: Thank you for this absolutely accurate summary of just who Richard Wilbur was. Allow me to add the following.We have lost the best American poet since Robert Frost, the best translator of French — well I cannot think of anyone comparable. To call him a virtuoso and his verse “polished” and “urbane” is to damn with faint praise. Maybe we should call Milton “sonorous” and Mallarmé “puzzling.”

Richard Wilbur was a true poet. He wrote verse, poems in strictly measured language with a command of rhyme rarely approached since Browning. His genius was contrary to the prevailing fashion. Well, that was true of Dickens once and true, for that matter, of J. S. Bach. I have heard too much of what fashion has to say, enough from those poets and critics who belittled Wilbur. The times, it seems, were out of step with his genius. But that will change. This man wrote poetry in its truest richest sense, its inner energy just contained within the strength of its form.

As for translations, well, I have read Wilbur’s translations of the great Molière, and there are not a few moments when the translation is better than the original. His wit is remarkable, best illustrated by his elegant and very funny OPPOSITES.

What’s the opposite of riot?
Lots of people keeping quiet.

He is gone, and I wonder just how completely he held on to the faith that emerges even in his last poems:

Dreams, which interweave
All our times and tenses, are
What we can believe: Dark they are, yet plain,
Coming to us now as if
Through a cobwebbed pane
Where, before our eyes,
All the living and the dead
Meet without surprise.

. .