“Touching the good”: on Richard Wilbur – and Charlee Wilbur gets the last word


Richard and Charlee Wilbur getting married, 1942.

Death doesn’t offer many satisfactions, but there’s a notable one in the death of the late Richard Wilbur, the most perfect poet in the English language. I was gratified by the outpouring of love for his poetry from many unexpected quarters – one can’t quite call him “neglected,” but he certainly didn’t command the notice he merited. How often was he recognized as America’s foremost living poet? Moreover, he was as great a human being as he was a poet.

But one friend needed no selling, on that point in particular. Wrote Sam Gwynn: “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.”

The praise continues over at First Thingswhere a friend A.M. Juster (we’ve written about his translations of Petrarch here) has written (not entirely warmly) about  Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg‘s new biography, Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur: A Biographical Study.  From the essay, “To Imagine Excellence”:

Although friendly with most of his poetic contemporaries, Wilbur resisted the trendy temptations of his time. Unlike Adrienne Rich, Louis Simpson, Donald Hall, and many others, he did not succumb to the pressure to abandon formal verse for free verse. Like Elizabeth Bishop, he refused to put his life on display in the manner of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and the “confessional” poets who were his peers. His work often displays joy and optimism, qualities in short supply among contemporary poets..

Juster: a Petrarch lover, too.

These qualities caused him to be largely ignored, and occasionally criticized, by the academy and the poetry establishment. In 1964 Leslie Fiedler complained that “there is no passion and no insanity” in Wilbur’s verse. Adam Kirsch, a critic whose work I usually admire, criticized Wilbur’s Collected Poems, 1943–2004 for employing “a style so elaborately formal that the most awful subjects are sublimated into irony, or even black comedy.”

These charges of bloodlessness and clumsiness lack merit. Even in the gorgeous “Love Calls Us to the Things of this World” is the unexpected violence of the phrase “the punctual rape of every blessèd day.”

Well you can read that whole poem here. It is gorgeous.

The Baggs’ new biography won’t change the perceptions about Wilbur’s “almost suspiciously normal life,” he writes, “although it should dispel the sense that he shared none of the horrors and despair of his more self-revealing peers.” The biography documents his combat experience in World War II, when he witnessed the death of friends and nearly died himself.  “The book discloses early financial difficulties and the autism of one of his four children. It also reveals that he and his devoted wife went into rehab for overuse of sleep medications and maybe alcohol.”

He was throughout, writes Juster, “a singularly humble and self-effacing member of a generation of competitive and catty poets.” He continues: “When Wilbur won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, a disappointed John Berryman sent him a sarcastic telegram so subtle that he missed the barb entirely. (Berryman later both clarified and apologized.) Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and others frequently denigrated Wilbur in order to lift themselves up in rankings of the greats.”

However, he bristles at the the Baggs’ speculation that Wilbur had an affair during the war years, “simply on the basis of one photograph of him posing with a woman that someone in France had sent to his wife.”

And here’s the money shot: Charlee Wilbur’s “feisty and forgiving 1945 letter” that she sent to her husband, after he warned her of the photo’s existence:

You’re a dolt! Did you really think you had to forewarn me about that picture of you and that sexy-looking French Frail? Even if I saw a picture of you actually in bed with such a babe, I shouldn’t think any other thought than—“god, I’d like to be in her shoes!” (Or out of them as the case might be.) You must remember that I have tremendous respect for your essential taste. And I also have great faith in and dependence upon our common love so that whatever you did couldn’t possibly touch the good that ties us irrevocably together.

Read the whole thing here.

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2 Responses to ““Touching the good”: on Richard Wilbur – and Charlee Wilbur gets the last word”

  1. Robert Bagg Says:

    There’s no question Wilbur had an affair with the French woman in the photo. He spent nearly a month in her town. He placated his wife Charlee by sending her a bottle of her favorite perfume when he realized she would see the photo. She was not outraged; she also had male companionship during the years Wilbur was in Europe.

    Our statement in the book was confirmed by both Wilburs.

    Juster is a jerk.


  2. A.M. Juster Says:

    There would be “no question” about an affair if the Baggs had presented actual evidence of an affair instead of just mean-spirited innuendo. There is nothing here except for Richard Wilbur worrying about a misunderstanding based on an unclear note. In order to present a charge of adultery as fact, any responsible biographer would need to come forward with actual relevant evidence, not this kind of reprehensible tabloid trash.

    The Baggs’ mean-spiritedness is even more clear now considering this new, nasty, & totally unsubstantiated allegation about Mrs. Wilbur.

    It’s painfully clear who is “a jerk” here–and it’s not me (at least not based on my review–lol).

    A.M. Juster