Posts Tagged ‘Richard Wilbur’

Two views of a milkpod, and a (very) few words from Richard Wilbur

Sunday, September 22nd, 2019
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The Richard Wilbur and his wife Charlee

As readers of the Book Haven may have gathered, I am out and about, speaking here and there about Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardI am currently visiting the University of Notre Dame for the very first time, and a friend advised me to take a walk around the lake.  So I did.

There must be milkweeds in California – Google tells me there are. But I don’t think I’ve seen a specimen of “Asclepias” since I left my native Michigan. Of course my they brought back another memory: the late great Richard Wilbur‘s poem to them, part of “Two Voices from a Meadow” (the two views below of a particular Notre Dame milkpod were taken by Denise Hergatt). Read it, and you’ll never look at them the same way again.

Anonymous as cherubs
Over the crib of God,
White seeds are floating
Out of my burst pod.
What power had I
Before I learned to yield?
Shatter me, great wind:
I shall possess the field.

Rest assured that the Book Haven will be returning to beautiful Palo Alto in the next few days, and resume it’s regular programming.

Joy Harjo the first Native American poet laureate? Not so fast. On the Choctaw legacy of William Jay Smith.

Saturday, July 6th, 2019
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Reading “Cried the Fox”

A few months ago, Joy Harjo was named the first Native American U.S. poet laureate, and there was universal rejoicing in the land. According to the press release: “Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden appointed Joy Harjo as the 23rd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress on June 19, 2019. Joy Harjo is the first Native American poet to serve in the position—she is an enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation.”

But wait! Isn’t the Library of Congress overlooking someone rather important? From 1968-70, the position was held by William Jay Smith, a poet who was well known, but he died in his 90s, perhaps outliving his renown (insofar as poets every, really, have renown). On the other hand, his death is not ancient history – he died fairly recently, in 2015 (we wrote about it here; conscientious Book Haven readers will also remember an earlier post here.) He was in the news; his obituary was even in the New York Times, not a given for poets. He was so well known that Princess Grace of Monaco invited him to represent the United States at a Monaco poetry celebration.

His Choctaw heritage was hardly a secret – he was proud of it, and mentioned it at readings. He also wrote about it in perhaps his best-known book, The Cherokee Lotterywhich recounts the 1828 “Trail of Tears,” which forcibly relocated his ancestors, along with a total of 18,000 Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Creeks as well, to Oklahoma from their native northern Georgia, where gold had been discovered and greed unleashed.

I remember him reading from this sequence of poems at the West Chester poetry conference, some years ago. That was the same conference where I met Richard Wilbur and his wife Charlee. The conjunction was not a coincidence, in fact the two poets were close friends, and lived near each other in Cummington, Massachusetts. So near that they picked up their Sunday New York Times editions from the same village shop. In fact, they had a tradition – whoever picked up their newspaper first would write scurrilous doggerel on the other’s. It was a tradition that continued for years.

He also wrote the matchless poem “Note on the Vanity Dresser” above. It’s been called the most perfect symbolist poem in the English language. Only eight lines, and it’s endless.

So given this history, why the omission? Is it because, as some have suggested when I floated the subject on Twitter, they hoped to make a politically correct splash, and make it sound like poetry has crashed some sort of intersectional sound barrier? Or what? He is included in the Library of Congress’ own record of the laureate history, Poetry’s Catbird Seat: The Consultantship in Poetry in the English Language at the Library of Congress, 1937-1987. Weirdly, the book, which should be a public record, is not searchable on Google Books. We include the relevant pages below.

All congratulations to Joy Harjo – but let’s set the record straight.

Postscript:  Since posting, I’ve learned that others have noticed this omission as well – Kay Day wrote about it here. Also, A.M. Juster raised the issue almost immediately on Twitter and directly with the Library of Congress. He is working on an article about it, forthcoming later this summer with Los Angeles Review of Books.

Post-postscript from Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and former California Poet Laureate: “It does Joy Harjo no dishonor to acknowledge that one of her predecessors, William Jay Smith, had some Choctaw ancestry. Smith was proud of his background at a time – the 1930s – when the association gained him no advantage, especially in the racist milieu of his childhood. He did considerable genealogical research to establish a ancestry many generations back. It was a remote connection, though Smith plausibly felt it had manifested itself in his physical appearance, but it hardly seems unlikely. Many Americans have mixed and complicated ancestry, which should rightly be a source of pride.” See combox below. Incidentally, Dana describes himself as “100% non-Anglo” – Sicilian on his father’s side, and mixed Mexican and Native American ancestry on his mother’s side. So he knows a thing or two about “complicated ancestry.”

Tired of angst? Here’s a poem about a happy marriage.

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019
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A family reunion at Stanford – with jazz scholar Ted Gioia at right.

Dana Gioia, former National Endowment for the Arts chair and former California poet laureate, met Mary Heicke in the staples department of Stanford Bookstore circa 1977. They have been together ever since – a long marriage indeed, and one of the happiest I know. He commemorated their union recently in a poem, “Marriage of Many Years”:

Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin—
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.

This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.

In an era that celebrates sturm und drang, poets write of abusive relationships, and the anguish of unrequited love, or the torments of triangular love – but how many write of long and happy fidelity? The late great Richard Wilbur, notably, mocks the romantic conventions and instead praises (read the whole thing here) his marriage

… which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the heart,
A passion joined to courtesy and art
Which has the quality of something made,
Like a good fiddle, like the rose’s scent,
Like a rose window or the firmament.

The Gioia marriage has an eyewitness to commemorate it – their son, Mike Gioia – who added it yesterday to his new youtube poetry series, “Blank Verse Films.” (You can subscribe here.)

Timothy Murphy may be the most prolific lyric poet in English ever – and he’s dying.

Friday, June 15th, 2018
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Tim in North Dakota

Update on June 30: Tim Murphy’s last email to me said that we would talk when he got over his thrush, which made conversation difficult. “Hell of an affliction for a poet,” the Dakota poet added in an email on June 2.  

His body was riddled with what he called “six warring cancers.” Then he broke his hip, too. I tried calling some time later, and he said, “I am in agony.” A few days ago, his family had silenced his phone and were not answering messages. “There are scores of unanswered emails. His family is deluged,” wrote Jennifer Reeser, who, as his executor, says she is now “Tim’s agent on earth.” He died in his home in the early hours this morning – peacefully, she says. I don’t doubt it. He had earned it.

His Last Poems? was 168 pages long when he sent it to me in mid-May, but had grown to some 230 pages by the time we last communicated – he said he’d send it. He signature line: “so yes, I’m writing better and faster than I ever have.  fondly, Tim”

Tim Murphy is dying and he knows it. He received the news on January 10, his 67th birthday. Now the poet is in advanced stages of cancer at his North Dakota home, and he is writing quickly, feverishly,  fiercely, a poem or two a day, despite physical limitations, heavy medications, and overwhelming setbacks. He is racing against extinction.

North Dakota State University Press is preparing to issue a Collected.  It’s a daunting effort: his fourteen collections total something like 1,400 pages. “That makes me the most prolific lyric poet in English,” he crowed in a recent email. His Last Poems collection followed his diagnosis (the version I have totals 168 pages) and describes his grim predicament, its origins and inexorable destination:

Owning It

Family history is just so clean
cancer never intruded on my thought.
I’ve hunted hard each fall, I’m whippet lean,
but my twin vices have been dearly bought.

My brother Jim embraced a grimmer view:
“No Murphy ever drank and smoked like you.”

We met at the West Chester Poetry Conference, at the turn of the century, and kept up a sporadic correspondence. I published a long Q&A with him, and I still think it reads rather well. He did, too, when he recently reread it. From my introduction:

Timothy Murphy, all dressed up.

Photos don’t do him justice. Tim Murphy is harder, leaner, smaller, and more prominently beaked than any news photographer has caught to date. Moreover, his brilliant red hair, set off by a welter of freckles, softens to a dull, inexpressive gray in newsprint black-and-white. Face to face, Murphy brings to mind a fierce, small hawk over the North Dakota wheat fields of his native Red River Valley.

In addition to being a poet of note, Murphy is also a venture capitalist and partner in a farm that produces 850,000 hogs a year. “I do the dirtiest, most difficult job on a farm,” he often quips to reporters. “I borrow the money.”

His poems have received kudos from high sources, including Pulitzer prize-winning poet and former U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur, who praises Murphy’s wide learning, the elegance of his writing, and his “extraordinary conversancy with a lot of the poets of the past, in many languages.”

“Tim uses rhyme and meter in a songlike way––which a great many modern poets have forgotten how to do. Most poets nowadays are not lyric in that sense. Tim writes poems that a composer could set to music,” says Wilbur. Moreover, “his poetry is lucid. When he is subtle, it’s the kind of subtlety that leads you into understanding. He uses forms without showiness and always with a point.”

At Yale University, where Murphy was Scholar of the House in Poetry, he studied with Southern agrarian poet Robert Penn Warren (another Pulitzer prize-winner and former poet laureate), who had grown up on a Kentucky tobacco farm.

Warren, however, refused to give him a recommendation after Yale. Murphy was courting the East Coast literary world and aiming for a poet-in-residency at a prestigious academy. “I needed to cultivate the sense of place which I so fervently admired in Yeats, Hardy, and Frost, but which I had not yet found in the land of my own birth,” Murphy wrote in Set the Ploughshare Deep. “Go home, boy,” Warren had told him. “Buy a farm. Sink your toes in that rich soil and grow some roots.”

Richard Wilbur and “Charlee” were friends.

Murphy took the advice. Twenty years later, he published The Deed of Gift (Story Line Press, 1998). During the intervening two decades, he distilled his blowsy iambic pentameter narrative lines to the briefest of dimeters and trimeters, often in poems of a dozen lines or less.

The openly gay Murphy describes himself as a “Faggot Eagle Scout Libertarian Factory Farmer Carnivore Poet.”

Well, read the whole Q&A over at the Cortland Review here.

His story didn’t end there. Alan Sullivan, his beloved friend, as well as editor, translator, and collaborator, succumbed to cancer seven years ago. Both underwent late-life conversion experiences. I haven’t had a chance to read thoroughly and thoughtfully the manuscript Tim sent me a few months ago, but I flagged this as a personal favorite, having met the late great poet Richard Wilbur and his wife “Charlee” at that same West Chester Poetry Conference, seventeen years ago (Pistis, elpis, agape – St. Paul’s faith, hope and love):

Prayer to Charlotte Wilbur

Your death day Holy Tuesday, Charlee, pray
.   hard for your “young” friend
 facing a painful end,
chemo and radiation. Day by day

I trudge to treatment, trailing my slender hope,
 wishing only to write.
 Burdened, I wake at night
weighed by an anchor eye-spliced to a rope,

symbol of elpis. Pistis, agape too,
.   with these must I surround
 my soul and stand my ground,
trying to die unbowed. I pray to you,

much cherished matron in the Heavenly Host.
Put in a warm word with the Holy Ghost.

Postscript on July 1, from poet and translator A.M. Juster on Twitter:

Richard Wilbur’s heresy: “elegance, wit, and declaration of faith in the cosmic order”

Sunday, December 3rd, 2017
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A poet of “wit and wakefulness”

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Booksthe matchless Patrick Kurp (who blogs Anecdotal Evidence) writes of the late Richard Wilbur, a poet who favored “wit and wakefulness.”

From “’The Exceptional Man’: Rereading Richard Wilbur”:

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.

Taking on the “Collected” in one go.

On his death, Patrick decided to take on the poet’s 600+-page Collected Poems 1943–2004 (there have been several small volumes since 2004), cover to cover. “After all, reading a writer attentively is the truest, most respectful act of criticism.” His goal: “to avoid the chestnuts and pay attention to the poems less well remembered.”

He paused at this passage from Wilbur: “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.”

Patrick writes:

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.

Read the whole thing here. It will reward the effort.  So will his blog Anecdotal EvidenceMy favorite in recent days, his excellent mini-essay on historian and poet Robert Conquest is here.

A postscript on Dick Wilbur from the poet R.S. Gwynn: “Being an ‘exceptional man’ is part of Wilbur’s exceptional quality as a poet. Frost had “a lover’s quarrel with the world’; Wilbur had a lifelong lover’s quarrel with the words that make it up. Lovers quarrel to bring their best, sometimes hidden qualities to the fore. Wilbur did the same thing with language.

 

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

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017
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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.

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

Sunday, October 15th, 2017
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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.

. .

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

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017
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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.’”

Are all happy marriages alike? Two poems that say they aren’t.

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016
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He is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

All happy marriages are alike, but each unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way. That widely cited passage is from Leo Tolstoy. No, no! Wait! Tolstoy never said any such thing. He said all happy families are alike, et cetera. Never mind. The misquote has been cited so often that it has acquired a truth and authority of its own, separated from its putative author.

Dana Gioia doesn’t agree with it, in any case. And he says so in his poem, “Marriage of Many Years,” the final offering in his brand new collection, 99 Poems: New and Selected. (We wrote about it a few days ago here.) I love this one, for his wife Mary Gioia (who thoroughly deserves it). Here it is:

Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin –
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.

This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.

99PoemsHere’s another poem for another long and happy marriage – Richard Wilbur‘s “For C.,” for his wife Charlotte, who died a few years ago. 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.
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(By the way, poet and historian Robert Conquest told me that Dick Wilbur is his favorite American living poet. What excellent taste, as always!)

Poet William Jay Smith, 1918-2015: “the truest and purest poems an American has written”

Thursday, August 20th, 2015
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A most gentle warrior.

A few days ago, I wrote about poems as memorable speech, and the kind of poem that lodges in your brain and won’t leave. William Jay Smith wrote a dark and magical one, and it’s carved in my memory. It’s his enduring gift to me now.

Smith died on Tuesday, August 18, at the age of 97. From the New York Times obituary yesterday:

Mr. Smith’s poems for adults were praised for diction that was at once unfussy and lyrical; for thematic variety (they ranged over the natural world, erotic love, the experience of war, his Choctaw ancestry and many other subjects); for their ability to see minutely into everyday experience; and for a deceptive simplicity that belied the rigorous formal architecture beneath.

He embraced poetic devices, like rhyme and carefully calibrated meter, that many 20th-century colleagues considered passé — a self-imposed set of strictures that, critics said, gave his best work the sheen of something meticulously constructed, buffed and polished.

I met him at a West Chester Poetry Conference a dozen or so years ago. Too briefly to make much of an impression, except that he was courteous, gentle, and humble. He didn’t make much of his Native American ancestry, though it was patterned on his face. As I recall, he read from his poems on the Trail of Tears during the conference, and I bought one of his books as a result. Luckily, I was able to find it on my shelf this morning. As I thumbed through, I found this one, “The Eagle Warrior: An Invocation” from his 1997 collection The Cherokee Lottery, about a life-size ceramic man costumed as an eagle, thrown into a lake by the conquistadors and for that reason, and only that reason, it survived. This is how the invocation concludes:

O Eagle-warrior, surrogate of the sun,
.     fly off in my mind now
to circle the sun, that “ascending eagle,”
and with your penetrating eye
and your calligraphic wing-span
.     printed high upon the air,
follow the westward movement
.     of every vanquished tribe.
O Eagle-warrior, quick-eyed, fierce-beaked,
.     tense-taloned,
be their emblem, be their witness, be their scribe.

smithbookRichard Wilbur called him “a most gifted and original poet … One of the very few who cannot be confused with anybody else.” Dana Gioia wrote that his best poems “are unlike anything else in contemporary American literature … Although often based on realistic situations, Smith’s compressed, formal lyrics develop language musically in a way which summons an intricate, dreamlike set of images and associations.” And X.J. Kennedy said that he “has given us many of the truest and purest poems an American has written: the most resonantly musical, the most magical.” 

Smith authored over fifty books of poetry, children’s verse, literary criticism, and translation. Noted for his prodigious career, which spanned the fields of creative writing, translation, academia, and politics, Smith served a two-year term in the Vermont House of Representative, from 1960 to 1962, and also served as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (the position now known as the U.S. poet laureate) from 1968 to 1970. Smith was also a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters since 1975, as well as a former vice president for literature.

As noted over at poets.org, Smith’s honors include the Henry Bellamann Major Award, the Russell Loines Award from the National Institute of the Arts and Letters, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2002, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Louisiana Center for the Book. He also received honors from the French Academy, the Swedish Academy, and the government of Hungary for his translations.

Ah yes, the poem that lodged in my brain:

vanity