Wednesday 22 June 2011

Richard Wilbur: So Damned Good

It comes as a bit of a shock to learn that the American poet Richard Wilbur is still alive (he turned 90 in March). It happens that I'm reading him, for the first time in any quantity, and only now discovering just how good he is. Almost, perhaps, too good: his effortless mastery of traditional forms, the classical precision and reticence of his work have certainly not made him a popular poet, especially as, at one time, many infinitely lesser poets once tended to write like him (and yet in reality totally unlike him) - and he was bound to fall out of favour with the vogue for shapeless confessional effusions.
Wilbur's focus is firmly and unashamedly fixed on the Four Big Themes: Love, Beauty, Nature and Art. Though he has won every prize and honour going, his work has somehow never entered America's poetic bloodstream - still less that of England, where I fancy he is little read (though the discerning Clive James is a big fan). Wilbur is just so damned good, his poems can seem to present a surface too smooth to get a grip on. Randall Jarrell witheringly declared that 'Wilbur never goes too far, but he never goes far enough'. And yet there is plenty of plain strong emotion and direct expression there, and a quiet wit (he's certainly not solemn). Nothing could be more direct and simple than this one, which packs a strong emotional punch - especially for those of us who have recently seen both son and daughter married...

Wedding Toast

St. John tells how, at Cana's wedding feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at the least.

It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That this world's fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.

Now, if your loves will lend an ear to mine,
I toast you both, good son and dear new daughter.
May you not lack for water,
And may that water smack of Cana's wine.

Beautiful... Or how about, by way of contrast, this tiny gem, which packs more into four eloquent lines than most poets would manage in fourteen?

Having Misidentified A Wild Flower

A thrush, because I'd been wrong,
Burst rightly into song
In a world not vague, not lonely,
Not governed by me only.

Surely a dangling participle was never put to better use... But these are both lesser Wilburs. If you want to browse some more, you could have a look here - though you won't find one of Wilbur's best (so good that even Randall Jarrell proclaimed its greatness), A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciara - here it is. Enjoy.

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