New and Collected Poems (Richard Wilbur) pdf, epub, doc

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Reading the first half of this volume was giving me an inferiority complex as a poet. But as I made my way progressively backward through his work I eventually became bored. Wilbur writes so consistently beautifully in his maturity that his earlier poems rarely compare, though in Ceremony, we do get glimpses of what he would become. One of the cool things about reading this volume is seeing that this poet understood his talent, that which he was good at and that which he wasn’t, and went solidly in the direction of his strengths until he wowed.

Since I recently finished reading Auden, and both he and Wilbur lean toward formal work, a comparison rapidly came to mind. Auden is a genius with form. He had facility for almost any form and he tried many. Wilbur’s genius is metaphor. Though he writes mostly in rhymed verses and blank verse, he doesn’t experiment with other forms at all. There are no villanelle, no sestinas. He found his frame and proceeded to decorate it with marvelous language sharing his singular ability to see into things. Here is an early example from his book Ceremony, published in 1950.

A Glance from the Bridge

Letting the eye descend from the reeking stack
And black façade to where the river goes,
You see the freeze has started in to crack
(As if the city squeezed it in a vice),
And here and there the limbering water shows,
And gulls colonial on the sullied ice.

Some rise and braid their glidings, white and spare,
Or sweep the hemmed-in river up and down,
Making a litheness in the barriered air,
And through the town the freshening water swirls
As if an ancient whore undid her gown
And showed a body almost like a girl’s.

This is actually rough compared to much of his later work, but those last two lines, a comparison I wouldn’t have seen within the preceding description, yet so apt, reveals his metaphorical thinking, which later in his work is delightfully everywhere.

The other poet who comes to mind while reading Wilbur is Gerard Manly Hopkins due to the density of language, metaphor, and the focus on the natural world.

A rare longer poem, “Walking to Sleep,” gives advice for those who have difficulty falling asleep and is great fun, both in language and image. For its darker aspects, it would make a good read at Halloween. Here are the opening lines:

As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,
Or a general raises his hand and is given the field glasses,
Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.
Something will come to you. Although at first
You nod through nothing like a fogbound prow,
Gravel will breed in the margins of your gaze,
Perhaps with tussocks or a dusty flower,
And, humped like dolphins playing in the bow-wave,
Hills will suggest themselves. All such suggestions
Are yours to take or leave, but hear this warning:
Let them not be too velvet green, the fields
Which the deft needle of your eye appoints,
Nor the old farm past which you make your way
Too shady-linteled, too instinct with home.
It is precisely from Potemkin barns
With their fresh-painted hex signs on the gables,
Their sparkling gloom within, their stanchion-rattle
And sweet breath of silage, that there comes
The trotting cat whose head is but a skull.

Another poem in which he indulges his powers of metaphor is “The Mind Reader.” Again the opening lines:

Some things are truly lost. Think of a sun-hat
Laid for the moment on a parapet
While three young women—one, perhaps, in mourning—
Talk in the crenellate shade. A slight wind plucks
And budges it; it scuffs to the edge and cartwheels
Into a giant view of some description:
Haggard escarpments, if you like, plunge down
Through mica shimmer to a moss of pines
Amidst which, here or there, a half-seen river
Lobs up a blink of light. The sun-hat falls,
With what free flirts and stoops you can imagine,
Down through that reeling vista or another,
Unseen by any, even by you or me.
It is as when a pipe-wrench, catapulted
From the jounced back of a pick-up truck, dives headlong
Into a bushy culvert; or a book
Whose reader is asleep, garbling the story,
Glides from beneath a steamer chair and yields
Its flurried pages to the printless sea.

This woos me right into the poem. However, Wilbur’s purview is the meditative, descriptive lyric, predominantly focused on nature. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea. He has been accused of not looking very deeply. That may be a just criticism but I’m too captivated by what he spins that I’m not concerned with whether it plumbs philosophical or moral deeps. I think he does explore perception in a way few other poets do. He looks closely, whether at the river running through the bridge or at how we do or don’t fall asleep.

This “New and Collected” was published when Wilbur was 67 and won him a Pulitzer. He later put out another that essentially collected his work again, yet he is still writing today with his last collection published in 2010 at the age of 89. I’m very curious to see if he has sustained, perhaps even intensified, his powers.

This book is a keeper. I’ll leave you with the well-known “Hamlen Brook,” which first appeared in this volume.

At the alder-darkened brink
Where the stream slows to a lucid jet
I lean to the water, dinting its top with sweat,
And see, before I can drink,

A startled inchling trout
Of spotted near-transparency,
Trawling a shadow solider than he.
He swerves now, darting out

To where, in a flicked slew
Of sparks and littering silt, he weaves
Through stream-bed rocks, disturbing foundered leaves,
And butts then out of view

Beneath a sliding glass
Crazed by a the skimming of a brace
Of burnished dragon-flies across its face,
In which deep cloudlets pass

And a white precipice
Of mirrored birch-trees plunges down
Toward where the azures of the zenith drown.
How shall I drink all this?

Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.

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