The death of the poet Richard Wilbur was announced on Sunday, marking the end of a literary career that flourished over seven decades. Wilbur won every major award available to an American poet: the Ruth Lilly prize, a term as Poet Laureate, two Pulitzers, and Sewanee’s own Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, among many others. Wilbur’s insistence on form buttressed his confidence in the musical capability of language, producing a body of work that is deeply thought, deeply felt, and infinitely accessible. These qualities, coupled with his impact on the American stage as a lyricist and translator, made him the most significant public poet in the United States since Robert Frost.
The Sewanee Review published two pieces by Wilbur in the course of his career. The first was a review of collections by seven different poets, including DH Lawrence and William Carlos Williams, featured in Winter 1950. In it, he reveals something of his own poetic disposition: “it is not ordinary or fair to think of poets as thinkers.” Poets, Wilbur says, aren’t philosophers. While a poem may present a reasoned argument, and Wilbur’s often do, the language of the work takes precedence. Wilbur’s own language is taut as a harpstring, and his poems count among the best-crafted of the 20th century. This is evident in “The Catch,” a poem from SR’s Fall 1983 issue:
From the dress-box’s plashing tis-
Sue paper she pulls out her prize,
Dangling it to one side before my eyes
Like a weird sort of fish
That she has somehow hooked and gaffed
And on the dock-end holds in air?
Limp, corrugated, lank, a catch too rare
Not to be photographed.
I, in my chair, make shift to say
Some bright, discerning thing, and fail,
Proving once more the blindness of the male.
Annoyed, she stalks away
And then is back in half a minute,
Consulting, now, not me at all
But the long mirror, mirror on the wall.
The dress, now that she’s in it,
Has changed appreciably, and gains
By lacy shoes, a light perfume
Whose subtle field electrifies the room,
And two slim golden chains.
With a fierce frown and hard-pursed lips
She twists a little on her stem
To test the even swirling of the hem,
Smooths down the waist and hips,
Plucks at the shoulder-straps a bit,
Then turns around and looks behind,
Her face transfigured now by peace of mind.
There is no question—it
Is wholly charming, it is she,
As I belatedly remark,
And may be hung now in the fragrant dark
Of her soft armory.
Wilbur gambles in the very first line by cutting the word “tissue” in half. Such a move usually sacrifices sense in favor of form, but here it pays off; “tis(h)” and “fish” reinforce the effect of “prize” and “eyes.” The two perfect rhymes, moreover, form consecutive imperfect rhymes (is-/ize, eyes/ish). The fissure of “tissue” therefore sets up a phonic continuity throughout the stanza. In breaking a single word, Wilbur unifies four lines. This understated mastery animates almost all of his poems.
This poem has an argument, but, as poets aren’t “thinkers,” it depends on language to transmit, rather than merely describe, enchantment. Wilbur goes so far as to evoke a fairy tale: “Consulting, now, not me at all, / but the long mirror, mirror on the wall.” In this world dresses turn to fish and wives electrify a room. Those metamorphoses, the quotidian transformed by love and beauty, are central themes in Wilbur’s work. Wilbur, a World War II combat veteran, knew that our experiences of beauty are momentary, glancing: “the beautiful changes / In such kind ways, / Wishing ever to sunder / Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose / For a moment all it touches back to wonder” (“The Beautiful Changes,” 1947).
SR contributor A. E. Stallings echoes these sentiments: “Whether in rhymed stanzas or poised syllabics, or even nimble free verse, Richard Wilbur wrote poems of grace, beauty, and wisdom, and did so through a period when rhyme and reason were decidedly out of fashion in American letters. For poets like me who wanted to continue to write in received forms, that this giant from another era (or so he seemed), continued to live and write among us gave a certain permission, a way forward. To be sure, his poems are often darker than they are sometimes given credit for—Wilbur knew the horrors of war firsthand—but that is why civilization and culture were all the more precious for him; he saw how precarious it was.” Christian Wiman, also a Review contributor and former editor of Poetry magazine, remembers Wilbur with equal reverence: “To my mind, until the day before yesterday . . . Richard Wilbur was the greatest living American poet. I think he is fully the equal of the great modernists and his work should be thought of in that company . . . Yes, some poems (especially the early ones) seem like exercises in virtuosity. But there are twenty or thirty show-stopping, soul-clearing masterpieces, which are not only revelatory as ‘literature’ but will actually make one’s life better. What else could one want? He is one of those rare poets whose reputation does not depend upon the professional poetry establishment, and I think his work will be read by people who genuinely love poetry as long as our language exists.”
Richard Wilbur died at a nursing home in Belmont, Massachusetts. He was ninety-six years old.