How come no one told me?
I was flipping through the latest issue of Poets & Writers when I happened to glance at the “In Memoriam” column—and was somewhat stunned to see Richard Wilbur listed there. How is it that I did not know he died? How could I have missed something like that? (Well, I see that he died on a Saturday, so maybe there’s a lesson here: don’t die on a weekend if you want the public to notice.)
Wilbur ranks among my favorite poets, and was certainly an influence and inspiration for me (as I’m sure he was for many who followed in the “New Formalist” tradition). When did I first encounter his work? I vaguely recall reading “Praise in Summer” in my high-school textbook, Sound and Sense (back when it had an eye-assaulting neon-fuchsia cover—I may still have it somewhere), but I may be misremembering. In college, though, I started reading him in earnest in the pages of Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry, which included, among others, “Hamlen Brook.” That poem was a revelation for me. It evinced a mastery of technique that I’ve been striving ever since to achieve, most notably in its vivid descriptive imagery (especially about the natural world) and the use of the unexpected but oddly juste word, the word you wouldn’t have thought to use, but after you see it, you couldn’t imagine using a different one. For example, “I lean to the water, dinting its top with sweat,” or “A startled inchling trout … Trawling a shadow solider than he.” Dinting?!?! Trawling?!?! Amazing! I remember sharing that poem with my girlfriend, who remarked, “You could’ve written that poem… Well, all except for the last stanza.” Well, yeah… the last stanza makes the poem, and I certainly couldn’t have written it. But it did make me start to understand that vivid description is not enough in itself—it must serve a greater purpose. “How shall I drink all this?” Wilbur writes. That’s the question I would not have though to ask, but the question that takes the poem beyond the beautiful into the sublime.
I have loved so many of his poems, and committed some to memory. “A Late Aubade” comes to mind (“I need not rehearse / the rosebuds-theme of centuries of verse…”). As an interesting sidenote, many of his poems make casual reference to certain touchstones of art and culture—e.g., Schoenberg’s serial technique, or Schliemann staring down on the crowns of Troy. In this way, he shares the genius of Merrill; but with Merrill, such references and nuances always bore a whiff of the patrician, the commonalities you learned by virtue of your station in life, not the hunger of your mind. Wilbur’s poetry, while certainly not plebeian, was more grounded in the things of this world. I could not imagine Wilbur playing around with a Ouija board, much less writing a book-length poem about one.
And who could forget “The Writer?” The richness of metaphor is astounding—even as he undercuts his own “easy figure.” And I suppose, in our electronic world, fewer readers will appreciate the way he likens the sound of a manual typewriter to a “chain hauled over a gunwale.” My keypad makes no such noice, though the typewriter that I learned on certainly did. And his pacing is impeccable: who doesn’t share in his exuberance, or feel his spirits rise, when the trapped bird suddenly clears “the sill of the world?”
Also remarkable about Wilbur, he could write for any audience. My kids encountered his work at an early age in books such as Opposites and The Disappearing Alphabet (Oh, do not let / anything happen to the alphabet!). It is a far journey indeed from that to Molière.
I learned in Wilbur’s obituary that he grew up not far from where I did, so perhaps that’s why a poem such as “Hamlen Brook” or “The Death of a Toad” or “A Grasshopper” speaks to me so directly. I can place myself completely in the scene; but I suspect I’d be able to, even if I didn’t have that sort of referent.
I will miss him. He was most surely called to praise, called by love to the things of this world: fountains, and insects, and train stations, and birds, and art, and sound, and legends. It was always a matter of life or death. The forsaken will not understand. Mr. Wilbur, I do not place much faith in a hereafter, but wherever you are, I wish you a lucky passage.