I am lucky to have a number of memories of Richard Wilbur, who died on October 14. The first time I heard him read was in the mid-90s. I was working then as a secretary for a professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, hoping, I suppose, to keep some connection to academia and a library while working on my own writing. An obvious advantage was attending events in the English department when celebrated writers swanned through town. Only dimly aware of Richard Wilbur at this time, I probably first encountered his poem “Juggler” from an English department flier Scotch-taped onto the library’s glass door. No doubt I did not fully appreciate the elegance and sprezzatura of this poem-performance—its stanzas of patterned line lengths and pure and off rhymes, the philosophical conceit, its mix of elaborate syntax and everyday statement, its precise etymological use of “resilience”—literally to bounce back—jostling with one-syllable exclamations like “whee” and even “damn.” Possibly, I thought, with the innocent bravado that is somewhat necessary in a young poet, I can do that too. Wilbur had a way of keeping all the balls in the air, winking at difficulty while making the performance seem effortless. Yet nothing is glib—even clapping becomes strange, clumsy in view of the juggler’s (and the poet’s) legerdemain—a battering of hands.
At the close of the reading there was a small reception, and I weighed whether it was pushy for an aspiring poet to go up and address this very tall, very important, very learned person. I have always regretted the moment, because now I realize the whole room had given him a certain amount of reverent space to himself, and it would certainly have been more pleasant to him to have had a conversation with someone over the cheese and crackers. I have since heard him read many times, and had a chance to converse with him. He was nothing if not unfailingly generous and kind to younger writers; I needn’t have been so diffident.
Many aspects of his poetry have directly influenced me—I aspire to his precision of diction and radical etymological awareness and relish the occasional mixing of an elevated tone with humor and whimsy, instead of a po-faced poetry of perpetual plain speaking. “Thyme Flowering Among Rocks,” his Basho meditation in rhyming haiku-shaped stanzas, converted me to the power and method of syllabics. I never teach syllabics without recourse to this poem that so perfectly weighs and measures every syllable and word against the line’s strict real estate, a poem that can contain learned words such as bathysphere and rachitic, botanical terms such as leaf axils, and the sneeze-eliciting peppery. Yet when it breaks into its epiphany, it does so in seven monosyllables, one of them repeated: “fact, fact, which one might have thought.” And it never shies away from the obvious pun, fragrant with wisdom, of thyme and time—a bit of deep wordplay that belongs, I believe, to English alone.
Wilbur’s poetic reputation will, after his death, go in for the usual recalibrations. Despite his having won two Pulitzer Prizes, his work has tended to attract some criticism of the damning-with-reserved-acclaim variety, the usual complaints leveled against poets working in rhyme and meter and lucidity—that there is too much artifice, too much light, not enough edginess and darkness. (See Randall Jarrell’s notorious assessment that Wilbur “never goes too far, but never goes far enough.”) I think now though we will start to see better how these poems confront darkness (Wilbur was a soldier in WWII) and irrationality (there was a history of mental illness in the family) as a deliberate act, the subversive cultivation of civilization in the face of evil and entropy. Consider “Advice to a Prophet,” with its clear eye on nuclear annihilation and environmental catastrophe, and allegiance to beauty and the world, asking, “Whether there shall be lofty or long standing / When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.” Despair, Wilbur reminds us, is easier than art.