“The Exceptional Man”: Rereading Richard Wilbur

The minnows, the beams of sunlight, and the speaker’s hand are simply there and raise no questions. So melodic are some of Wilbur’s poems, so gracefully arranged, one might be tempted not merely to read his lines but intone them, as in these from “A Black Birch in Winter” (The Mind-Reader: New Poems, 1976): “Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth, / New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth.” Ella Fitzgerald would sing this bouncily, allegro moderato, with light stress on the nouns. Music goes deeper than that. There’s no bottom to this stream. The speaker is visiting the dead man’s house. After all, reading a writer attentively is the truest, most respectful act of criticism. His bones are internal scaffolding, concealed. Is it light or heavy? A reader could almost gloss “Green” as a lecture on photosynthesis, from the Greek for “putting together with light” (which is not a bad way to describe Wilbur’s poetic practice). Why will you vex me with
These bone-spurs in the ear,
With X-rayed phlebolith
And calculus? Without our bones, we are “informous and unmanned,” like poems unmindful of meter and rhyme. Standing on the stage about to read, he observed the author of Lolita seated by himself in the front row. Consider one of his Frostian efforts, “Hamlen Brook” (New and Collected Poems, 1987):

Without broadcasting his erudition, Wilbur will often exploit etymological echoes in commonplace words. The chlorophyll in leaves absorbs red and blue wavelengths of light but reflects the green. Few have been so lavishly gifted as Wilbur. Two appendices attached to the back of the book, “Show Lyrics” and “Poems for Children and Others,” suggest Wilbur’s versatility. Wilbur loved writing limericks, riddles, and jokey verse that never descend into Edward Lear–like nonsense. His mingling of good manners, masterful technique, and philosophical sophistication is rare and increasingly unfashionable. Like poets, children revel in that species of logic we might call mock-logic. In the introduction to a posthumously published collection of her father’s poems, Penelope Fitzgerald writes: “Light verse is a product of civilization, for it is a sign of being civilized to be able to treat serious things gracefully.” Wilbur ranks high among recent poets of civility and civilization. Chaos, observed with a sufficiently discerning mind, discloses an unlikely and sometimes even beneficent order. At the sound of that voice’s deep
Specific silence,
The sun winks and fails in the window. If Wilbur, who died October 14 at age 96, ever wrote a mediocre poem — one that is perfunctory, careless, egocentric, or empty — I couldn’t remember having read it. The world can be a cruel and dangerous place, but randomness is deceptive. Call it graveyard humor with a metaphysical bent. Tin-eared critics will dismiss rhyme as handcuffs, something artificial to bind the imagination. Still, I have held you straight
And mean to lay you down
Without too much disgrace
When what can perish dies. This poem is from More Opposites (1991), a volume dedicated to the poet’s granddaughter:
The opposite of kite, I’d say,
Is yo-yo. It begins:
Even when death has taken
An exceptional man,
It is common things which touch us, gathered
In the house that proved a hostel. If you but scantily hold out the hand,
That very instant not one will remain;
But turn your eye, and they are there again. We might think of this as the opposite of Wilbur’s understanding of the world. Keats’s rhyming couplets lend a finality to his poem. They resemble happy athletes: the flab has been trimmed, the muscles are limber. “Hamlen Brook” is trickier and more complex. The first and last lines of each stanza rhyme and are written in iambic trimeter. Here, from among the new poems, is “Green,” one of many that indicate Wilbur was our poet laureate of trees without being, in the banal sense, a nature poet:
Tree-leaves which, till the growing season’s done,
Change into wood the powers of the sun,
Take from that radiance only reds and blues. One is moved to turn to him,
The exceptional man,
Telling him all these things, and waiting
For the deft, lucid answer. Collected Poems is arranged in reverse chronological order, beginning with new poems and winding backward to his first volume, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947), published when he was 25 and newly discharged from the Army. Wilbur’s working assumptions in most of his poems are quietly, nondenominationally Christian. Even his poems for kids feature a logical hinge in the middle, and they frequently skirt the mythical divide separating poetry and light verse. Like his mentor, model, and friend Robert Frost, Wilbur has been routinely misunderstood by admirers and detractors alike. To his more emphatic critics, Wilbur commits heresy with every act of elegance, wit, and declaration of faith in the cosmic order. The joy-minded — in Wilbur’s case, the attentive and grateful — are “dumbstruck” by nature’s bounty, which slakes our thirst and leaves us thirsty for more. The form mirrors the multiple visual layers without quite capturing them. It differs from nonsense by possessing a superficially orderly appearance, like one of Groucho’s gags, but under the surface you’ll find nothing but ridiculousness. Poems embalmed in anthologies too often blind us to unexpected duds and delights. On a breezy day
You take your kite and let it rise
Upon its string into the skies,
And then you pull it down with ease
(Unless it crashes in the trees). After his death, I resolved to read his Collected Poems 1943–2004 sequentially, cover to cover, wishing to reassess his accomplishment. The stream’s “jet” is “lucid,” an adjective that customarily describes moments of intelligibility in an otherwise confused consciousness; Wilbur musters the original meaning — shining, luminous — in contrast to the “alder-darkened brink.” As he prepares to drink, he sees “[a] startled inchling trout / Of spotted near-transparency.” Its shadow on the stream bottom appears more solid than its translucent body. Note the order in which Wilbur describes composition: “fishing” for rhymes, sorting them, winnowing, rejecting most, all the while remembering the “direction and object” of the poem. Cartoonish emblem of death, the skeleton is the structure that enables life. Did you not stand beneath
This flesh, I could not stand,
But would revert to slime
Informous and unmanned;
And I may come in time
To wish your peace my fate,
Your sculpture my renown. As always, Wilbur is the wizard of rhyme, shoring up his poem and amusing us with music: “with”/“phlebolith,” “stand”/“unmanned.” In an essay he wrote 70 years ago, “The Bottles Become New, Too,” Wilbur says:
The presence of potential rhymes sets the imagination working with the same briskness and license with which a patient’s mind responds to the psychologist’s word-association tests. The ability to write first-rate poetry, like the gifts for mathematics and music (composition and performance), is a freakishly rare combination of rigor and openness. For now then, keep your place
And do not colonize. To honor the “exceptional” dead is a sacred trust. Light perpetual keep him. For the tree, green is gratuitous; for us, sheer beauty. How are we to pigeonhole “To His Skeleton,” published in The Mind-Reader: New Poems (1976)? The speaker admonishes his skeleton to bide his time. The second and third lines are in iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter, respectively. Their fate will soon be ours. For both poets, creation is bottomless, more than we can hope to understand or even perceive. On his desk he finds an incomplete sentence, “Not to be finished by us, who lack / His gaiety, his Greek.” The “quick sun” illuminates a chair previously in the dark. Fitts was “brave and loved this world,” as did Wilbur. When Wilbur likens rhyme to a psychologist’s parlor game, he’s not suggesting repressed memories and the unleashing of buried anguish and guilt. His speaker does not drink but asks: “How shall I drink all this?” The final stanza is his answer. The poem turns to prayer and concludes:
Yet in the mind as in
The shut closet
Where his coats hang in black procession,
There is a covert muster. My goal was to avoid the chestnuts and pay attention to the poems less well remembered. The stridently earnest can be brutish in manners and morals, while the civilized are courteous and deferential. The fourth couplet expresses the poet’s persistent notion that creation is a gift, a bountiful gratuity for our enjoyment. ¤
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, and the author of the literary blog   Anecdotal Evidence. Wilbur, who had already written in “Ceremony” of his preference for “wit and wakefulness,” told Boyd that he “passionately wished that I had eaten something, that I felt better, that my poems were better.” He needn’t have worried. They exhibit the same regard for clarity and craft as his verse for adults. Wilbur, as ever, is mindful of light and its absence:
It is the light of which
Achilles spoke,
Himself a shadow then, recalling
The splendor of mere being. A yo-yo, though, drops down, and then
You quickly bring it up again
By pulling deftly on its string
(If you can work the blasted thing). Wilbur once wrote that poems “should include every resource which can be made to work,” and in his best poems, no motion is wasted. Wilbur’s other mode is a playfulness that respects readers regardless of their age. Light is life. To some among the former, he is safe and wholesome, like oatmeal. In this sense he was a well-mannered outsider, a fugitive from fashion. Wilbur wrote “For Dudley” (Walking to Sleep, 1969) after the death of his friend Dudley Fitts, the poet, teacher, and translator from the Greek. NOVEMBER 12, 2017

IN Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, Brian Boyd reports that Richard Wilbur, when his flight was delayed, arrived tired and hungry for a poetry reading at Cornell University. Wilbur founded no poetic school, though imitators abound. He published five volumes of poems for children (“and Others”). Green is a color that they cannot use,
And so their rustling myriads are seen
To wear all summer an extraneous green,
A green with no apparent role, unless
To be the symbol of a great largesse
Which has no end, though autumns may revoke
That shade from yellowed ash and rusted oak. See here,
Noblest of armatures,
The grin which bares my teeth
Is mine as yet, not yours. The speaker is all surface, which is not a slur. When a poet is fishing among rhymes, he may and must reject most of the spontaneous reconciliations (and all of the hackneyed ones) produced by trial combinations of rhyming words, and keep in mind the preconceived direction and object of his poem; but the suggestions of rhyme are so nimble and so many that it is an invaluable means to the discovery of poetic raw material which is, in the very best sense, far-fetched. A good rhyme isn’t the snap of a lock but a key to open the imagination. The waiting darkness is patient. Even a minor Wilbur effort such as “To His Skeleton” feels accomplished. George Eliot in Daniel Deronda writes: “Here undoubtedly lies the chief poetic energy — in the force of imagination that pierces or exalts the solid fact, instead of floating among cloud-pictures.” Wilbur adores “solid facts,” but he never deploys them as an end in themselves. Nature is arranged gracefully, like a good poem. I wonder if Wilbur had in mind an untitled poem by John Keats, written in 1816, known by its first line, “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill,” which includes these lines:
[S]warms of minnows show their little heads,
Staying their wavy bodies ’gainst the streams,
To taste the luxury of sunny beams
Temper’d with coolness. On the contrary. They move with confidence and strength, and they make it look effortless. “[S]liding glass” suggests a specimen on a slide observed through a microscope, with the reflections of dragonflies, birches, and “deep cloudlets” on the surface of the water adding more layers of visual reality. How they ever wrestle
With their own sweet delight, and ever nestle
Their silver bellies on the pebbly sand.