In 1989 Richard Wilbur was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his "New and Collected Poems." Even that large and glorious volume, however, omitted some gems...
In 1989 Richard Wilbur was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his “New and Collected Poems.” Even that large and glorious volume, however, omitted some gems, such as his show lyrics (for Bernstein’s “Candide,” among others) and his witty children’s books. Since then Wilbur has continued to write. Now in his mid-80s, he shows no falling off in quality.
Indeed, Wilbur’s “Collected Poems: 1943-2004” brings reassurance that despite the recent losses of Donald Justice and Anthony Hecht, American poetry remains vital. Those children’s books are here, as are the lyrics that Wilbur felt could work as poetry, and so is “Mayflies,” published four years ago, with some of the most moving poems of Wilbur’s 60-plus year career.
“Man Running,” published within the past year, demonstrates how a master fuses form and meaning. It begins, “Whatever he has done/Against our law and peace of mind,/Our mind’s eye looks with pity of a kind/At the scared, stumbling fellow on the run … ” The lines grow progressively longer three accents, then four, then five and five again as if the man were gaining his stride and we, the viewers, were gaining a wider perspective.
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Then there’s the innocent comma in the fourth line, so like a little “stumble.” The poem speculates about what makes us feel “pity of a kind” for the miscreant, and concludes that it is the memory of our own flight that began “when we descended from the trees,” back when we were “not lords of nature yet, but naked prey.”
The reader can turn from such weighty topics to the children’s poems, a genre of Wilbur’s invention called “Opposites”: “The opposite of a cloud could be/A white reflection in the sea,/Or a huge blueness in the air,/Caused by a cloud’s not being there.” Another begins, “The opposite of duck is drake,” and goes on to stress the importance of always starting a letter to a drake with “Dear Sir” (“Dear Madam is what ducks prefer”). Wilbur can’t resist a pun, so he concludes with “In snowball fights, the opposite/Of duck, of course, is getting hit.”
Wilbur’s astonishing agility shows up everywhere. “Junk” must be one of the few poems of our millennium that use Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. It’s more than a stunt, however. In a poem about junk, Wilbur mimics his subject by heaping up shards of sound: “At the same curbside a cast-off cabinet/Of wavily-warped unseasoned wood/Waits to be trundled in the trash-man’s truck.” Art is nothing less than a demand that we pay attention, slow down and see the things to which our hurry blinds us.
The title of one of Wilbur’s early poems declares “Attention Makes Infinity.” On an ordinary laundry day the poet sees “Earth’s adamant variety” and “An infiniteness any eye may prove.” There is no more fitting description for the seemingly infinitely varied beauty of “Collected Poems: 1943-2004.”