& Thoughts on America's Preeminent "Formalist" Poet
It seems to me that Richard Wilbur, now in his 90s, has had the complete career. An online discussion which has just been revived (and may soon peter out) at the Tittled Jot, questions his popularity.
For the record, Richard Wilbur was kind enough to permit words of his about my Sonnets to be used in blurb form—and I am grateful for the automatic aura of creditability they lent at release time, if not catapulting sales out of the firmament. (That they remained at curb-level I attribute to the poems themselves, not to any perception of endorsement from Mr. Wilbur.)
His poetry has never soared with me, excepting this piece, which is available at various sites online and which I take the liberty of pasting here:
The good grey guardians of art
Patrol the halls on spongy shoes,
Impartially protective, though
Perhaps suspicious of Toulouse.
Here dozes one against the wall,
Disposed upon a funeral chair.
A Degas dancer pirouettes
Upon the parting of his hair.
See how she spins! The grace is there,
But strain as well is plain to see.
Degas loved the two together:
Beauty joined to energy.
Edgar Degas purchased once
A fine El Greco, which he kept
Against the wall beside his bed
To hang his pants on while he slept.
My reading, admittedly, was never comprehensive, restricted to anthology pieces or what I chanced to come across haphazardly. Nothing has struck me as of the caliber of "Museum Piece," but there is no reason why something else should not.
My favorite editions of Shakespeare are the old Pelicans (series editor Alfred Harbage); Wilbur has an impressive introduction to his poems. Yet I have not read much of his criticism.
When I began to write plays, I studied Moliere—or maybe I studied Moliere beforehand, and then began to write plays. As it happened, I used editions which were not Wilbur's, but when I discovered them, they seemed competent and fluent (other versifiers have done good work too), though he has gone on to do many more since then, and Wilbur translations of other French playwrights also have appeared.
What has held me back, is I want an omnibus edition—at least of the Moliere—to come out, so that I may have them all in one place. (A compendium of five was published.) I have not read them—the few that I have—carefully enough to say, "these are the best versions out there," but I have seen one or another performed and they do play well. Corneille never appealed to me; and I never tried Racine, though his work will be on the docket for me. (I have seen Phaedra acted with a Wilbur text and it played well.) Wilbur has not done a translation of Britannicus, but having only just learnt of its existence, that is a play I hope to look at soon.
Wilbur has also written a variety of books for children. I have never inspected these, but based on the online reviews they seem well-loved. He had a couple of books based on the concept of The Pig in the Spigot, that is little poems built around the kind of words-within- words that spellcheck is so good at ferreting out, but I've failed to search them out. On the other hand, several collections of Opposites seem drolly amusing.
Also extant are at least two compilations of Wilbur's critical writing. In light of Tittled Jot conversations, I've decided to pursue Wilbur's oeuvre a little more broadly. In consequence I have his essays on order from the library. My cursory survey of his available titles online indicates that Wilbur—to reiterate my first sentence—has had a poet's "complete career," the least significant portion of which may prove to have been the "serious" poetry. His accomplishments in translation, criticism, and even in writing for children, seem undeniable. Not having read much of his criticism, or any of his books for children, my assertion remains provisional. After I have seen some further essays perhaps I can give it nuance.