Richard Wilbur: A Certain Logic

An Atlantic Unbound interview with Richard Wilbur

A Certain Logic

Richard Wilbur
 Richard Wilbur

September 9, 1999

Richard Wilbur has beautifully adorned the art of poetry for more than half a century. Born in 1921, educated at Amherst College, in the U.S. Army, and at Harvard College, he came to public notice in 1947 with his first book, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems. He went on to write Ceremony and Other Poems (1950) before turning to translation in 1955 with a pellucid version of Molière's The Misanthrope, which began his parallel career as a translator of the writings of Molière, Racine, and a number of other poets, dramatic and otherwise, from French, Spanish, and Russian. Those versions imitate not only the substance of the original but the form, not only the emotion but the style. His lyric skills were honed by his collaboration on Leonard Bernstein's Candide (1956). In 1957 Wilbur's third collection, Things of This World, won him the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Advice to a Prophet (1962), Walking to Sleep (1971), The Mind-Reader (1977), and New and Collected Poems (1988) followed in the intervening years, along with four more adaptations of plays by Molière and two by Racine. His new collection of poems, Mayflies, is expected in April, 2000.

Richard Wilbur has lived nearly all his life in New England. Before retiring from academic life, he taught for five years at Harvard, three at Wellesley College, twenty at Wesleyan University, and ten at Smith College. The recipient of numerous literary awards and honorary degrees, he served as poet laureate of the United States in 1987-1988. Married to Charlotte Ward Wilbur since 1942 and the father of four children, he now resides in western Massachusetts and Key West, Florida.

PD: I've noticed in my rereadings of your poems a kind of painterly beginning to many of them, as though you set a scene in still-life and then start it into motion. Was that deliberate?

Also by Richard Wilbur:

She (1958)*
The Proof (1964)
A Black Birch in Winter (1974)
C Minor (1974)*
A Shallot (1975)
For W. H. Auden (1979)
Bone Key (1995)*
The Disappearing Alphabet (1997)*
Sir David Brewster’s Toy (2002)*
Some Words Inside of Words (2004)*
*with audio of the author reading his poem

RW: It sounds to me like something which I would be inclined to do. I certainly don't have any theory of the poem that would incline me to start by painting in a scene and then putting it in motion, but I do know that I have a gift for making things move with words, and I like to get them travelling. I like to make their physical motion physically felt. I expect many poets incline to that sort of thing as part of a general feeling that poetry should not be abstract and immobile but should get down there amongst the things of the world and mix with them.

One thinks of you as having achieved perfection in form. How do you feel about the role of perfection in form?

Well, Peter, as a fancier of motion, physical motion in poetry, I am always a little put off by the word "perfection," which suggests immobility to me. I have never aimed at a monumental quality in my poems, and I don't much like it in the poems of others. It pleases me always to endanger whatever form I'm working in. I've written very few sonnets, but when I work in the sonnet, I try to threaten the form, expressively, in the way that my hero John Milton always did. Milton's sonnets freely overrun the tidy divisions of the sonnet form for expressive purposes, and therefore if his poems are "perfect," they're not perfect in the sense of being neat. They're perfect in the sense of treating the form in such a way as at all times to put it at the service of the meaning.

A corollary question: What about the role of spontaneity in contemporary poetry?

Well, we had a lot of spontaneity in the sixties, did we not? When you mention this matter it makes me think right away of Truman Capote's unkind remark about Jack Kerouac, that what he did was not so much writing as typing. I think there was a lot of writing done in the sixties under the impression that if you let yourself go the result would be more lively, more true. It isn't really that way, I think, with the poetry that we truly enjoy reading. If a good poem has an air of spontaneity, it has that air because the poet has been careful, in his slow and choosy writing of the poem, to keep in touch with its original impulse. And one must try to do that, one must try to keep the poem seeming sudden and abrupt even though it has been slowly contrived.

Whitman was extraordinary in that, wasn't he? The spontaneity seems to well up.

Yes. I think some Whitman-worshippers imagine that he did write at fever heat and paid no attention to formal matters. Of course he is a formal poet, though his forms are derived from the Psalms, for example, rather than from eighteenth-century prosodic precedents. There is in the best of Whitman (and there certainly is a worst) an impression that he simply opened his glorious operatic throat and started the phrases coming. And that has a considerable relation to the kind of ideal person he is projecting in "Song of Myself." We know that "Song of Myself," from 1855 on, was tinkered with and rewritten, in a quite public way—not always for the best—right till the moment of Whitman's death.

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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