Richard Wilbur: A Certain Logic

An Atlantic Unbound interview with Richard Wilbur
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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.

How does (or should) form direct the flow of energy into a poem, or out of it?

I must say that I never think of form as directing. I don't think of the form itself as making any demands. In this I suppose I'm very close to being a free-verse poet. I think of the form as something that you choose because what you want to say is going to be able to take advantage of it. One example that I have always given my students is the Petrarchan sonnet. Robert Frost used to say if you have something you'd like to say for about eight lines and then want to take it back for six lines, you're on the verge of writing a sonnet. And he meant the Petrarchan, I guess, in that case. Every form I think has a certain logic, has certain expressive capabilities. Most of the time the ideas that come to us have no business at all being thrust into the sonnet form. If we did start behaving that way, it would be true that the form would be directing us, would be making certain demands. But if one chooses form rightly, one is not submitting to the demands of the form but making use of it at every moment.

Shakespeare was able to do it about 150 times.

Yes, he was. And I suppose that he could not conceivably have thought of putting his "Venus and Adonis" into a sonnet. It didn't belong there.

There's a quotation from the English poet Douglas Dunn that interests me. It goes: "What versification offers the writer and the reader is a constant reengagement with the artistry of the past." How does that relate to your poetry—and to your translations?

Well, if he means by versification meter and rhyme and all that sort of thing, I think he may be close to saying something I always object to that William Carlos Williams said. I love Bill Williams's poems, but his critical opinions seem to me to be nonsense. He was forever saying that if you write a sonnet you are making a curtsey to the court of Queen Elizabeth I—that if you wrote a sonnet nowadays your language would inevitably be invaded by Elizabethan language and you would find yourself employing Elizabethan themes. I think that was probably so for him. I think that is one reason why he had to write as he did and stay away from the sonnet.

Just as well he did.

Yes—it is just as well he stayed away from the sonnet. He wasn't really a good rhyming poet. He was wonderful in so many other ways. But for him the adoption of some strict form might well have made him recall the past in unfortunate ways. Now, I think there are fortunate ways we recall the past, not just because we use certain forms that characterize one past period or another, but because the very words we use if we are writing careful poetry engage us to some extent in a conversation with all the poetry that has ever been written. A large number of the poems I most admire and which seem to be most original are talking back to other poets of other ages—or agreeing with them.

That's Harold Bloom's theory to some extent, isn't it?

Well, yes, and I think it's true. I don't know any good poets who are also ignorant, unaware of the poetry of the past, and I think it would be very odd if you sat down to write about some major topic—love or death or one of those things—and your language didn't at some point put you in mind of others who had written well on the subject.

Whether you are writing out of the classical tradition or out of the blues tradition?

Oh, absolutely. It would be very hard for me to write in a blues structure without thinking of Langston Hughes, maybe, or James Rushing, the great blues singer.

I've been reading the work of Ted Hughes lately, and I'm very interested in the differing ways you and he approach the art of dramatic translation. You even overlap on one case—the Phaèdre of Racine. How would you compare his approach to translation and your own?

Well, I regret to say that while I've read quite a bit of Ted Hughes's poetry, I've never read any of his translations. The rumor is that he rather admirably manhandles the texts that he translates and does not try to duplicate their forms with any great fidelity. I'm quite the reverse of that. I try, of course, to get it all. I don't want to concede to any freer translator that he more perfectly captures the spirit of the original. I do try to get the spirit—a thought-for-thought fidelity to the original. To seek for word-for-word fidelity is nonsense, but thought-for-thought fidelity is possible. I also try to find and keep to a parallel form. I try to be as slavish as is consistent with being imaginative and lively.

Translation has actually given poets a chance to earn a living, unlike the actual business of poetry, which is no business at all. Would you comment on that?

I think it's great. One reason why we have been having, arguably, a great age of translation, is because there is not only pleasure but profit in it. When I started out translating Molière, translating The Misanthrope, I didn't initially have any notion of performance. That notion grew upon me as I began to see that I could read a scene here or there in the course of a poetry reading and get through to the audience. So I wasn't altogether surprised when my translation of The Misanthrope turned out to work at the Poets' Theatre in Cambridge (in which you so admirably performed in 1955) and also the next year down in New York. I became aware that anything I translated from Molière or Racine was likely to be put on the stage. It's quite true, as you say, that if you translate well and if what you've translated has an appeal to contemporary audiences, you will get much more money from that than you would from any number of publications or poetry readings. I have paid a lot of tuitions for my children as the result of Molière.

"A great age for translation," you say. True enough. And you and the remarkable translators of the second half of the twentieth century were formed in that much maligned decade, the 1950s, weren't you? The decade of the Marshall Plan and Eisenhower?

I agree with you that the fifties have been much maligned by the characterizers of decades. In the field of poetry, the decade was self-interestedly slandered by certain poets who wanted to depict themselves as rebels against a stagnant time. Part of the poetic vitality of the fifties, as you say, was shown in their fostering of ambitious undertakings in translation. It was inspiring that so wonderful a poet as Marianne Moore should undertake to do all of La Fontaine's Fables—which have since been rendered less idiosyncratically by James Michie and Norman Shapiro. During the fifties Robert Fitzgerald was working on his Odyssey, John Ciardi was taking on Dante's Commedia, Edmund Keeley was doing the modern Greeks, and a splendid half-century of translation was being launched by more poets and writers than I could possibly call to mind.

You have spent a lifetime in poetry now. What are you most grateful to poetry for?

I'm grateful to all of the poets of the past who have delighted me, and who gave me a feeling that I wanted to do something like that. And if there is a muse, I'm grateful to the muse for the occasional experience of making something as good as I wanted it to be.

And in your life—how are you grateful to poetry?

It happens that I like performing poetry. I really do like trotting around the country and reading poems to audiences, because I've gotten good at it over a period of time. Initially I had hysterical sore throats and muttered at my audiences, but I have gotten to be, within my limits, a showman, and I do enjoy that. I also enjoy being able to do something with the important feelings of my life. I think that to be inarticulate can be a great suffering, and I'm glad that my loves, and my other feelings, have sometimes found their way into poems that fully express them.


Peter Davison is the poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He is the author of many books, including The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955-1960 (1994) and The Poems of Peter Davison 1957-1995. His tenth book of poetry, No Escape, will be published next year.


Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. Wilbur photograph © Constance Stuart Larrabee 1988.

Peter Davison (1928-2004), author of numerous books of poetry and criticism, was the Atlantic's poetry editor for thirty years.
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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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