Richard Wilbur, my favorite living poet, is no longer on the planet with us. He died on Saturday at the fine age of 96, and I'm thankful he stayed with us so long, and gave us such beautiful word gifts. I wish I'd met him, but he is great, and I am small, and that meeting will have to wait for another time.
I pulled out my anthology of Wilbur's poetry, New and Collected Poems, 1988.
I've perused this book and used it in teaching and for my own enjoyment. But I feel now a desire to study Wilbur's work more thoroughly, so I plan to study a poem each day until I'm done. I turned to the last poem, "The Beautiful Changes," a lovely piece. Somehow, I wanted to drift through the book from front to back, but then I told myself that was silly, and turned to the table of contents to see if perhaps they were in chronological order from front to back. However -- they are not. They are in chronological order from back to front! So my desire to study "The Beautiful Changes" first, going back to his early work in 1947, was intuitively spot-on! I won't bore you with a blow-by-blow of my thinking on each poem, but occasionally I may plop a Wilbur poem here for our enlightenment.
I love Wilbur's work because he is clean and rather clear-speaking, for a poet. He has a deep skill in rhyme. His poetic agility appears as effortless as Mary Lou Retton's routine on the balance beam: actually the result of years of grueling work, I'm sure. He eschews flounce and fluff and involved, dramatic expressions. If he can't say it with simple elegance, he won't say it.
His dislike for useless metaphor is the topic of this poem, "Praise in Summer":
Obscurely yet most surely called to praise
As sometimes summer calls us all, I said
The hills are heavens full of branching ways
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
I said the trees are mines in air, I said
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savor's in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it? To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?
And while asking such good questions, and giving perfect examples of both arguments, he also writes a sonnet. (Sigh)
Even in his last three lines, designed to showcase a simple voice in poetry, he cannot escape alliteration and just a little bit of metaphor. Does the day have a ceiling?
Do you know Wilbur? Do you have a favorite poem of his?