By Todd R. Nelson
Richard Wilbur wrote poems you carry in your pocket for life, lines that, upon reading, you know you want to share. In “Ceremony,” an early poem, he could have been speaking of poems we choose to keep us company: “How much we are the woods we wander in.”
Wilbur died on Saturday at age 96. He twice won the Pulitzer Prize (1957 and 1988) and numerous other prestigious awards. He was the second U.S. poet laureate. He was a World War II veteran. He wrote nine volumes of poetry. His translations of Moliere, Racine, Voltaire, Borges, Akhmatova and Valéry were legendary. He illustrated his own children’s book. He was elected library trustee in his hometown of rural Cummington, Mass., by a landslide, while poet laureate. And he wrote on an ancient manual typewriter. You can hear its clatter in a poem called “The Writer,” about the poet’s daughter composing a story with “a commotion of typewriter-keys/Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.” Pocket that simile.
His poems brought beauty and elegant, even stark order to challenging topics. They have a gravitational pull countering chaos and horror. His verses always arrive at a succinct distillation of thought, feeling and verbal precision. Accompany him through any field or forest or vantage point — the flowering meadow, groves of maples, birches, aspen and sycamore; the battlefield or Beowulf; June light, or the eyes of an SS officer — to share a sharp, metaphysical gaze. Into the pocket they go — as epic lines and as memory of what they felt like on first reading.
Like the last stanza of “Year’s End,” a poem that revisits historical extinctions and contemplates humankind’s future on the verge of a new year.
These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
Even with all the cautionary examples he cites, Wilbur retains a glimmer of hope in self-knowledge. The rigor of the rhyme makes it memorable.
Such orderly beauty seems central to the power of poetry itself — to the logic of insisting on poetry’s relevance and vitality. It’s a counterpoint to our often ragged, unraveling advance into the future, a fraying of the fabric of past and present. A Wilbur poem presides over the skirmish between what has been and what will be, stasis or revolt. Portable. Pocketable. Shareable.
If students and young readers wrote to him, he wrote them back. When I taught a Wilbur poem to ninth-graders one year, Imogene didn’t like it. “That was the stupidest poem ever,” she complained. But the poem itself won her over. It was the beginning of her understanding of how poems mean. “I get it now!” she soon proclaimed. I’d like to think the poem still resides in her pocket. “A Simile for Her Smile” taught me how a simile means, and all that a smile could be.
Wilbur captured the torments of reading and writing and parenting. I have known the painful effort of the struggling young writer, and the painful restraint of the father of the young writer struggling for flight, like the trapped starling/writer in “The Writer.” It has been my daughter too, “the stuff of her life…a great cargo, and some of it heavy,” yearning for her words to soar. And I too have thought: “I wish her a lucky passage,” and cheered the moment when,
It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.
He speaks for the young writer, and the young father in me.
A few weeks before my marriage my father shared “A Wedding Toast,” Wilbur’s 1971 poem composed for his son’s wedding. It revisits the marriage at Cana, where water was made wine:
It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.
Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That the world’s fullness is not made but found.
It became my standard gift to couples tying the knot, and my own daily inspiration — such a gentle, memorable celebration of how common a miracle can be. Whatever woods he now wanders, Wilbur will be its laureate.
Todd R. Nelson is a former English teacher and principal. He lives in Penobscot.