Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Richard Wilbur, Great American Poet: An Appreciation

I read in the New York Times this week of the death at 96 of the great American poet, Richard Wilbur. Wilbur was a former poet laureate of the United States, a two time Pulitzer Prize winner and a National Book Award winner, who published numerous volumes of poetry, as well as children's books, translations of Moliere plays, and song lyrics. He teamed with Leonard Bernstein as the lyricist for the Broadway musical, Candide. Wilbur held a special place in my heart, not only because of his great poetry, but also because he was one of the very few great American poets that I actually got to meet and talk to.

In 1967, Wilbur was a visiting artist at the Spring Arts Festival at Bloomsburg State College (now University), where I was a sophomore history major and aspiring actor. As part of the Festival, and as a way to honor Wilbur, the Bloomsburg Players were putting on Wilbur's translation of Tartuffe, by Moliere. As a member of the cast, I was invited to a seminar that Wilbur gave on campus, just a dozen students sitting around a table and chatting about poetry and plays.

Wilbur was central casting for my youthful idea of "poet." He was in his forties then, quite handsome and urbane, wearing a turtle neck and patch sleeved sport coat, and smoking a pipe. His voice was deep, resonant, friendly and authoritative. I clearly remember that day that Wilbur discussed one of his poems, The Juggler.

The Juggler 
A ball will bounce; but less and less. It's not
A light-hearted thing, resents its own resilience.
Falling is what it loves, and the earth falls
So in our hearts from brilliance,
Settles and is forgot.
It takes a sky-blue juggler with five red balls

To shake our gravity up. Whee, in the air
The balls roll around, wheel on his wheeling hands,
Learning the ways of lightness, alter to spheres
Grazing his finger ends,
Cling to their courses there,
Swinging a small heaven about his ears.

But a heaven is easier made of nothing at all
Than the earth regained, and still and sole within
The spin of worlds, with a gesture sure and noble
He reels that heaven in,
Landing it ball by ball, ,
And trades it all for a broom, a plate, a table.

Oh, on his toe the table is turning, the broom's
Balancing up on his nose, and the plate whirls
On the tip of the broom! Damn, what a show, we cry:
The boys stamp, and the girls
Shriek, and the drum booms
And all come down, and he bows and says good-bye.

If the juggler is tired now, if the broom stands
In the dust again, if the table starts to drop
Through the daily dark again, and though the plate
Lies flat on the table top,
For him we batter our hands
Who has won for once over the world's weight. 
I remember, in particular, Wilbur telling us that he tried to get that last line "Who has won for once over the world's weight" to sound like a ball bouncing on a floor, less and less, until it finally stops still. The poem is typical of Wilbur's poetry: formal. witty, spiritual, but not preachy, and absolutely virtuosic in its command of form.
When I became a teacher, I discovered that Wilbur also wrote (and illustrated) books for children, including his series called, Opposites, which I would often use in class.
Some Opposites

What is the opposite of riot?
It is lots of people keeping quiet.

The opposite of doughnut? Wait
A minute while I meditate
This isn’t easy. Ah! I’ve found it.
It’s a cookie with a hole around it.

What is the opposite of two?
A lonely me, a lonely you.

The opposite of a cloud could be
A white reflection in the sea
Or a huge blueness in the air
Caused by the cloud’s not being there

The opposite of opposite?
That’s much too difficult. I quit.
In Wilbur's translation of Moliere's Tartuffe, I got to speak these lines.
Enough, by God! I am through with pious men!
Henceforth I'll hate the whole false brotherhood,
And persecute them worse than Satan could.
My character was a fool who had been duped by a false prophet. Not all were so taken in by the would be cleric's  piety. The young Damis says this:
Good God! Do you expect me to submit
To the tyranny of that carping hypocrite?
Must we forego all joys and satisfactions
Because that bigot censures all our actions?
Great fun and simply a joy to perform.
Richard Wilbur was a great poet who deserves to be celebrated, but most importantly read. If you were looking to buy just one volume of his work, I would recommend New and Collected Poems, one of his two Pulitzer Prize winning volumes.
I'll finish this piece with one more of my favorites.
The Boy at a Window
Seeing the snowman standing all alone
In dusk and cold is more than he can bear.
The small boy weeps to hear the wind prepare
A night of gnashings and enormous moan.
His tearful sight can hardly reach to where
The pale-faced figure with bitumen eyes
Returns him such a God-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to paradise.

The man of snow is, nonetheless, content,
Having no wish to go inside and die.
Still, he is moved to see the youngster cry.
Though frozen water is his element,
He melts enough to drop from one soft eye
A trickle of the purest rain, a tear
For the child at the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear.