At Play With Myth and Form
Arguably America’s greatest living poet, Richard Wilbur is, beyond doubt, our most skilled contemporary practitioner of traditional forms. A two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and a former poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, he has had a long and auspicious career, publishing his first volume of poetry at age 26 and his most recent at 89. In the intervening decades, Wilbur also established himself as an accomplished translator, producing definitive translations of Racine and Voltaire, as well as a librettist, working with the composer Leonard Bernstein and the playwright Lillian Hellman on “Candide,” the popular operetta based on Voltaire’s novel. To round out his résumé, Wilbur also authored several delightful collections of poetry for children. Anterooms provides a sampling of this impressive range by a poet still working in peak form.
Though rhyme and regular meter fell out of fashion in the latter half of the 20th century, Wilbur never abandoned received poetic forms. His poems have long been known for their elegance and their attention to craft, and Anterooms is no exception. The volume opens with a selection of original lyrics, marvels of compression and clarity, touching on the very human longing for immortality and transcendence. A prime example is the volume’s opening poem, “The House,” in which a widower recalls his late wife’s recurring dream of a white house glimpsed only from the outside. The poem ends with a haunting image—the speaker searching desperately in his own dreams for the house, which has come to represent the possibility of an afterlife in which he might be reunited with his beloved:
Is she now there, wherever there
Only a foolish man would hope to
That haven fashioned by her
Night after night, my love, I put to
The longing for transcendence takes another form in “Young Orchard,” in which saplings “Rise against their rootedness/ On a gusty day,” an image that stands for the ways in which terrestrial beings—trees and humans alike—chafe at the constrictions of our earthly incarnations. Another fine poem, “The Measuring Worm,” uses a tiny, closely observed detail—the movements of an inch worm—to touch on the mature poet’s fear of death:
By a sort of semaphore Dark omegas meant
It’s as if he sent
By a sort of semaphore
Dark omegas meant
To warn of Last Things.
If those lines seem ominous, Wilbur manages in this slender poem to also convey hope:
Although he doesn’t know it,
He will soon have wings,
And I too don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.
Later, in the volume’s third section, the poet tallies his own foibles and failings. In “Out Here,” a snow shovel left leaning against a house in July becomes a small affectation of Yankee ruggedness. “A Reckoning” finds the speaker recalling “Fatuities that I/ Have uttered, drunk or dry” and realizing that his real failings are not those small human errors but instead the sin of pride that makes him feel them so fully.
Anterooms intersperses sections of Wilbur’s original lyric poems with his deft translations from Stephen Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Horace and Joseph Brodsky, as well as a sampling of 37 verse riddles from the Latin poet Symphosius. In particular, “Presepio,” the first of Brodsky’s “Two Nativity Poems,” feels thematically tied to Wilbur’s own original poems, its description of the relationship between a small clay crèche and the humans who gaze down at it evoking a touching loneliness:
Now you are huge compared to
them, and high
Beyond their ken. Like a midnight
Who finds the pane of some small
You peer from the cosmos at this
There is something haunting and mysterious in the inversion depicted here, with the holy nativity scene shrunk by time almost out of the viewer’s reach. The onlooker longs for a spark of divinity, for “A different galaxy, in whose wastes there shine/ More lights than there are sands in Palestine.”
Within this slender volume, Wilbur’s tonal range extends from the sublime to the silly. Like formal poetry, light verse has fallen out of fashion, but Wilbur continues to write it, and Anterooms contains a sampling of rhymes intended “for children and others.” “Some Words Inside of Words” offers up playful musings on the relationship between words like “homeowner” and “meow,” or “ice cube” and “cub.” Anterooms also includes a smidgeon of satire, “The President’s Song to the Baron,” written for a musical version of Jean Giraudoux’s La Folle de Chaillot. In it, powerful characters fantasize about an ideal workforce made up of automatons: “What a luscious conception, far sweeter than babas or tarts!/ A standardized laboring man with replaceable parts!” Tying together the volume’s humorous poems with its serious ones is the crisp intelligence that runs through both.
The witty, meticulously crafted poems of Anterooms amply illustrate why Wilbur has long been a poet’s poet. Unlike most contemporary verse, Wilbur’s poems are worth rereading not because they—in the words of Wallace Stevens—“resist the intelligence/ Almost successfully” and call for effortful decodings. Sparkling and transparent, Wilbur’s poems yield their meanings on a first reading, but nonetheless contain depths worth diving into again and again.