Dana Gioia on Richard Wilbur's Style and Sensibility
In September, 1947 Richard Wilbur's first book, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems appeared. The poet was twenty-six years old, a remarkably early age for so definitive a debut. The Beautiful Changes received excellent reviews with critics praising Wilbur as an especially gifted member of "the war generation" of writers. By the time his second book Ceremony and Other Poems arrived in 1950 Wilbur had become the poet of his generation. Babette Deutsch exclaimed in the New York Times Book Review, "Here is poetry to be read with the eye, the ear, the heart and the mind." Even the notoriously tough Joseph Bennett declared in The Hudson Review "Wilbur's is the strongest poetic talent I can see in America below the generation now in their fifties." Heady praise for a poet not yet thirty.
Since the publication of Ceremony, Wilbur's artistic stature has never been seriously challenged. His work not only demonstrated his unsurpassed individual gifts, but it also exemplified a new formal style emerging among the mid-century generation of poets. Sometimes called the "New Critical" style, this approach usually employed rhyme and meter, elaborate wordplay (especially puns and paradoxes), and intricate argument to create subtle and intelligent—but rarely highly emotional—poems. The poems were complex but comprehensible—and they often seemed to cry out for critical analysis, especially the line-by-line examination called "close reading" practiced by the New Critics.
One sees the features of the "New Critical" style in the opening stanza of "Ceremony," which describes a painting of a woman in a forest by the French Impressionist Jean-Frédéric Bazille. The dry wit and quiet control of the first five lines hardly prepare one for the magic of the stanza's final line:
A striped blouse in a clearing by Bazille
Is, you may say, a patroness of boughs
Too queenly kind toward nature to be kin.
But ceremony never did conceal,
Save to the silly eye, which all allows,
How much we are the woods we wander in.
(New and Collected Poems)
Is it any wonder that critic Clive James has praised Wilbur's genius for the "killer-diller line"?
If Ceremony cemented Wilbur's reputation, it also began to raise what would become the central critical issue surrounding his work. There was no question that his poetry was immensely accomplished—musically phrased, intelligently conceived, and imagistically memorable. Wilbur seemed incapable of writing a bad poem. The real question was whether he was sufficiently ambitious. Did Wilbur achieve perfection on a small scale at the expense of larger accomplishment? Was he unwilling to risk failure by tackling big themes and extended forms? Poet-critic Randall Jarrell most succinctly expressed this creative quandary in an otherwise positive review of Ceremony. "Mr. Wilbur never goes too far, but he never goes far enough." This critical reservation would follow Wilbur across his entire career.
Wilbur's next volume, Things of This World (1956), however, momentarily silenced his critics and unquestionably dazzled his admirers. The collection won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
Wilbur retired from teaching in 1986, and in 1987 he succeeded Robert Penn Warren to become the second Poet Laureate of the United States. He now divides his time between two homes—one in Cummington, Massachusetts and the other in Key West, Florida. While many poets lose artistic vitality in middle age or stop writing verse altogether, Wilbur is the rare poet who has maintained an unbroken high standard. His style and sensibility have not changed greatly after The Beautiful Changes—except for a slight darkening of tone in his poems of old age—but every volume has contained superb new work. The special consistency of his achievement was recognized when his New and Collected Poems (1989) won the Pulitzer Prize, making him the only living American poet to have won the award twice. His literary stature has even grown in recent years as a new generation of young poets interested in rhyme and meter have looked to him as mentor and model.