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Poet Takes Refuge in Language Itself : NEW AND COLLECTED POEMS: by Richard Wilbur (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $27.95; 393 pp.)

July 31, 1988|Joshua Odell | Odell has worked for several publishing houses, including Alfred A. Knopf, Grove Press and George Braziller Inc. He also has served as a contributing editor to Publishers Weekly. and

Four hundred pages of poems by a contemporary writer makes an extraordinarily impressive book to hold in one's hands, particularly if the poems are by Richard Wilbur. A friend and contemporary of such poets as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, and Theodore Roethke--all now dead--Wilbur has in several ways actually had a curiously quiet reputation given his dozens of published works and a litany of honors and awards. One hopes that this collection comprising four decades of verse will secure the notice and attention Wilbur's work so clearly deserves, for he is a major poet of our time.

Poetry consultant to the Library of Congress and the nation's second Poet Laureate (following the tenure of Robert Penn Warren), Wilbur has not had a major book of poems published for 11 years. This retrospective collection includes Wilbur's first six volumes in reverse chronological order and opens with a section comprising 26 new poems and a forceful and eloquent cantata, "On Freedom's Ground."

"A vocal and instrumental composition, comprising choruses, solos, and recitatives," is one dictionary's definition of a cantata. Done in collaboration with the composer William Schuman, "On Freedom's Ground" was first performed at Lincoln Center in October, 1986, in celebration of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. The five-part text is published here for the first time.

There is, of course, a story behind the work. Upon being commissioned to write a piece for the Statue of Liberty celebrations, Schuman spent some time hunting for a patriotic poem. Finally, unable to find one suitable for the occasion, he contacted his friend Richard Wilbur.

Schuman (one of the most distinguished composers of today--a Pulitzer Prize winner and president of the Juilliard School of music for nearly two decades) writes of the collaboration: "From the start, Mr. Wilbur and I decided not to write a piece for an occasion but, rather, to use the occasion for a work of which America itself would be the subject--the things that are right and some that are wrong--a land always with the possibility of change."

The cantata is placed in a separate section apart from the 26 new poems, writes Wilbur, "because it asks to be read as words for music, and as an effort to say something clear and acceptable, yet not wholly predictable, on a national occasion."

Wilbur is quick to explain in his introduction that "friends have persuaded me that the title 'New and Collected' has not the finality of 'Collected' or 'Complete," and that this book should not be a catchall." (Indeed among his published works are to be found three children's books--all in verse of course; remarkably graceful translations of the comedies of Moliere and the tragedies of Racine; lyrics for a music adaptation of Voltaire's "Candide" done in collaboration with Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein; and critical essays on Poe, Frost, Shakespeare, Whitman, and Bryant among others.)

The new poems written over a decade largely devoted to translating Racine's "Andromache" and "Phaedra" into rhymed couplets--a virtuoso skill of Wilbur's unmatched in American Letters--clearly show a continued evolution in style from an ornate elegance found particularly in Wilbur's first collection, "The Beautiful Changes," toward a simple, direct and crisp verse.

In his essay, "On My Own Work," Wilbur comments: "My first poems were written in answer to the inner and outer disorders of World War II, and they helped me, as poems should, to take hold of raw events and convert them, provisionally, into experience. At the same time, I think that they may at moments have taken refuge from events in language itself--in wordplay, in the coinage of new words, and a certain precosity. At any rate, my writing is now plainer and more straightforward than it used to be."

Wilbur's work has not enjoyed the popular appeal that perhaps it could given its clarity and grace--in short, its accessibility to any reader. From the publication of "The Beautiful Changes" in 1947, Wilbur has often been praised for his formal felicity. And since that time, Wilbur has continued to write in traditional meter and rhymes, and yet curiously managed (unlike other poets such as Yvor Winters and J. V. Cunningham) not to alienate himself from his contemporaries--many of whom began writing in blank verse or syllabics and moved steadily toward free verse.

In a recent interview with J. D. McClatchy, Wilbur reflected upon this, stating, "I write in meters, stanzas and rhymes at a time when the new form is prosaic free verse. It is counter to the times. Sometimes I feel self-doubtful, a stick in the mud."

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