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1988 BOOK PRIZE WINNER: POETRY The Coiled Fury of His Chosen Reticence

October 09, 1988|X. J. KENNEDY | Kennedy garnered a 1985 Los Angeles Times book prize for "Cross Ties: Selected Poems" (University of Georgia Press)

Legend has it that at a party in San Francisco back when the Beat Generation was first howling, some barefoot youngsters in distressed jeans were standing around sipping weed, talking with gentlemanly, buttoned-down-collar poet Richard Wilbur. Full of romantic dreams about riding the rods, one lad was demonstrating the right way to grasp a boxcar handle and swing yourself aboard. But a fact soon became evident: Among all there, the only one who had ever actually hopped a freight train and hoboed around the country was--of all people--Wilbur.

I can't vouch for this story, but it rings true for me. There's more to Wilbur and his poetry than a respectable, polished exterior. The anecdote reflects Wilbur the man: modest, unpretentious, playful, full of know-how and surprise, a celebrant of the delights of this world.

To bestow the 1988 Los Angeles Times Book Prize on Wilbur's 40-year harvest of "New and Collected Poems" seems unarguable. It's a little like handing Mt. McKinley a blue ribbon as 1988's No. 1 North American protuberance. Still, though Wilbur's work has been in view for a long while, it hasn't always had active notice. When I began writing verse in 1950, there were only two young poets whom younger poets imitated. Depending on your bent, you attempted either reckless, word-drunk formal verse like Robert Lowell's, or else smooth, graciously mannered formal verse like Wilbur's. (Just to recall those days makes me want to tug my graying beard and mourn, Ah! so few possibilities! Wasn't life for poets back then much easier?) In the 1960s meter and rhyme, whether wildly or graciously managed, went out of style. For 20 years, I suspect, few young poets adorned their walls with pinups of Wilbur. But today, in a stampede back to traditional forms, they've rediscovered him.

Some poets--Theodore Roethke, James Dickey--live in furious change, razing their work and rebuilding it every year or two, like Picasso going through his variously colored periods. With Wilbur any change has been slow and nonviolent. How firmly he has persisted in what he does so well, refusing to cut his coat to passing fashion. He has devoted himself to shaping not a career but individual poems, and he has made them to last. In his "New and Collected Poems," he discards nothing from any earlier collection, and he slightly alters only a few words.

Not that he hasn't learned. Although his earlier books may boast more, and more spectacular, anthology pieces--"In the Elegy Season," "Still, Citizen Sparrow," "Juggler," "Year's End," "Beasts" and more--yet his new work displays new virtues. For one thing, his recent poems are more easily speakable--a result, I suspect, of his translating so much of Moliere. More often now, the poems tell stories. Moreover, the gifts Wilbur has always had--an impeccable ear, an eye for a metaphor--today shine brightly as ever. In a new poem, "Transit," a woman steps out of her town house:

Still, nothing changes as her perfect feet

Click down the walk that issues in the street,

Leaving the stations of her body there

As a whip maps the countries of the air.

In the new work, the speaker's voice seems less often barricaded from its subject by cool irony; indeed, poems such as "The Ride" and "The Catch" show the poet (or someone like him) stepping into a poem as a participant.

And yet Wilbur never has trumpeted his personal history in poetry. Unlike Lowell, he hasn't reminded us of his descent through 11 generations of New England Yankees. Though he took part in the invasions of Italy and Southern France in World War II, his early war poems do not reek of shot and shell like Wilfred Owen's. Much of Wilbur's life has been spent in the New England academe: studying at Amherst and Harvard, then teaching at Harvard, Wellesley, Wesleyan and Smith. Now retired after 36 years of teaching, having served his term at the Library of Congress as our official Poet Laureate, he divides his time between Key West and western Massachusetts. A recent interviewer, J. D. McClatchy, visiting Wilbur at home, found him cultivating his garden, looking forward to a certain kind of saffron-colored broccoli whose florets reminded him of the domes of Buddhist temples. It is the kind of exact comparison between common and sublime you'd expect of a man who could portray "A Black November Turkey"--

The pale-blue bony head

Set on its shepherd's crook

Like a saint's death-mask ...

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