New Poems and

Richard Wilbur
One of our writer friends said that all poetry should be pertinent or impertinent. That is, it should address itself to issues vital to our lives, or, contrariwise, make fun of the whole bag of tea. Thus when Keats speaks of

    The weariness, the fever, and the fret,
       Here where men sit and hear each other groan...
       Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.
          Where but to think it to be full of sorrow
             And leaden-eyed despairs...

He is letting us know that even in the so-called "romantic" world, life's a bitch. This we call pertinent.

Philip Larkin, by contrast, was master of the impertinent:

    Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
      "Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
    I am all you never had of goods and sex,
      You could get them still by writing a few cheques."

    So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
      They certainly don't keep it upstairs.
    By now they've a second house and car and wife:
      Clearly money has something to do with life

    --- In fact, they've a lot in common, if you enquire:
      You can't put off being young until you retire,
    And however you bank your screw, the money you save
      Won't in the end buy you more than a shave.

    I listen to money singing. It's like looking down
      From long French windows at a provincial town,
    The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
      In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

And, finally, it's a combination of both --- the truth in irony when Shelley speaks of Ozymandias, king of kings:

    "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The one and level sands stretch far away.

§     §     §

Now, we wish we could say that this Richard Wilbur represents either pertinence or impertinence (or both) but, alas, we fear it is neither. The very name "Mayflies" tells you the importance with which he holds the words he has slapped together in this volume. The way he throws them at us --- dish-water out the kitchen window --- makes you wonder if he is, in his dotage, merely turning fatuous. For example,

 there to the south
    Slow vultures kettling in the lofts of air...

gives us the funny --- not funny peculiar but funny ha-ha --- vision of vultures, tumbling about in the air, like tea-kettles.

    Two boys, however, do not please with time
    Distracted as they are by what? --- perhaps
    A whacking flash of gull-wings overhead ---

offers a very peculiar image which has nothing to do with gulls or wings --- but, rather, an ancient, somewhat lurid expression that boys use when they are discussing masturbation.

There may be a different message in the grotesquely titled "This Pleasing Anxious Being,"

    In no time you are back where safety was,
    Spying upon the lambent table where
    Good family faces drink in the candlelight
    As in a manger scene by de La Tour.

The message from the poet? "Hang onto your hats, folks. I'm gonna stick in some fifty-cent words and names in here. Words like 'lambent,' names like de La Tour --- which may befuddle you but which will prove, without a doubt, that I do words for a living." (Lambent means "flickering;" de la Tour was an obscure painter out of 17th Century France.)

The image, by the way, of faces that "drink in the candlelight" is what my old English teacher, Miss Craven, would call "stretching." (Are faces really like sponges? Or is it a portrait of a family sipping wine by candlelight? Is it the Holy Family sipping in the divine light?)

Even the poem's title has a wimpiness to it --- wimpy, indeed, being a fine adjective to lay on this whole flatulent school of poetry of the 1940s and 50s --- versifiers like Louis Simpson, John Hollander, Robert Penn Warren and Wilbur who grew famous under the moss-backed softness of the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, the Paris Review --- ones who fed at the Guggenheim trough, spent their winters in Venice and Livorno, writing about hazy sunsets and grape arbors, letting their brains turn to peat-moss. (Wilbur has, over the years, won not one but two Pulitzer Prizes --- but be warned that this is a literary back-scratch poetasters' society, where those who hand out the awards eat, drink, and sleep with those who receive them.)

Lest you think I am totally prejudiced against this school of tight, controlled, useless writing, let me suggest that the title poem has some naturalistic merit in it: it manages to let us see, and see generously, a cloud of mayflies:

    In somber forest, when the sun was low,
    I saw from unseen pools a mist of flies
          In their quadrillions rise
    And animate a ragged patch of glow
    With sudden glittering...

Even so, our versifier manages to spit in the soup by throwing in some more of those fancy-pants words ("In entrechats each fluttering insect..." "How fair the fiats of the caller are..." --- this last putting us in mind of certain Italian cars, perhaps viewed through a drunken evening haze in Rome, during a Guggenheim-paid sabbatical.)

Over the years, Wilbur has made a name for himself --- and a worthy one --- by translating poems and plays by the likes of Apollinaire, Borges, Molière, Jammes and Valéry. Indeed, one of his translations of Vinicius de Moraes is a haunting and pertinent meditation on kindertoten:

    Never take her away,
    The daughter whom you gave me,
    The gentle, moist, untroubled
    Small daughter whom you gave me;
    O let her heavenly babbling
    Beset me and enslave me.
    Don't take her; let her stay,
    Beset my heart, and win me
    That I may put away
    The firstborn child within me,
    That cold, petrific dry
    Daughter whom death once gave,
    Whom life is a long cry
    For milk she may not have,
    And who, in the night-time, calls me
    In the saddest voice that can be...

Dare we suggest that it might be time for this much-honored poet to accept the fact that he has but become a name, having drunk life to the lees, but still may yet find, in different vales --- translation, drama --- some other field of noble note.

--- A. W. Allworthy

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