Today is the 90th birthday of Richard Wilbur, arguably America’s greatest living poet. The Wall Street Journal has a handsome appreciation:
His productivity, never high to begin with, has slowed with age. He finishes poems at the rate that Antonio Stradivari constructed a violin. “I often don’t write more than a couple of lines in a day of, let’s say, six hours of staring at the sheet of paper,” he told the Paris Review in 1977. “Composition for me is, externally at least, scarcely distinguishable from catatonia.”
He believes over time, though, that the joints in his verse have loosened up even as those in his body have stiffened. Whereas his family once seemed off-limits as a subject, last year’s “Anterooms: New Poems and Translations” opened with a tribute to his wife (“The House”) that was heartbreaking in its reticence.
“One of the jobs of poetry is to make the unbearable bearable, not by falsehood but by clear, precise confrontation,” he has said. Mr. Wilbur has met that challenge by holding himself to the strict, outmoded view that what can’t be described well maybe isn’t worth writing down.
Few things in American life are built to last. Mr. Wilbur’s poems and translations are an implausible anomaly. Wherever English is read, tomorrow and a century of birthdays from now, their example will still be inspiring veneration and dispensing comfort.
Though I find it hard to believe, I posted a stanza of one of my favorite Wilbur poems on this blog four years ago (on the feast of Saint Teresa). Here is the entire poem:
After the sun’s eclipse
The brighter angel and the spear which drew
A bridal outcry from her open lips,
She could not prove it true,
Nor think at first of any means to test
By what she had been wedded or possessed.
Not all cries were the same;
There was an island in mythology
Called by the very vowels of her name
Where vagrants of the sea,
Changed by a word, were made to squeal and cry
As heavy captives in a witch’s sty.
The proof came soon and plain:
Visions were true which quickened her to run
God’s barefoot errands in the rocks of Spain
Beneath its beating sun,
And lock the O of ecstasy within
The tempered consonants of discipline.