The Interview with Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) Page Three

This interview of Richard Wilbur by Jason Gray was first published in The Missouri Review, Volume 27, Number 3, Winter 2004

Interviewer:

Do you see poetic inspiration in the same light as its religious counterpart?

Wilbur:

Robert Frost once said that “poetry and religion are sisters, but they’re not twin sisters.” Coleridge was careful to say that imagination is a “repetition in the finite mind” of the divine fiat. God creates, while we can at best compare, organize and fuse. But when we are given to write a line that’s new, shapely and vital, we are right to thank God for it. Indeed, such a line is a tribute to Him.

 

Interviewer:

You’ve written a number of ekphrastic poems—“Museum Piece,”  “A  Dutch  Courtyard,”  about  de  Hooch,  whom  I  love,  and  “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” to name a few.

 

Wilbur:

My father was a painter, and so from early days I was sensitized  to  visual  art  and  familiar  with art books, studios, museums and galleries. It was inevitable that my poems should be full of seeing and of pictures. Actually, visual imagery is primary in everybody’s poetry—partly because there are so few terms with which to describe “Many  people  nowadays  are  embarrassed by the word ‘inspiration.’.  “When we are given . . . a line that’s new, shapely and vital, we are right to thank God for it.” taste and odors—but some seeings are more vivid and material than others. Yeats, for instance, offers very few concrete perceptions; I am in the other camp with Hopkins and Lawrence. As a painter’s son, I take pleasure in accurate detail such as you’ll find at the end of my poem “March,” where I try to capture the look and behavior of a beech leaf in a gully of sparkling snow. One aspect of the visual is its relative standoffishness  (which  offended  Lawrence  and  pleased  Baudelaire), and I’ve written about that in a poem called “The Eye.”

 

Interviewer:

Ballet is a subject that comes up in your poems often, whether as a focus or just through word  choice: the entrechats of “Mayflies,” for instance, and the leaves “held in ice as dancers in a spell,” from “Year’s End.” Has ballet always been an interest?

 

Wilbur:

I do care for ballet, whether in performance or Degas. But there are things one likes to talk about in poetry because they are ways of expressing aspects of the world, yet that one does not obsessively pursue in reality. A reader of my poems might think me more devoted to fishing than I really am.

 

Interviewer:

You mentioned being “in camp” with Hopkins and Lawrence. Were these two writers early influences on your work? Who else was an influence?

 

Wilbur:

Hopkins was an early admiration of mine, and later I responded to a number of other poets who saw the world with a striking exactness and respect for fact. Lawrence’s poems about birds and beasts were like that, and others who fortified me in that inclination were Marianne Moore, Francis Ponge, Williams. By the time I had written two books, I had pretty well ceased to be “influenced” but continued to read other poets with relish.

 

Interviewer:

You’ve translated a number of French plays and poems from several languages. Do you find yourself, to paraphrase Friedrich Schleiermacher, bringing the writer to the reader or the reader to the writer when you translate?

 

Wilbur:

I would never sacrifice any of the original in hopes of making its English version easier or more appealing for the imagined contemporary reader. The translator who does that sort of thing betrays contempt for the reader and a lack of taste, or such is the usual case. Such a translator is cousin to the theater director who thinks it enlivening to bring a seventeenth-century character onstage pedaling a bicycle. My biggest jobs of translation have been Molière’s comedies, and since Molière’s language is clear and timeless, I have not had to wrestle with any temptation to “update” or vulgarize or explain.

 

Interviewer:

I’m curious how you choose what you translate. Have you ever considered trying your hand at more of Dante, beyond Canto 25 of the Inferno?

 

Wilbur:

I’ve often translated as a kind of tribute to a poem or play that has charmed me and to which I have hoped to give a second life in English. Many other translations, from languages I don’t have, have been suggested to me by editors who felt that with some linguistic aid I might attune myself to the originals and do them justice. People like Olga Carlisle, Max Hayward or Patricia Blake have been very good at matching Russian poems to my abilities and sensibilities. Or vice versa. Others have paired me with poems in Hungarian or Portuguese or Romanian. I much enjoyed doing Canto 25 for an Ecco Press translation of the Inferno by various hands, though since I rendered it faithfully and in purely rhymed terza rima, it was hard and slow work. So slow was it that, starting Dante at my present age of eighty-three, I might find myself in the afterlife (Purgatory, no doubt) before finishing the whole Commedia. I had better stick with Molière.

 

Interviewer:

I wonder if you might comment on the Treasury Department’s recent ban on editing and translating work from Iran and other so-called unfriendly countries.

 

Wilbur:

That ban seems a stupid idea. We did better during the Cold War, when Russian and American writers (I among them) translated each other and visited each other’s countries. Why not develop a little understanding and mutual respect, so as to be ready when political “friendship” resumes?

Interviewer:

I want to turn to another significant area of your work. What made you begin writing children’s poems? Did you try them out on your children and grandchildren?

 

Wilbur:

Among the things I once read to my children were the nonsense poems of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Because my children loved them as much as I did, I was encouraged by the memory of their laughter to do the poems (and drawings) that became Opposites (1973) and More Opposites (1991) and the books that followed.

Interviewer:

Do you see these poems in a similar light to your riddles and games poems?

 

Wilbur:

There is certainly a relationship between my children’s books and all those riddles I’ve translated  from Symphosius or Aldhelm and put into my verse collections. A riddle is a dark and farfetched

metaphor that connects things not ordinarily connected. My opposites poems offer to provide neat polarities, and then by some perverse logic demonstrate that the opposite of willow is hyena or that the opposite of moth is moth. Both riddles and opposites poems are out to disturb one’s normal conception of the world and so are the poems in The Pig in the Spigot, which—as the title suggests—connect things on the mere pretext that the name of one is contained in the name of the other. All of these word games, these slight shakings of the structure of reality, appeal to children because, though children need security, they also relish a bit of chaos.

 

Interviewer:

Before you retired from teaching, did you find yourself in a situation with the roles reversed, you as the esteemed mentor, with younger teachers and poets at Smith looking up to you?

 

Wilbur:

Before the free-verse, creative-writing sort of poem became the period style, it would never have occurred to me to classify myself as a “formal poet,” but under present circumstances people like Tony Hecht and me find ourselves regarded by some as Old Masters and the Mentors of a formalist revival. I’d rather my poems were read for themselves and not as the weaponry of a cause, but I’m grateful, in any case, to be read.


Interviewer:

As a member of a generation of writers who reacted against the free verse of modernism by writing with meter and rhyme, what do you think of this recent generation of reactionaries, “The New Formalists”?

 

Wilbur:

The word “formalism,” in the dictionary, is a near neighbor of “formaldehyde,” and it is not strange that many poets now making fresh use of old means should wish to disassociate themselves from any phalanx of “New Formalists.”  But there is such a phenomenon as you describe, and it’s invigorating, and without naming names I should say that it includes a number of the finest talents around.

 

Interviewer:

Could you comment on a statement Christian Wiman made in a recent editorial in Poetry (April 2004)? Wiman said, “Poetry as we know it in twenty-first century America can die, will die without a committed audience that is larger than its practitioners, and those of us for whom the art is important must ask ourselves hard practical questions about its survival. Have we strayed too far from the techniques of poetry that have traditionally made it pleasurable and memorable? Should our content be more public? . . . Must they in some ways adapt to the dominance of the image?”

 

Wilbur:

Your quotation puts me in mind of the day when one of my sons came home from kindergarten chanting this couplet: “Fire, fire, raging all about!/Here come the firemen to put the fire out!” Some of the charm of that derives from the exciting subject matter, to be sure, but if the second line were “Here now come the firemen to extinguish the blaze,” my son would not have said it over and over, and would not remember it to this day. It is suitable rhyme and a strong, expressive, scannable rhythm which make that poem pleasurable and memorable, and the same can be said of many weightier poems which we can enjoy and can recall. I also agree with your quotation in feeling that too much of our poetry is merely personal and speaks with a public voice only when there is an opportunity for protest. I doubt, however, that we can order or legislate a change in American poetry; in such matters, the optative is better than the imperative.

 

Interviewer:

Are you familiar with the recent debate that went on in Poetry between Dana Gioia and August Kleinzahler over Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems anthology? Kleinzahler wrote: “Are we not yet adult enough as a culture to acknowledge that the arts are not for everyone, and that bad art is worse than no art at all; and that good or bad, art’s exclusive function is to entertain, not to improve or nourish or console, simply entertain.”

 

Wilbur:

August Kleinzahler’s poems are wonderfully entertaining, and in all compelling poetry, however grave, there is play. There’s playfulness even in Paradise Lost, which Milton intended as a work “exemplary to a nation.” But I do think there’s more to what we do than entertainment alone. A good poem can give us words for what we feel and rescue us from the inarticulate. It can embolden us by giving names to our fears. It can state matters with a lasting clarity so that certain questions can’t arise without some line or phrase of it coming to mind. It can subtly change us: a contagious sensibility can dispose us to think or live in one way or another. Or so I think.

“I’d rather my poems were read for themselves and not as the weaponry of a cause....”

“A good poem can ...rescue us from the inarticulate.”

Copyright  Better than Starbucks 2017, a poetry magazine    

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