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

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

“[Frost] wanted his poems to matter a great deal to people, all the time. So do I.”

Richard Wilbur

Interviewer:

It would be easy to talk about your poetry as a link between, say, Frost and younger metrical writers, but a case can be made for your work actually being connected to Ezra Pound’s “Make

it new,” in that your poems are metrically innovative, not using traditional forms much. Do you see yourself as inheriting this from the modernists?

 

Wilbur:

When you asked me, a moment ago, to place myself in American poetry, I didn’t know what to say, but now you’ve pretty well said it for me. Frost was not only a metrist but a poet who gloriously manhandled meter, making it stress fine shadings of speech and thought. For that and for much else I would like to be his continuator. As you suggest, I cut my teeth on modernism generally, and so it is not surprising that, though using meter, rhyme and other ancient tools, I generally write a kind of poem that develops as “organically” as any free-verse poem could do.

 

Interviewer:

You  knew  Frost  when  you  were  a  fellow  at  Harvard. What was it like as a young poet to be able to converse with one of the giants of American poetry?

 

Wilbur:

 Frost, as I’ve told more than one interviewer, was initially disposed to like my wife and me because her grandfather had been the first editor to publish one of his poems and because I knew much of his work by heart. The friendship deepened as, in Ripton or Cambridge or at our house in Portland, Connecticut, we prompted his delightful and tireless talk. He thought well of my poems, and I rejoiced in that. He was less favorable to me as a critic. When I was lecturing on poetry at Harvard he would somehow be informed of anything I said about him and would send word to me that I was wrong. Actually, I was generally right, but I think the truth of it was that Robert did not like to be interpreted, even in the most admiring fashion.

 

Interviewer:

Can you talk about how you begin a poem, both in terms of subject matter and the form it takes?

 

Wilbur:

Many people nowadays are embarrassed by the word “inspiration.” Yet that’s what happens: poems come to you; you don’t go after them. Prior to the writing of a poem I have a feeling of vague potentiality. Then a striking word or phrase may occur to me and begin the process of activating that cloudy material and turning it into speech. As the words come, they somehow know from the beginning what forms will serve their mood and logic—how long the poem will be, what line length is called for, whether rhyme and stanza are needed to enforce the tone and structure. The writing may take years, and I cross out a great deal; but however hard I work, the process is experienced as passive. The words find their form.


Interviewer:

What about a poem like “In a Churchyard,” which alludes to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”? Had you planned a little more of the form to start?

 

Wilbur:

“In a Churchyard” derived, as I remember, from my on-and-off meditations on the status of absent things in Mallarmé or unheard music in Keats or the unseen gem and flower of Gray. As my thoughts on that subject began to be marshalled and spoken, I may have been formally influenced by Gray’s pentameter quatrains. Similarly, when meditations on my herb garden led me to think of the miniature landscapes of Japanese gardening, I found myself (in “Thyme Flowering among Rocks”) adopting the haiku form—or rather adapting it, since I furnished it with rhymes and used it as a stanza in a longish argument.

 

Interviewer:

Your poem “A Wood” is one that I admire because it addresses this issue of form we’ve just been talking about, and also one of the themes of your poems that I’ve come to love the most—

spirituality. Can you say a few words about spirituality in your poems? I’m thinking of course of poems like this one and “Love Calls Us to the Things of this World,” but also a poem like “Rillion, Rillettes,” which seems like very funny light verse until the last line, “or the doctrine of the Trinity,” which is the heaviest of ideas.

 

Wilbur:

 I’m an Episcopalian born and bred, though not awfully doctrinaire. In the world about me I see order and energy, and I delight in those things for themselves and also in their provenance. I’m glad that you like “A Wood,” which like many of my so-called nature poems is also about people. This one is a way of saying that the old lady with the rosary is probably as pleasing to God as are the stormy thinkers and theologians. My light-verse joke about the Trinity could seem disrespectful, I suppose; but it is a hard concept, as you say, and that’s all I meant.

 

Interviewer:

Did growing up in the Episcopal Church have any poetic influence on you? You’ve written a hymn yourself.

 

Wilbur:

The Episcopal Church has the best liturgy in Christendom, even after those recent revisions which caused Auden to say that the church was throwing away its treasure. The words of Episcopal-Anglican liturgy are long pondered, plain and beautifully phrased, and they early gave me a sense of how a moved and heightened English should sound. The Episcopal hymnal is full of rousing things, and I am pleased that the text I wrote in 1959 is now hymn number 104.

Originally the text was written at the request of my friend Richard Winslow, who set it for performance at a Wesleyan Christmas concert. What I learned, in writing the words of a hymn, was that such a composition  (as  opposed  to  a  poem)  must  not  be  an  expression  of  one’s own beliefs, doubts and peculiarities; it must be a completely orthodox statement which a whole congregation can heartily agree to make.

Interviewer:

I know you spent some time in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Could you talk about your trip there and the impact on your writing?

 

Wilbur:

Back in 1956, a young San Franciscan, who was glamor-struck by the Beats and their romance with the Road, was astonished to learn that I had once ridden freight cars all over the States. “Why didn’t you write about it, Mr. Wilbur?” he cried. The fact is that one doesn’t write about all one’s experiences, especially if the ground has already been covered by others. It was exciting to go to Russia and to meet many Russian writers and to skip stones across Black Sea water, but poems didn’t come of it. Friendships came of it, and a number of translations, and a keen sense of the painful wariness of life under tyranny.

 

Interviewer:

You had early accolades, but then because of changing tides your use of formal verse was criticized by some.

 

Wilbur:

Frost used to say that he enjoyed being “crossed off people’s lists” from time to time so that he could make another comeback. I doubt that, having suffered obscurity for the first forty years of his life, he really enjoyed the later fluctuations of his reputation. He wanted his poems to matter a great deal to people, all the time. So do I. I learned the other day that a man I respected had for several decades carried a clipped-out poem of mine in his wallet. That’s the sort of thing that sustains a poet and keeps him writing. As for what I felt when I was out of fashion, it was defiance.

 

Interviewer:

Where do you think American poetry is today, as it has come down from the tradition?

 

Wilbur:

The relation of our poetry to its public has inevitably changed, but what matters most is that America has fifteen or twenty highly gifted poets who are capable of absorbing the new and conversing with all that has gone before.

 

Interviewer:

How do you see your body of work in the context of American poetry?

 

Wilbur:

I’m not much good at literary taxonomy, and I’ve never seen myself as belonging to any school or gang. Let’s postpone this matter until some later moment.

Interviewer:

The other day, reading through your work, I was struck by the funny timing of this interview:  that here in this summer of cicada brood X, your first poem in your first book is called “Cicadas.” It’s an interesting opening to your work because, at least to my ear, it’s a poem written in, if not full-blown free verse, very loose meter. Did free verse influence this poem?

 

Wilbur:

I can remember reading, in the library of an army camp, a book about insects by Jean Henri Fabre; it may have been in French, since my first title for the poem it provoked was “Cigales.” What I can’t remember is any decision as to the poem’s form, which you rightly describe as neither free nor strictly formal. I’d say that “Cicadas” was written in loose iambics and irregularly dwindling lines, and that the feel of the stanzas is a repeated imitation of something described in the first stanza—“a/running-down record, ground round/to full quiet.” I doubt that I’d have arrived at that formal intention if I hadn’t read all sorts of modernist poetry that was “free” in one way or another.

 

Interviewer:

Yet it makes a brilliant Wilbur move: introduces a new figure into the poem to make a leap at the very end: Fabre firing the cannons. I’m thinking also of El Greco in “Museum Piece.” Could you comment on this tactic?

 

Wilbur:

I have often brought new material into the close of a poem, to clinch it; I think, for example, of the rock-pool simile at the end of “The Undead.” This type of ending, energized yet compressed, may have the effect of driving something home. Of course the poet doesn’t think abstractly about such a tactic; he employs it when he does because it simply seems the right thing to do at the moment.


Interviewer:

You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you’ve tried your hand at free verse only a few times. Even though you don’t write in that manner very often, is there anything you admire that free verse can do that maybe meter and rhyme can’t?

 

Wilbur:

When free verse succeeds, it can be excitingly spare and unassisted. Once again I think of Williams, who without any formal means save line breaks and (sometimes) a normal number of stresses per line can make you sure of his tone, his emphases and the urgent rhythms of his voice. Most free verse does not sufficiently convey those things, and even Williams can’t always do so. I suppose that the free-verse poet counts a little on the reader’s familiarity with the poet’s milieu—with the way people talk in his part of the world. My ability to hear Williams’s voice has something to do, I imagine, with the fact that I grew up just a few miles from Williams’s town of Rutherford, New Jersey. I once showed a Williams poem to Auden, and asked him if he could hear it; he said that it did not speak to his English ear.

Interviewer:

Is there something in particular you think free verse will never be able to do the way that formal poetry can?

 

Wilbur:

Meter, rhyme and stanza, in the right hands, can be inescapably precise as to tone, rhythm, emphasis and the stages of the argument. They are capable of a power and of a clear nuance to which free verse can’t aspire. On top of that, they offer a formal pleasure that free verse can’t provide. Of course that is mere assertion, but if we had time to ponder fifty or a hundred poems, formal and free, it would all turn out to be true.

“Many  people  nowadays  are  embarrassed by the word ‘inspiration.’”

“The poet doesn’t think abstractly about . . . a tactic; he employs it . . . because it simply seems the right thing to do.”    Richard Wilbur

Copyright  Better than Starbucks 2017, a poetry magazine    

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