Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur: A Biographical Study

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Let us Watch Richard Wilbur: A Biographical Study
Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg
University of Massachusetts Press, 2017

The recent death of Richard Wilbur has given us occasion to look back at his long and remarkable career, spanning seven decades and including ten volumes of poetry and fifteen translations of French plays, and Robert and Mary Baggs’ critical biography, the first of Wilbur, proves to be a timely aid to our retrospect. The book takes its title from an early review of The Beautiful Changes, his first book, published in 1947; the reviewer, Louise Bogan, was laudatory, admiring, and hopeful for a promising future: “Let us watch Richard Wilbur. He is composed of valid ingredients.” The biography, too, is composed of valid ingredients: the Baggs had exclusive access to Wilbur’s personal correspondences, journals, and family archives, and they draw upon a decade’s worth of interviews they conducted with Wilbur and his wife Charlee. The generous allotment of such ingredients is the most valuable component of the biography.

The most well-researched chapters, and perhaps the most significant to our understanding of his poetry, treat Wilbur’s time in the United States Army as a signalman for the 36th Infantry division during the Second World War. During these five years abroad, he wrote his first mature poems, which would be published in The Beautiful Changes not long after his return to the U.S. He wrote these poems, as he said in interviews, to “forget how frightened and disoriented” he was, “to take ahold of raw events and convert them, provisionally, into experience,” and to respond “to the inner and outer disorder of the Second World War.” The Baggs provide not only the raw materials to which Wilbur alluded but also a pointed excerpt from one of Wilbur’s journals that expands upon his purpose in writing these early poems: “you run to rhyme to heal the horror of it.” Not only do Wilbur’s poems come from a place of personal horror, but they also seek healing. In “Mined Country,” as the Baggs point out, the German occupation has retreated out of Southern France, yet “it’s going to be long before / Their war’s gone for good.” It has left mines buried in the woods, taken the innocence out of boys made into soldiers, and forced us to learn a new way to speak: “Shepherds must learn a new language; this / Isn’t going to be quickly resolved.” The poem ends with an imperative directed at “you,” the reader, as to what you might do if you seek “love in some manner restored,” now that “the whole world’s wild.”

Returning from war, Wilbur immediately entered graduate studies at Harvard where his creative energies were split between poetry and criticism, a tension which would remain throughout much of his life, since he would often balance the demands of writing poetry with the demands of a a teaching career. It was within a world of academic criticism that he wrote the rest of The Beautiful Changes. This context is noteworthy; many of the poems he wrote in Cambridge, and many he would write in the first half of his career, exemplify the virtues sought by the Anglophone criticism of the time, including those sought by John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and the so-called “New Criticism” generally—irony, paradox, and the well-wrought wholeness of a poem. Moreover, many of the people he mixed with at Harvard had a lasting impression, most notably among his professors F.O. Matthiessen and I.A. Richards.

At Harvard, Wilbur’s graduate work extended into art history, and the Baggs bring to light an interesting relationship between Wilbur’s poetry and one of his subjects of study, Edgar Degas. Many critics have acknowledged the painterly quality of Wilbur’s poems, and Wilbur himself has credited his painterly sensibility to his father, himself a professional artist. The Baggs give this general quality more definition: as a student, Wilbur wrote an essay on Degas that points out the painter’s kinetic qualities. To Wilbur, “Degas was primarily fascinated by the problem of arresting fugitive and typical movement;… his art is one of acute perception of momentary dispositions of bodies in exertion.” This kinetic quality Anthony Hecht would later recognize in Wilbur’s poems; he claimed that Wilbur’s is a “poetry which is everywhere a vision of action, of motion and performance.” What Anthony Hecht recognized as Wilbur’s kinetic quality Wilbur had admiringly identified years earlier in Degas. The Baggs connect Wilbur’s ekphrastic dimension to his kinetic dimension. While the Baggs’ could provide a more complete presentation of the document and a more exacting analysis of the poems, this connection is one of their most helpful critical contributions.

The Baggs assist also in the necessary task of articulating Wilbur’s relationship to his contemporaries and his influences. At one point, they take up Wilbur’s early reluctance to write in the first person. His reluctance echoes that of Wallace Stevens, and in the early seventies Wilbur copied in his notebook one of Stevens’ aphorisms describing the autobiographical quality of his own poetry: “It is said of a man that his work is autobiographical in spite of every subterfuge. It cannot be otherwise.” Wilbur’s wife Charlee, who was his first reader throughout his career, expanded on the subject in an interview: “He says ‘one’ very often, and this is [a] signal with him. He doesn’t like to push himself forward; he wants his work to speak for lots of people and… to remove [himself] from his own experience.” Although Wilbur’s poetic subterfuge had its purposes, his reluctance to speak in the first person was read in the context of his contemporaries; next to Robert Lowell, to whom he was often compared, his reluctance stood out all the more and was not always understood. Wilbur did not maintain this stance throughout his entire career, however; he became more comfortable writing in first person as he grew older. Robert Lowell recognized the increasing explicit, if still reserved, autobiographical quality in a letter he wrote to Wilbur a year before his death in 1977, and he praised it. The recently-published collection The Mind-Reader, he said, possessed “an oblique use of autobiography” that create “scenes peering into meditation” and act as a “good antodote [sic] to my narrower intensity.” His poems continued to become more personal, eventually developing into the direct and intimate voice of “The House” and “A Measuring Worm” from his final collection, Anterooms.

The chapter “In the Circle with Lowell, Bishop, and Jarrell” details the mix of antagonism, apathy, and friendship between him and each of these poets. The Baggs spend perhaps too much energy reproducing and responding to some criticisms Randall Jarrell made that have unnecessarily stuck with Wilbur; they became a touchstone for critics, even those who aim to praise him. At the same time, the Baggs point out Jarrell’s and Wilbur’s diverging views of a poet’s relation to the reading public, which certainly has direct effects on poetic choices. The Baggs quote Brad Leithauser as saying that, for Jarrell, poetry “matter[ed] to the world at large… less and less.” Wilbur, however, did not see the poet as having an obscure and marginal voice. He often spoke optimistically about the public role of poetry, especially in the decades after the war, when poetry readings were a regular feature of university campuses and John F. Kennedy publicly valued the role of the arts. Wilbur calls poetry a “deeply social thing—radically and incorrigibly social”; it is “a mode of talking to oneself in which the self disappears,” since its scope is larger than the self and its purpose goes beyond one’s own purposes. Perhaps, following the Bagg’s juxtaposition, one could call Wilbur’s voice more public than the voices of many of his contemporaries.

Yet such a critical claim is not attempted. The “biographical study” claims to balance biography and criticism, yet the criticism is at times stifled by the biographical material, leaving this reader repeatedly wondering about the importance of such a juxtaposition, or the significance of other merely-suggestive passages. Nevertheless, the book affords us the pleasure of discovering the life that produced an admirable body of work. How well Wilbur lived up to Louise Bogan’s high hopes is something we will continue to discuss, certainly aided by this biography.