When Richard Wilbur published his first collection of poetry, Gregory Peck was lighting up screens in Gentleman's Agreement and Winston Churchill had just finished spooking Americans with his "Iron Curtain" speech. In the six decades since, the world of poetry--not to mention the world itself--has been turned inside out. Beat poets came and went, followed by confessional poets, language poets, slam poets, and, most recently, lyric poets.
Through it all Wilbur has consistently turned out some of the finest lines, winning two National Book Awards and a Pulitzer in the process. He's also translated some seven volumes of plays by Molière. This winter, Wilbur has gathered a handsome and hefty volume of his best work, including 13 new poems. John Freeman spoke to Wilbur from his home in western Massachusetts.
WW: 1943-2004, that's quite a spread. Can you remember the circumstances around the composition of each poem?
Wilbur: I do, pretty well. I often have a mental photograph of the place where I was at the time. For "The Beautiful Changes," for example, I was sitting at a table in the old nursery room of my parents' house looking out at the garage.
Did fighting in World War II make you a poet?
I think it affected my writing in that I tried on a few occasions to master the confusion of a world at war, and my personal experience of it, by writing poems. In this I was like thousands of other soldiers. I remember the Army newspaper almost always had a little column in it called "Pup Tent Poets."
Was there a moment when you knew you were a poet?
I think the moments when you say that to yourself are almost always sparked by the sudden, unexpected strong approval of somebody else. Someone once asked Robert Frost how he knew he was a poet, and he replied, "When an editor of the Atlantic Monthly sends me a check."
Are there poets you admired in your youth who have stuck with you?
Oh, yes. I am going to mention Robert Frost again. I once asked Frost if he liked such and such a poem of Poe's, and he immediately quoted four lines from it and said, "If I liked it once, I like it still." I grew up as a poet admiring Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, and so many more, and return to them when I need to feel what poetry is.
One of your lines has always baffled and delighted me: "We milk the cow of the world, and as we do/ We whisper in his ear, 'You are not true.'"
I do feel most excited in writing a poem when I found a few words that really seem to be like the shadow of an object--if I feel I've gotten my teeth into concrete reality, it enhances it greatly.
There are some astonishingly beautiful images in here. A valley is "quilled with birches"; snow comes down like "moths." Do these images come to you or do you sit and reach for them?
I think they come--I wish they came still oftener than they do. One thing about being a poet: It is, or should be, a very slow operation. You sit around and let what may come to you come, and that may take hours.
By Richard Wilbur(Harcourt, 585 pages, $35)