Poets You Should Know About: Richard Wilbur, the Teacher

We all have people who inspire us. Teachers, parents, friends, they start us down a path we might have otherwise missed, and—while we can’t decide if we’re grateful or incensed—we definitely learn something.

The poetry of Richard Wilbur has inspired me. His lines unspool so elegantly and gently they’re like a dance you want to join in, one of those great Mazurkas from Tolstoy:

After the clash of elevator gates
And the long sinking, she emerges where,
A slight thing in the morning’s crosstown glare,
She looks up toward the window where he waits,
Then in a fleeting taxi joins the rest
Of the huge traffic bound forever west.

from “For C.”

How graceful, how natural, the movement of these lines: Wilbur creates actual distance within the parting couple by waiting until the fourth line to introduce the man, who seems to lean out eagerly over the windowsill. Therefore the woman seems small in the bustling morning, as if she’s missing some part—and then she’s swallowed up by the huge traffic. So we see how couples, and love, act as a bulwark against anonymity.

If all this seems a little last-century to you, you’re right: Wilbur is a 91-year-old who sometimes writes as if he’s never endured anything other than the hot sun and winter in New England, though he is a veteran of World War II. Actually, he’s turned such a keen eye to pain that it seems washed out, cleaned, and purified of suffering. Why be afraid of hurt when it, too, is part of human life? The “plain” fountain in “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in Villa Sciarra” exemplifies what I mean:

The very wish of water is reversed,
That heaviness born up to burst,
In a high, cavorting head, to fill

With blaze, and then in gauze
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine
Illumined version of itself, decline,
And patter on the stones its own applause?
from “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in

the Villa Sciarra”

This “plain [fountain]” evokes one vision of life, while the baroque wall-fountain invoked later on suggests another, more exalted kind of life, where “eyes become the sunlight, and the hand/ is worthy of water.” If we can’t quite get to this version—too mired, as we are, in our disgust and ennui—we can at least see “no trifle, but a shade of bliss” in the leaping fauns of the baroque wall-fountain. We can see  that beauty can lead us out of the ordinary. This is one thing I’ve learned from Richard Wilbur.

Of course, he’s also taught me about writing. As he says to his daughter: “it is always a matter, my darling,/ of life and death, as I had forgotten. I wish/ what I wished you before, but harder.” But harder. When we get how much little nothings, like the story Wilbur’s daughter is typing in her room, can matter to people, we can act with compassion towards them. It’s this insight that transforms our words from mere gestures into felt, living things, like the snakes writhing at the foot of the wall-fountain or the vulture who “has heart to make an end, keeps nature new.” Everything, seen properly, is transformed.


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