Richard Wilbur,
Collected Poems: 1943-2004
(Harcourt, 2004)

Richard Wilbur is perhaps the most accessible of the major 20th-century American poets, and this collection of nearly all of his verse is a thick volume that deserves its inch and a half on every poetry reader's most frequented bookcase. Along with such classic volumes as The Beautiful Changes & Other Poems and the sublime Things of This World, you'll find Wilbur's charming poetry for children, full of wit and wordplay, several lyrics written to Leonard Bernstein's music for Candide, and a number of new poems, never before published. The volume is arranged in reverse chronological order, so that the methodical reader can trace Wilbur's career back in time.

And a fascinating journey it is. "The Reader," the first of the new poems, is an inspired start to the volume, with its opening lines, "She is going back, these days, to the great stories/That charmed her younger mind...." In these new works Wilbur proves himself still a master of language and imagery, as in "Tanka," where, in a brief five lines, he describes crowding Holsteins at feeding time as "ice breaking up/In a dark, swollen river," a perfect picture. The human connection is still strong as well, as in "Blackberries for Amelia," also printed on the back of the dust jacket. It's a tender and evocative poem describing in picturesque detail wild blackberry plants in June and the expectation of the plants bringing forth fruit in August, changing the flowers to berries. It at once encompasses the themes of mortality, nature and the place of familial love in them both.

Wilbur's poems are occasionally criticized for lacking the power of some of his contemporaries, Robert Lowell chief among them. Such criticism seems unfair, like disparaging pears for not being lemons. Indeed, Wilbur can surprise us with his infrequent moments of cruelty, as in "A Barred Owl" from the 2000 collection Mayflies. In this brief poem, a child is calmed upon hearing a owl's cry at night and goes back to sleep, "Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight/Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw/Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw." "Icons," from the same collection, is equally dark, with its images of those once admired and famous as they "Slip unaccountably into the morgues/And archives of this world."

My personal favorite of these later poems is "This Pleasing Anxious Being," which mixes both comforting and uncomfortable memories of youth before pulling the rug out from beneath the reader's feet with a most abrupt and final image of death in its last two lines, which must be read in context for their full impact.

From these more recent poems, the reader may travel back to Wilbur's profoundly beautiful earlier volumes, with such gems as "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," "For the New Railway Station in Rome," "The Pardon," "Driftwood" and many others. There are no bad or even second-rate poems here. Wilbur was incapable of writing them. No matter the subject matter, his verse is always skillful and elegant, due in large part to his nearly constant use of traditional verse forms. For those lovers of poetry who bemoan the death of rhyming and scansion, Wilbur will prove a healing balm, with his quatrains and sonnets and more. There are a great many translations scattered among Wilbur's wholly original poems, by Villon, Fontaine, Voltaire, Joseph Brodsky, Borges, Baudelaire, Dante and others, all of them faithful to the spirits of the originals while still bearing Wilbur's unmistakable voice.

Wilbur's Collected Poems: 1943-2004 is a treasure chest of the finest verse the past century has offered. Here the reader will find profundity, stillness, grace, vividness and humanity in abundance. Wilbur was an observer not only of nature, but of the human heart, and a chronicler of the place of man in that natural world. His brilliantly expressed findings allow us to see ourselves with clarity and honesty, and his talent and his art are gifts that should not be declined.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 30 July 2005

Buy it from