Wilbur “is a poet for all of us, whose elegant words brim with wit and paradox,” announced Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin when the poet succeeded Robert Penn Warren to become the second poet laureate of the United States. He won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his collection Things of This World: Poems in 1957 and a second Pulitzer for New and Collected Poems. He has won the Wallace Stevens Award, the Frost Medal, the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, two Bollingen Prizes, the T.S. Eliot Award, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the Prix de Rome Fellowship and many more honors, fellowships and awards for his poetry.
First up a poem which Phyllis Rose calls one of the "best love poems written in my lifetime" in an essay about the poet:
An aubade is a lover’s farewell song, usually sung at dawn (aube in French). This one is “sung” by the poet to a woman with whom he has naughtily spent the morning and who finally insists she must go on with her day. The poem consists of seven quatrains, the first three of which cite things she might have been doing if she were not in bed with the poet.
A Late Aubade
by Richard Wilbur
You could be sitting now in a carrel
Turning some liver-spotted page,
Or rising in an elevator-cage
Toward Ladies' Apparel.
You could be planting a raucous bed
Of salvia, in rubber gloves,
Or lunching through a screed of someone's loves
With pitying head.
Or making some unhappy setter
Heel, or listening to a bleak
Lecture on Schoenberg's serial technique.
Isn't this better?
Think of all the time you are not
Wasting, and would not care to waste,
Such things, thank God, not being to your taste.
Think what a lot
Of time, by woman's reckoning,
You've saved, and so may spend on this,
You who had rather lie in bed and kiss
It's almost noon, you say? If so,
Time flies, and I need not rehearse
The rosebuds-theme of centuries of verse.
If you mustgo,
Wait for a while, then slip downstairs
And bring us up some chilled white wine,
And some blue cheese, and crackers, and some fine
Then this lovely poem, which in the same essay, Phyllis Rose writes:
'For C.' ran initially in a Valentine’s Day issue of the New Yorker. I remember, because I was jealous and thought, “Why don’t I get valentines like that?” The poem is for Charlee, Mrs. Wilbur, the same dog-training, hard-gardening object of the poet’s affections as in the aubade of thirty years before. It contains five stanzas of six lines each, with the kind of intricate rhyming that Wilbur seems to toss off effortlessly and that his fans delight in. The first three stanzas describe dramatic farewells between movie lovers, whose passions have been intense and tempestuous, but brief. They leave each other “with stricken eye” or “weighed down by grief.”......... How Richard Wilbur and how refreshing, this celebration of long-lasting love, the “wild sostenuto of the heart,” emotion shaped and sustained by “courtesy and art.” Wilbur is the poet of the long run. Perhaps that’s why he’s such a long-running poet.
by Richard Wilbur
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.
On such grand scale do lovers say good-bye—
Even this other pair whose high romance
Had only the duration of a dance,
And who, now taking leave with stricken eye,
See each in each a whole new life forgone.
For them, above the darkling clubhouse lawn,
Bright Perseids flash and crumble; while for these
Who part now on the dock, weighed down by grief
And baggage, yet with something like relief,
It takes three thousand miles of knitting seas
To cancel out their crossing, and unmake
The amorous rough and tumble of their wake.
We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse
And bittersweet regrets, and cannot share
The frequent vistas of their large despair,
Where love and all are swept to nothingness;
Still, there’s a certain scope in that long love
Which constant spirits are the keepers of,
And which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the heart,
A passion joined to courtesy and art
Which has the quality of something made,
Like a good fiddle, like the rose’s scent,
Like a rose window or the firmament.
by Richard Wilbur
Now winter downs the dying of the year,
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.
I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell
And held in ice as dancers in a spell
Fluttered all winter long into a lake;
Graved on the dark in gestures of descent,
They seemed their own most perfect monument.
There was perfection in the death of ferns
Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone
A million years. Great mammoths overthrown
Composedly have made their long sojourns,
Like palaces of patience, in the gray
And changeless lands of ice. And at Pompeii
The little dog lay curled and did not rise
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze
The random hands, the loose unready eyes
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done.
These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.
from Looking into History
by Richard Wilbur
Now, old man of the sea,
I start to understand:
The will will find no stillness
Back in a stilled land.
The dead give no command
And shall not find their voice
Till they be mustered by
Some present fatal choice.
Let me now rejoice
In all impostures, take
The shape of lion or leopard,
Boar, or watery snake,
Or like the comber break,
Yet in the end stand fast
And by some fervent fraud
Father the waiting past,
Resembling at the last
The self-established tree
That draws all waters toward
Its live formality.
I've noticed in my rereadings of your poems a kind of painterly beginning to many of them, as though you set a scene in still-life and then start it into motion. Was that deliberate?
It sounds to me like something which I would be inclined to do. I certainly don't have any theory of the poem that would incline me to start by painting in a scene and then putting it in motion, but I do know that I have a gift for making things move with words, and I like to get them traveling. I like to make their physical motion physically felt. I expect many poets incline to that sort of thing as part of a general feeling that poetry should not be abstract and immobile but should get down there amongst the things of the world and mix with them.