The Inclination to Celebrate Things
By Alfred Nicol
Alfred Nicol’s most recent collection of poetry, Animal Psalms, was published in 2016 by Able Muse Press. Nicol has published two other collections, Elegy for Everyone (2009), and Winter Light, which received the 2004 Richard Wilbur Award. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The New England Review, Dark Horse, First Things, Atlanta Review, Commonweal, The Formalist, The Hopkins Review, and other literary journals. Visit his website here.
LET US WATCH RICHARD WILBUR: A BIOGRAPHICAL STUDY by Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017). 392pp, $32.95.
The only thing this reviewer can find to criticize about Robert and Mary Bagg’s biographical study of Richard Wilbur is its title, taken from Louise Bogan’s New Yorker review of his first book of poems. “Let us watch Richard Wilbur,” she wrote, declaring him a poet worthy of attention. But as Wilbur himself has remarked about his meticulous writing process, “Anyone watching me would think I was catatonic!”
Biographies of poets seem always doomed to be ill-advised attempts to turn the tables, as though Odysseus were to write about Homer. When the hero’s most important “action” involves sitting very still at a desk, the narrator may resort to focusing on lesser activities, like excessive drinking, adultery, anti-social or even suicidal behavior. Richard Wilbur, the hero of this book, has been ungenerous to his biographers in conducting himself so respectably.
Despite that obstacle, the Baggs have written a book that is anything but dull. Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur is a page-turner, full of delightful, unexpected details. Contemporary sonneteers will be surprised to learn that young Wilbur and a group of his peers—Robert Lowell, Richard Eberhart, Elizabeth Bishop, and others—began referring to themselves as “New Formalists” in 1948! And anyone who has ever received a rejection slip may take solace from hearing that The New Yorker rejected Wilbur’s masterpiece, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” saying it was “a little too special.”
Such bits of surprising information are ornaments placed in the niches of a larger structure. The Baggs devote three chapters to Wilbur’s war experiences and his poetry written in response to them; another two chapters speak insightfully of his years at Harvard after the war, a time of poetic self-discovery, and of the year he spent in Rome, a time of spiritual self-discovery. From there the authors take us through Wilbur’s subsequent life as a poet, teacher, and translator, giving us portraits of his many friends and collaborators along the way, including Lowell, Bishop, Leonard Bernstein, Lillian Hellman, James Merrill, Ralph Ellison, and lifelong friend John Malcolm Brinnin. They show us the nasty note that John Berryman wrote in reaction to Wilbur receiving his first Pulitzer Prize in 1957. And they show us something harder to imagine: we witness Wilbur actually fail at something!
Attempting to write a play in verse while living in New Mexico on a Guggenheim grant, the great lyric poet found he hadn’t the aptitude to write dialogue. For those of us who think of him as infallible, the chapter titled “Candide and Other Broadway Misadventures” is instructive reading: the frustrations enumerated there led Wilbur to drop an F-bomb in his diary.
This book is admirable throughout for the clarity of its prose, its focus, and its intelligent citation and spacing of Wilbur’s verse and other writings, including letters written from the front, sections of a short story titled “The Day After the War,” and Wilbur’s profound editorial concerning the atom bomb, originally printed in the military newspaper T-Patch. We are given entry into Wilbur’s notebooks, where we are privy to his self-questioning meditations. The Baggs wisely draw our attention to an essay that Wilbur wrote on “dandyism” while studying at Harvard; it comes as a shock to see how Wilbur’s definition of the term “foreshadows some of his later convictions and attitudes.” A highlight of the book is its inclusion of unpublished poems, some written in free verse, many of which might well be included in lesser poets’ Selected Works.
The Baggs also mention, tantalizingly, another group of unpublished poems that were lost in a flood in 1956: the poems that Wilbur wrote for his beloved Charlee at the beginning of their relationship. The constancy and happiness of their sixty-five years of marriage were the envy of everyone who knew them. Charlee is wonderfully ever present in Wilbur’s biography—as she was in his life—and the authors do well to dedicate their last chapter to an insightful reading of ten of his poems in which she appeared or which she inspired.
Those who find fault with Wilbur’s poetry tend to criticize his moderation and self-restraint, his craftsmanship and civility, and finally, “the inclination to celebrate things.” Only by consenting to regard those very qualities as weaknesses could one find a word to say against this book.
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