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Richard Wilbur

By Joy Williams

There is a story in Key West, a legend in its time. A couple, or maybe a lone and aspiring soul, drive into Key West for the first time. They drive down the Keys over the dozens of bridges and they go over the last little humpback skirting the mangroves which the unhoused have colonized and they are on Truman Avenue headed toward Duval, passing Bayview Park with its bandstand and tennis courts and they see, unmistakably, the famous, the beloved poet Richard Wilbur on his bicycle or dismounted and locking his bicycle or approaching his bicycle. His is a large, handsome presence, radiantly obvious, all in white, tennis whites true, but emitting the clarifying light of the true bard. Or these awed travelers see Richard Wilbur, Poet Laureate, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, celebrity of the theater, lyricist, hymnist, in shorts and bucket hat peddling about, giving crisp hand signals for sweeping turns, headed towards Louie’s BackYard or Fausto’s Food Palce or to a casita on the water for a lively game of Anagrams, and this sighting is clearly such a good omen, such a sign of the little town’s casual embrace of excellence, happiness, and delights that the visitors discard everything less meaningful in their lives and buy Key West real estate.

Dick and Charlee Wilbur were treasured residents of Key West, appearing in the tropical winter with the restorative dazzle of migrant birds. Their other home was in rural New England where the trials and habits of the non-human world offered quieter appearances. The

startled inchling trout

of spotted near transparency

Trawling a shadow solider than he

with the wonderful image suggesting time past and future, the faith of possibility.

Or summer’s final daisy that

lives alone;

A last shawl of burning lies

On a gray field-stone

He also addressed “our slow unreckoning hearts” as to the grave losses we will suffer as we continue to consume and abuse the natural world, suffering our own diminishment with a diminishing Nature when the wordless song of deer and lark and tree is stilled.

In his poem “Advice to a Prophet”

When you come, as you soon must, to

the streets of our city,

Mad-eyed from stating the obvious

he suggests the prophet demand of us this:

What should we be without

The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return

These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?

Ask us, prophet, how we shall call

Our natures forth when that live tongue is all

Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken

There is something wondrously 17th century about Richard Wilbur’s work—the polish, the intellectual energy and demand, the devotion to yearning. Still, as sophisticated and erudite as he was, he could also be the most playful of poets. 

In Anagrams he was unmatched, for it is a game in which the eye must catch the first glint of the word. The word conceals the stressed in desserts, the carp rot in carport. It is a game that favors purloiners, master jumblers, magicians of the book, who thrill to the metamorphosis that can occur with the additions of a letter or two— BUN to BURN to BRUNT to BLUNTER. 

In letters and in work he sought “the buried strangeness which nourishes the known.” Yet as ingenious and clever as he was he could nonetheless claim in total confidence as in the poem “Lying” that:

…In the strict sense, of course,

We invent nothing, merely bearing witness

To What each morning brings again to light:

Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment

Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law

Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof,

Then grass and grackles or, at the end of town

In sheen-swept pastureland, the horse’s necl

Clothed with its usual thunder, and the stones

Beginning now to tug their shadows in

And track the air with glitter. All these things

Are there before us; there before we look

Or fail to look; there to be seen or not

By us…

the streets of our city

Mad-eyed from stating the obvious

There are the shadows again, without which even the stones cannot live.

Richard Wilbur was courteous, even courtly, wildly accomplished yet preternaturally modest—he attributed his skill in translating to “stubbornness.” His life seemed serenely blessed. As a young man he served in WWII and was frequently in the thick of horror. “When you are living in a hole in the hillside subject to harassing artillery fire you can never quite escape anxiety,” he admitted. “But you do the best you can by sleeping, chatting, reading, daydreaming, or writing.”

Chatting! Reading! Daydreaming!

He wrote often of dreams and their essentiality. In the poem, “The Anteroom,” he speaks of Time, the behavior of which strains belief, dilating instants, making long years brief whereas

Dreams, which interweave

All our times and tenses, are

What we can believe:

Dark they are, yet plain,

Coming to us now as if

Through a cobwebbed pane

Where, before our eyes,

All the living and dead

Meet without surprise.

How comforting, how divine, this refuge where the living and the dead can meet without surprise…

Earlier this year, a memorial service for one of Key West’s last great hostesses and literary doyennes, three of the speakers gathered read poems by Richard Wilbur. This was reassuringly correct for he was a poet of ocmfort, of acceptance and praise.

Throughout this tribute, in this illustrious place, this institution, he so illustriously brightened for so long, I have been guilty, I suppose, of evoking specifically a lost and distant world, the raffish anomalous world of Key West. But it was there I knew Richard Wilbur best and it is there his words are spoken still when it is time to say goodbye to our friends. He was a poet of charm and concordance, of gratitude for the incomprehensible gifts, the graces and gravities of life.

One of his poems begins:

Give Thanks For All Things

We give thanks for Richard Wilbur. He was marvelous.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 8, 2018.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters