Grace and Measure
October 16, 2017 2:18 PM   Subscribe

Richard Wilbur, poet, translator, and lyricist, has died. He was 96.

Some links:

-Wilbur's lyrics for Candide, together with revisions, collaborations, and alternate songs by Leonard Bernstein, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim, and others.

-"Get Happy," Adam Kirsch's 2004 New Yorker profile on Wilbur. ("If Wilbur’s essentially hopeful temperament leaves him ill-equipped for certain kinds of moral inquiry, however, it is also the source of his enormous poetic gifts. No other twentieth-century American poet, with the possible exception of James Merrill, demonstrates such a Mozartean felicity in the writing of verse.")

-Commentary, essays, and interviews collected by the University of Illinois.

and some poems:

Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.

We milk the cow of the world, and as we do
We whisper in her ear, ‘You are not true.’

"Year's End"

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 a translation of Baudelaire's "L'Invitation au voyage"

See, sheltered from the swells
There in the still canals
Those drowsy ships that dream of sailing forth;
It is to satisfy
Your least desire, they ply
Hither through all the waters of the earth.
The sun at close of day
Clothes the fields of hay,
Then the canals, at last the town entire
In hyacinth and gold:
Slowly the land is rolled
Sleepward under a sea of gentle fire.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.
posted by Iridic (14 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
A brilliant poet, and a brilliant translator.

posted by kyrademon at 3:10 PM on October 16, 2017

posted by LobsterMitten at 3:21 PM on October 16, 2017

posted by the sobsister at 3:52 PM on October 16, 2017

posted by saulgoodman at 4:04 PM on October 16, 2017

posted by Countess Elena at 4:09 PM on October 16, 2017

Oh, what a splendid man. I only met him once, around 1999, and he was so generous to my students and colleagues. He looked impossibly young, and we joked about Dorian Gray.

"Meantime, at high windows
Far from thicket and pad-fall, suitors of excellence
Sigh and turn from their work to construe again the painful
Beauty of heaven, the lucid moon
And the risen hunter,

Making such dreams for men
As told will break their hearts as always, bringing
Monsters into the city, crows on the public statues,
Navies fed to the fish in the dark
Unbridled waters."

posted by doctornemo at 4:36 PM on October 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

And this:

"Even as children they were late sleepers,
Preferring their dreams, even when quick with monsters,
To the world with all its breakable toys,
Its compacts with the dying;

From the stretched arms of withered trees
They turned, fearing contagion of the mortal,
And even under the plums of summer
Drifted like winter moons.

Secret, unfriendly, pale, possessed
Of the one wish, the thirst for mere survival,
They came, as all extremists do
In time, to a sort of grandeur:

Now, to their Balkan battlements
Above the vulgar town of their first lives,
They rise at the moon's rising. Strange
That their utter self-concern

Should, in the end, have left them selfless:
Mirrors fail to perceive them as they float
Through the great hall and up the staircase;
Nor are the cobwebs broken."
posted by doctornemo at 4:42 PM on October 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

posted by baltimoretim at 5:42 PM on October 16, 2017

(Finally found my 1963 Poems of Richard Wilbur)


In greenwoods once these relics must have known
A rapt, gradual growing,
That are cast here like slag of the old
Engines of grief;

Must have affirmed in annual increase
Their close selves, knowing
Their own nature only, and that
Bringing to leaf.

Say, for the seven cities or a war
Their solitude was taken,
They into masts shaven, or milled into
Oar and plank;

Afterward sailing long and to lost ends,
By groundless water shaken,
Well they availed their vessels till they
Smashed or sank.

Then on the great generality of waters
Floated in their singleness,
And in all that deep subsumption they were
Never dissolved;

But shaped and flowingly fretted by the waves'
Ever surpassing stress,
With the gnarled swerve and tangle of tides
Finely involved.

Brought in the end where breakers dump and slew
On the glass verge of the land,
Silver they rang to the stones when the sea
Flung them and turned.

Curious crowns and scepters they look to me
Here on the gold sand,
Warped, wry, but having the beauty of
Excellence earned.

In a time of continual dry abdications
And of damp complicities,
They are fit to be taken for signs, these emblems
Royally sane,

Which have ridden to homeless wreck, and long revolved
In the lathe of the seas,
But have saved in spite of it all their dense
Ingenerate grain.
posted by Iridic at 8:09 PM on October 16, 2017

posted by Cash4Lead at 9:34 PM on October 16, 2017

From “Mayflies”:
Watching those lifelong dancers of a day
As night closed in, I felt myself alone
        In a life too much my own,
More mortal in my separateness than they —
Unless, I thought, I had been called to be
        Not fly or star
But one whose task is joyfully to see
How fair the fiats of the caller are.
I've never understood the complaint that he's too joyful, too "hopeful" (to quote Kirsch). The idea that poets, to be "real poets" or "great" or whatever, have to tell us how awful everything is is not only wrong, it indicates a profound misunderstanding of what poetry, and all the arts, are about. I miss him already, but I take comfort in knowing that his poems will stay with me through thick and thin.

posted by languagehat at 5:39 AM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

posted by dlugoczaj at 6:18 AM on October 17, 2017

96 is a good run, worthy of a man whose amazing translation of Tartuffe retained the energy and rhymed couplets (!) of the original. The only classic play that made me cry laughing while reading it. Thank you, sir.
posted by apparently at 7:56 AM on October 17, 2017

"Damn you! damn you! to the emperor’s horse’s heels.
Oh none too soon through the air white and dry
Will the clear announcer’s voice
Beat like a dove, and you and I"

-'After the Last Bulletins'
posted by clavdivs at 9:43 AM on October 17, 2017

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