October 05, 1987 12:00 PM

Richard Wilbur, who begins his duties on Oct. 5 as the U.S.’s second poet laureate, remembers a visit 30 years ago by his tormented colleagues Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell. They were all young, and American poetry was still dominated by such giants as Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. “But that didn’t seem to matter,” says Wilbur, now 66. “It was as if we were in a youth league, and we were playing very hard, and it was all that mattered.”

Roethke and Lowell, both superb poets, were also great, perhaps pathological rankers of other poets. “One week,” recalls Wilbur, “Ted came over, and he said, ‘Well, I think you and I are Nos. 1 and 2, who knows in which order. Maybe Cal [Lowell] is No. 3, but I’m not so sure about it right now.’ And a week later Cal was over, and he made the same speech, in reverse—’You and I are 1 and 2, though I don’t know which is ahead. But about Ted, I’m not too sure just where he stands….’ ”

Wilbur guffaws. But the story reverberates with perhaps greater meaning than intended, seeming to hang in the air of his place in Cummington, Mass., haunting the rest of the conversation. It confirms Wilbur’s almost legendary graciousness: There are far more lurid tales he might tell about his old friends. Lowell, the Boston Brahmin, wrote brilliant poetry yet sometimes thought he was St. Paul or Hitler and periodically returned to asylums. Roethke’s haunting, original images marvelously expressed his feelings from exaltation to despair, but could not exorcise his manic depression.

Wilbur’s anecdote also contains a curious, sad irony. Poets affect indifference toward the laureateship, established in 1986 and until now ennobled by the venerated Robert Penn Warren. Yet the title does seem to establish a No. 1. And if Lowell or Roethke or John Berryman or Delmore Schwartz or Randall Jarrell or almost any one of the small group who wrote marvelous verse in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s were still alive, he might be laureate instead of Wilbur. They are gone, though, out of the running. Unlike Wilbur, they could not find the exquisite balance: to understand enough of turmoil to be a major American poet of the 20th century and to stay sane enough to reap the rewards.

For 40 years, as poetic fashion changed around him, as his friends flared and collapsed like stars, Wilbur has continued to write much the same kind of elegant, thoughtful, witty verse he was writing in 1957. Some critics have suggested he doesn’t suffer, or that if he does, he can’t express it. Wilbur demurs. There may be two impulses at work in the creation of poetry, he ventures. One is “the inclination to celebrate things, the capacity for wonder.” No reader of his poems would begrudge him this. The other is “the desire to correct the chaos of oneself and of the world.” He comments mildly, “I’m no stranger to what is dark in life.”

Richard Wilbur has both arms up high in the air, spread wide and slightly bent at the elbows. He is standing somewhat precariously, on one foot, the other lifted outward and up. “That,” he says triumphantly, “is a boy climbing a bean can.”

Wilbur’s was, literally, a model childhood. The elder son of Lawrence Wilbur, a New York-based commercial artist, he had early experience in the role of golden boy: “Often I posed as a child flushed with health because he was taking the right vitamins,” he says, “a child running excitedly home from the grocery with the right cereal”—or a boy climbing atop the right can of beans. At the age of 8 he sold his first poem, about owls and nightingales, to the children’s magazine John Martin’s Book for $1. The good fortune of his youth followed him to Amherst College. In his junior year he went on a blind date with a flaxen-haired Smith College student named Charlee Ward. They fell in love and have been married 45 years.

But it was not during this charmed early period that Wilbur developed the ordered, well-proportioned world of his poetry; rather, it was in hell. The signal company of the 36th Infantry Division, in which he served two years, was not regularly on the front line but, says Wilbur, an NCO, “We lost our share of people. We lost them one by one, that’s all.” Wilbur today remembers “a face…lately run over by a rubber tire,” and watching helplessly as a Corporal Tywater mistakenly drove a jeep past the ever-changing line of battle, where he was machine-gunned by the Germans. Not long later, in a moment of relative calm, Wilbur found himself writing lines that would become a poem, Tywater.

When he was hit, his body turned

To clumsy dirt before it fell

And what to say of him, God knows.

Such violence. And such repose.

He wrote poems in foxholes while incoming artillery fell; he sent poems home via V-mail. “I think that I had a growing sense that I was developing into a poet,” he says now, “if not necessarily for the purpose of publication.” Back in the States in 1945, Wilbur enrolled at Harvard graduate school the following year “with the intent of becoming a demon 17th-century scholar.” That changed one day when André du Bouchet, a friend who edited a small literary magazine, came to visit. Charlee mentioned “that I had an accumulation of poems in my desk drawer,” says Wilbur. “He took them home to his apartment, reappeared an hour later, kissed me on both cheeks and declared me a poet. And then he sent the things off to New York.” Shortly thereafter Wilbur received a polite letter from the publisher Reynal & Hitchcock telling him they would like to bring out his “book.”

The book, The Beautiful Changes, was an immediate success. Much was made of Wilbur’s wit, his ability to root philosophical discourse in physical description and his seemingly consummate mastery of form, all at the age of 26. In 1950 Wilbur followed with Ceremony, and then in 1956 with Things of This World. The title poem, Love Calls Us to the Things of This World, still one of Wilbur’s most popular, transformed the sight of mere wash on a line into a transcendent experience:

…The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,

And spirited from sleep, the as tounded soul

Hangs for a moment, bodiless and simple

As false dawn. Outside the window

The morning air is all awash with angels…

Things of This World won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; The New York Times called Wilbur “one of the best poets of his generation.” And it was some generation. Wilbur, with his patrician looks, his talent and what his agent calls “a healthy radiance” and “a sneaky charisma,” was soon befriended by the best, the brightest and the most exquisitely brittle. Lowell was an occasional guest at Wilbur’s Connecticut home. Roethke would arrive at the door bearing cases of champagne and silver dollars for the children, and when he felt himself getting too manic, might spend an hour or more under his host’s shower, cooling down. Other friends were the poets Elizabeth Bishop, Jarrell and John Ciardi.

Wilbur’s circle would broaden yet more glamorously. In 1955 he created a verse translation of Molière’s The Misanthrope. The rendition, delightful and literate, made Molière accessible for the first time to a wide American audience and was the start of a lucrative sideline for the poet. The Misanthrope also led to an offer of collaboration from Lillian Hellman. She was shopping for a new lyricist for her and Leonard Bernstein’s musical adaptation of Voltaire’s Candide and decided Wilbur had the stuff. The show was an artistic success, and its young co-author was caught up in a whirl that included socialites and politicians.

In fact, at 35, Wilbur had it all, in a profession where some of the best never get any of it. Prize succeeded prize; grant, grant; full professorship, professorship. And beyond awards or accomplishments, he and Charlee, bright and beautiful, were something special in their group, something glamorous, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald writ somewhat smaller, but in verse. “They cut a swath,” says Gilbert Parker, Wilbur’s theatrical agent. ” ‘Golden,’ ” says Charlee today. ” ‘Golden’—that was the word. We were always being told that we were beautiful, gifted, star-touched. Everything that Dick applied for he seemed to get, and if he didn’t apply they came to him anyway. I was told that I was the best hostess, the best housekeeper, the best financial manager, the best mother, you name it.” She pauses. “It almost seemed like fate that something bad would happen.”

“I don’t think I felt that way ever, darling,” admonishes Wilbur.

Bad things did happen. In eight pregnancies, Charlee had four miscarriages. Her fourth child, Aaron, had a particularly difficult birth. Then one night in Houston, at age 2½, he stopped speaking, eating, moving.

His illness was eventually identified as autism. It lifted after seven years, leaving him learning disabled but, his father says proudly, “capable of keeping a checkbook and holding a job in a restaurant. He has a girl and takes her out for beers.”

There were other family problems that Wilbur declines to describe. And then in the 1960s, American poetry appeared to be moving away from the style at which he excelled. Younger poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Robert Creeley were tossing away the traces of metric form completely or engaging in an uncooked, violently confessional poetry that Wilbur would not emulate. By 1976 his old friend the Times discerned in his latest book, The Mind-Reader, “a certain affable blandness…the amiable normality of the bourgeois citizen.”

The Wilburs’ golden aura seemed to be fading. And their poetic “youth league” was rapidly, tragically, disintegrating. In 1963 an emotionally exhausted Roethke died at 55 of a heart attack. In 1965 Jarrell was killed by a car he may have jumped in front of. Berryman leapt off a bridge in 1972, and Lowell, by surviving until 1977, seemed a grand old man, though he was only 60. It was Ginsberg, Wilbur’s poetic opposite, who had written in his signature work, Howl, of the tragic waste of the best minds of his generation, but the sentiment applied equally to Wilbur’s peers. Typically, his own public reaction was less pyrotechnic—a couple of formally turned elegies. He claims today to have been unaware of the downward spiral of some of his peers. Of Roethke, he says, “I was sorry that periodically he ended up in the bin, but mostly I was conscious of a very talented man, who, whatever his troubles, was continuing to produce very good work.” Only a few friends were aware of the toll the attrition took on Wilbur. One of them remembers an evening in Providence, R.I., when Wilbur heard the news that poet Marc Blitzstein had been beaten to death by robbers in Martinique. The friend found Wilbur at an Episcopal church, leaning against its locked doors, muttering, “…And you call yourself a church!”

Wilbur’s stability should not be confused with tranquillity. Imagery of insomnia bobs up in several of his poems, including Walking To Sleep, written in 1967:

…what you hope for

Is that at some point of the pointless journey,

Indoors or out, and when you least expect it,

Right in the middle of your stride, like that,

So neatly that you never feel a thing,

The kind assassin Sleep will draw a bead

And blow your brains out.

But the poem resolves itself in the serene condition the sleeper may yet attain.

…a pool

On whose calm face all images whatever

Lay clear, unfathomed, taken as they came.

When it comes to the crunch, Wilbur simply refuses to let his intimations of evil get in the way of his belief in good.

It is a religious attitude. The church door may have been closed in Rhode Island, but Wilbur is very much a believer in a greater providence. He has been a deacon in his Portland, Conn., Episcopal church and has occasionally acted there as a lay reader. Despite the savagery of the war, despite Aaron’s autism and all else, he says, “I’m never shaken from the mental belief that there is a God, and He means well…. Sometimes I believe everything that the catechism says that we ought to believe, and sometimes I don’t believe any of it, and much of the time I’m in between. But a belief in God and God’s mercy is unquestioned, really…and that the mercy of God is infinite.” The normal flow of things, he maintains, is toward “the comely and the shapely.” Personal suffering is not God’s intent, but a function of “one’s own willful distance from Him, I think.”

It is nearing night. The Cummington mosquitoes are ferocious, which may indicate our distance from God, but nature being comely, they attract swallows, which flit charmingly among the maple trees. “I like it when scientists tell me that birds fly some of the time just for the hell of it,” says Wilbur, “and aren’t always desperately feeding.” Wilbur himself is still flying, still celebrating, if not as frequently as he might like. It’s been 11 years since his last major book of poems, and though he says he has written almost enough for a new one and that his translating and critical writing have flowed, he worries that his pace is flagging. A fellow poet has said Wilbur’s latest work seems to lack “some sort of urgency, [some] quarrel with life.” Wilbur considers this and concludes that he has a few quarrels left, among them the very “fear that one is used up, the fear that one is over the hill, the fear that death is a little closer, as indeed it is.”

He skirts questions about greatness but concedes, “I’ve probably written some things capable of enduring, as you might make a good milking stool, a good hat, a good boot, anything like that.” He looks forward modestly to the laureate job, which carries few obligations but brings with it a $35,000 stipend and “the offer of a very pleasant little apartment” in Washington.

What does he think Roethke and Lowell would make of his copping the title, living in that pleasant little apartment, wearing the laurel that they disputed so hotly 30 years ago?

“I don’t think the desire for notice and fame, to be ranked well, is an inexhaustible desire,” he says. “It seems to me that everybody gets enough of it after a while. I can’t imagine that either Roethke or Lowell would say, ‘Damn you, there you are still living, making points.’ Both of them had pure and generous feelings about anything they thought well of, and those are the feelings that really matter.”

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