Richard Wilbur is still alive. He gave a reading at my husband’s university about a year ago, and though I rarely attend readings (short attention span, preference for printed rather than spoken poetry – rather anomalous of me, I think), I made an exception because he is one of my favorite living poets.
The reading reminded me of why I generally prefer my poets dead. This is not to wish harm on Mr. Wilbur, but one always has notions of what one’s favorite poets ought to be like. Mr. Wilbur only very slightly accorded with mine.
He was very genial, mildly bumbling in an endearing way, a bit fidgety and hesitant. All the same, he clearly took pride in his accomplishments. He read some recent work which had been accepted, but had not yet appeared, in the New Yorker. I don’t know if it’s encouraging or profoundly depressing that a poet of his caliber should still be so giddy upon attaining publication in its pages. He is a widower, and his most ennobling quality was his obvious devotion to his late wife. When he spoke of her, his wistful, slightly broken persona came nearest to what I had imagined.
I have made this mistake before. I anticipate that the poet – the individual – the person – will exceed his poetry. He does not. None of them have. But he has no obligation to do this, and would I really want him to? Maybe his truest self is expressed in his poetry, and not the slightly vain, shuffling performance of a man who read his beautifully crafted poems in a faux-gothic room full of graduate students and a handful of stragglers from the community. I worry a lot about how I express myself. I am beset by the suspicion that my speech and mannerisms are a poor reflection of my internal life. On the other hand, they might express it perfectly. I’ll never know.
A word sticks in the wind’s throat;
A wind-launch drifts in the swells of rye;
Sometimes, in broad silence,
The hanging apples distil their darkness.
You, in a green dress, calling, and with brown hair,
Who come by the field-path now, whose name I say
Softly, forgive me love if I also call you
Wind’s word, apple-heart, haven of grasses.
Richard Wilbur on Poets.org
Richard Wilbur on Wikipedia