Good poems don’t peter out like a self-indulgent solo in jazz, but neither do they close with an audible click, a key in a rusty lock. No, in the beginning is the end, as somebody said, and a good poem has a linked inevitability in all of its parts. The finale of “Elsewhere” (Mayflies, 2004) risks portentousness – a failing lesser poets fail to even recognize -- but the deliberation of Richard Wilbur’s previous lines lends it a satisfying rightness:
“That there is beauty bleak and far from ours,
Great reaches where the Lord's delighting mind,
Though not inhuman, ponders other things.”
Wilbur has perfected the magician’s art of misdirection, waving his wand while the real magic is going on behind his back, away from his audience’s skeptical eye. This he learned from Frost and from nature, which is never merely plain-spoken, never just one thing. Earlier in “Elsewhere,” he seems content to play with an easy irony: Rugged, desolate places carry “delectable” names: “Cilicia Aspera, Estremadura. / In that smooth wave of cello-sound, Mojave.” Cilicia Aspera is in Turkey and Estremadura in Portugal, at the other end of the Mediterranean. The fourth line in the second stanza is, indeed, delectable, and invites reading aloud: “stone prized upward by the deepening freeze.” The “small garden where we have dominion” is our own modest home, Earth. Aldebaran, from Arabic for “follower,” is an orange giant in the constellation Taurus, from the Latin. The Hyades, their name borrowed from the Greek, are the nearest star cluster to our solar system, home to our modest home. Despite our vanity, we’re not the center of things, though we ought to be reassured by “the Lord’s delighting mind.” We would be less persuaded if Wilbur’s poem had been delivered in random prose, the default mode of contemporary poetry.
In “The Genie in the Bottle” (ed. John Ciardi, Mid-Century American Poets, 1950), Wilbur likens poetic form to “framing and composition in painting,” employed to “limit the work of art, and to declare its artificiality.” He concludes the essay:
“There are other less metaphysical reasons for preferring strictness of form: the fact, for example, that subtle variation is unrecognizable without the pre-existence of a norm; or the fact that form, in slowing and complicating the writing-process, calls out the poet’s full talents, and thereby insures a greater care and cleverness in the choice and disposition of words. In general, I would say limitation makes for power: the strength of the genie comes from his being confined in a bottle.”
Happy birthday to Richard Wilbur, who turns ninety-five today.