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Garden of Verses


Beauty joined to energy -from “Museum Piece” by Richard Wilbur

At 85, winner of two Pulitzer prizes among many other recognitions, Richard Wilbur is still going strong in his rustic retreat in Cummington, Massachusetts. The last time he read here in Santa Barbara, we took a beach walk, and he learned with awe and a guffaw that you can use mayonnaise to treat a case of beach tar.

Wilbur is a devoted gardener, as meticulous in that art as he is with the use of words. I wrote for him, on that Santa Barbara visit, four lines in celebration of the way he approaches even the least exalted of activities with a religious passion:

Artist-Gardener
A lifetime deploying the high in the low,
with loam-caulked hands amid vines he harvests
his okra, slicing the pods for frying
sidewise, so, that their star-shapes show.

I interviewed Wilbur again recently, because he’s about to join the rare company of living authors whose life’s work is enshrined in the Library of America.

I see you, along with Frost, as a great formal experimenter. Does that characterization hit the mark for you? I’m honored by the comparison, and I hope it’s true. Much of the poetry which considers itself “experimental” is characterized by leaving something out: meter, rhyme, stanza, clarity, eloquence, breadth of reference, memorability. It is really much more dangerous and experimental to see if one can still play the whole instrument, as Frost did.

As a translator, you’re particularly known for your versions of Molire, but now I hear you’re focused on Corneille. In New England, it’s good to have winter projects, which are the equivalent to quilt-making. Harcourt will bring out this spring last winter’s rendering of Corneille’s The Theatre of Illusion, and now I’m on the fifth act of his Le Menteur (The Teacher), which is exhilarating and morally precarious.

You’ve done children’s verse and wordplay books like Opposites and Differences. How do these amusements fit in with your other writing? However grown-up and straight-faced a poem may be, if it’s any good it has something in common with successful children’s verse: economy, surprise, aliveness of language, and above all, sure timing and control of tone. Actually, my “opposites” poems are continuous with my more serious work in their play with what I call the happy breakage of mental patterns. They appeal to the child’s secret knowledge that the world is not tidy.

Breaking of mental patterns” makes me think of one of my favorites Wilbur poems, “Mind.” Is it a central poem for you? Yes, central to all my experience of poetry. (Reading):

Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.
It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,
And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.
And has this simile a like perfection?
The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.

Any words of advice for a young poet first starting out? Let that aspiring poet not be a comfortable, unambitious captive of the contemporary, but instead read English-language poetry all the way back to Beowulf, memorize some of what delights, and conceive of poetry as a conversation between the poets of all times.

I couldn’t imagine a more satisfying final word for a final column than this from a master practitioner, as I pass the Poetry Matters column on to the talented hands of Perie Longo, my successor as Santa Barbara’s poet laureate.

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