The art which conceals art has never had a more sure practitioner than Richard Wilbur, who will succeed Robert Penn Warren as United States poet laureate in September. In making the announcement, Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin emphasized the almost paradoxical joining of art and civility in Mr. Wilbur's person and work. Calling him a ``cosmopolitan in the world of letters,'' Dr. Boorstin noted Wilbur's wide activity in the field of translation. Born in 1921 in New York City, Wilbur grew up in New Jersey and attended Amherst and Harvard. Between his AB and his MA he served in the 3rd Infantry in Italy, France, and Germany. Clearly of his time as a man, as a poet Wilbur remains hard to categorize. Only a few years younger than the chief experimental and confessional poets, Robert Lowell and John Berryman, Wilbur alone practiced the art of sprezzatura - making hard things look easy. His finesse has been perceived as ``academic''; his mastery of rhythm has been thought to lack ``attack'' (in the musical sense); his traditional forms have appeared oblivious to the chaos of modern life. Paul Val'ery said, ``Those poems whose intricate perfection and felicitous development give their wonder-struck readers most strongly the notion of miracle, a stroke of fortune, a super-human accomplishment ... are also masterpieces of labor and are, too, monuments of intelligence and sustained work...'' Inspiration is what the reader should feel, and what the poet is almost certainly past feeling.
Wilbur's strokes of luck come chiefly in the form of a happy combination of word and rhythm, of emphasis. It's almost as if he were an interpreter of a classic, even when the classic is his own poem. Indeed, in his translations of Moli`ere and most recently Racine, he proved himself just that.
A reading of Wilbur along these lines will show that, in Hyatt Waggoner's terms, Wilbur is a ``reconciler,'' a ``catholic'' poet whose poems are prisms of modern experience. At their best, Wilbur's poems are as ecumenical as a modern airport - or the museum in ``Museum Piece.''
Indeed, it may be his potential reader referred to in the first line! And the fusion of ``grace'' and ``strain'' Wilbur finds in a painting of ballet dancers by Edgar Degas is no doubt a reflection on his own art. Like Degas, Wilbur is a fine observer of modern life, and a connoisseur as well. What Wilbur lacks in ``attack'' he makes up in ``edge,'' as the wit of these verses suggest. Finally, though, as in his major poems, here Wilbur is most concerned about the actual, not the intellectual. It's Degas's pants slung over the El Greco that makes this poem more than a pretty museum piece.
Museum Piece The good grey guardians of art Patrol the halls on spongy shoes, Impartially protective, though Perhaps suspicious of Toulouse.
Here dozes one against the wall, Disposed upon a funeral chair. A Degas dancer pirouettes Upon the parting of his hair.
See how she spins! The grace is there, But strain as well is plain to see. Degas loved the two together: Beauty joined to energy.
Edgar Degas purchased once A fine El Greco, which he kept Against the wall beside his bed To hang his pants on while he slept.
- By Richard Wilbur