The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces 1963-1995
By Richard Wilbur
242 pp., $25
A poet known for the polished elegance of his style and the civilized urbanity of his voice, Richard Wilbur was born in New York in 1921.
After graduating from Amherst College in 1942, he served in Germany and Italy during World War II, when he also began writing poetry. He received his MA from Harvard University in l947 and his first book of poems was published that same year.
In the decades that followed, Wilbur taught at places like Harvard, Wellesley, Smith, and Wesleyan. He won prestigious prizes and served in due course as United States poet laureate.
In an era inundated with the posturings of self-styled "experimental" poets and the raw outpourings of the "confessional" school, Wilbur has remained true to a more traditional idea of poetry. This is not to say that his approach is rigid, derivative, or formulaic. On the contrary, he has consistently demonstrated flexibility and originality in his choice of forms and subjects. He is also an esteemed translator and a sensitive commentator on the theory, practice, and enjoyment of poetry.
"The Catbird's Song" is Wilbur's second book-length collection of writings on assorted literary topics. (The first, "Responses," was published in 1976.) As Wilbur warns readers in his preface, the pieces in this collection are a grab-bag.
Some are critical essays, but many are brief eulogies, addresses, forewords, or capsule commentaries on his own poems or those of other poets.
There are graceful tributes to some of Wilbur's contemporaries, like May Swenson, John Ciardi, and Elizabeth Bishop, as well as a long, thoughtful essay on Witter Bynner, a poet once as highly acclaimed as he now is largely forgotten.
Venturing further back in time, Wilbur offers appreciative but balanced reassessments of two 19th-century icons whose stock has fallen in our own time: William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Two essays are devoted to Edgar Allen Poe, whose work Wilbur dissects in painstaking detail. As might be expected of a poet who loves Poe, Wilbur is a great fan of riddles, and offers an intriguing essay on their history and the ways in which the strategy of a riddle resembles the strategy of a poem.
Wilbur is an illuminating guide to such classic poets as Tennyson and Milton. He generally begins discussion of a text - be it a story, like Poe's "Eleonora," or a poem like Tennyson's "Ulysses," or one of Wilbur's own poems - by reprinting the work in full, which is a great convenience for the reader.
In his brief essay on Milton's companion poems "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," he insightfully argues that the two figures are not "mutually exclusive" opposites, but "comfortably alternating moods of a single personality." The cheerful "Allegro" is not a wild libertine, but a man who values pleasure and liberty as the first steps toward the spiritual growth and contemplative "ecstasy" that is later attained by the meditative, scholarly "Penseroso."
Wilbur's own poems tend to be sophisticated, finely wrought, ironic, indirect productions, so the explications he offers of them here are welcome. Discoursing on his poem "Lying," he is moved to an eloquent defense of his seriocomic approach and his habit of looking for large meanings in commonplace objects:
"Comedy is serious; it is the voice of balance; and its presence in a serious poem is a test of its earnestness. One wants anything of the moment to be said by the whole self in all its languages. Thus one also includes ... everyday words like 'shucked,' ordinary things like chopped onions."
A common theme is learning to value poems and poets for their intrinsic merits, not merely because they belong to a fashionable movement or because they've been certified as "major" by anthologies.
This little collection of essays should find a home on the bedside table or armchair, helping readers of all kinds appreciate poems we may have overlooked, while inviting us to take a fresh look at those we already know.