“Take these two books,” is an entirely arbitrary prompting by an editor who happened to have them around on a shelf. Willy-nilly, here they are together, and one looks at them, shuffling through the poems, some familiar and some not. And there is a moment when the rightness of the conjunction seems wonderful! A piece organizes itself: Eberhart is a poet of inspiration, taking odd chances, falling on his face more often than any practitioner of comparable distinction in our time; Wilbur is a careful, consummate, almost intimidating craftsman who never makes technical errors. Thus an idea forms itself, whether, for a book review or essay, or for a poem, or anything else, I should think. And as honest as we can be about our recollections of what actually takes place in that mysterious instant, it seems pretty clearly to be some combination of revelation and drudgery, epiphany and skill, or whatever we choose to call these opposing dualities.
You don’t get to choose what kind of writer you’re going to be. It is a mercy that most writers tend to approve of the kind they are, but that isn’t always absolutely the case. There can be some generosity of spirit (or even some envy) by which you can see a blessing in the other kind of gift.
Eberhart is a winner of the Bollingen and Pulitzer prizes and the National Book Award, a former consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress. He has all the heavyweight credentials. And he has a respectable number of fine poems, even some “great” poems, if that word means anything. What I mean by it is that he has written at least a few poems many of us read in high school, studied in a curriculum that included Homer and Chaucer and Shakespeare and Pope. When we look back now at the texts of those school set-pieces in a freshly printed volume—”The Groundhog,” “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment,” “If I Could Only Live at the Pitch That Is Near Madness,” and one or two others—I find that those pieces were not overpraised, or at least they haven’t dated any. They still seem solid and lively, and intricate and passionate. Whatever poems are supposed to do or be, whatever kinds of excellences poetry is supposed to embody, they do and are, and this does.
On the other hand, there are, in this not-very-well-produced 444-page volume (no index of titles or first lines, a lot of show-through in the paper, and binding that even Doubleday would have been ashamed of in the worst of its bad old days), poems that seem amateurish and deplorable. The elegant rhymes and off-rhymes of “Aerial Bombardment” must have been as much a gift of inspiration as Eberhart has always claimed, because the clunky and deplorable demonstrations of some of his other rhymed pieces prove there wasn’t anything reliable working like skill or proficiency or even taste. (It’s okay to write terrible things if you have the good sense to throw them away soon afterward—one wonders on the strength or weakness of some of these pieces how well Eberhart can read!)
Begin at the beginning, with a piece that is actually a fragment of a long autobiographical poem, the opening poem in this volume, “This Fevers Me,” which starts well enough:
This fevers me, this sun on green,
On grass glowing, this young spring.
The secret hallowing is come,
Regenerate sudden incarnation.
Mystery made visible in growth, yet subtly veiled in all,
Ununderstandable in grass.
In flowers, and in the human heart.
This lyric mortal loveliness.
The earth breathing, and the sun.
The young lambs sport, none udderless.
I beg your pardon? “None udderless?” “That it has a meaning—no lamb is without a mother with an udder—is almost secondary to its astonishing dopiness, the cracked-gong rhyme with “loveliness,” the break in the tone. It would be churlish to advert to such lapses if they were rare, but they aren’t. They’re common, even usual. More than half of the poems in this book ought to have been suppressed on the grounds that they were loaded with sodden abstractions, marred by clanking and inept rhymes, deformed by a windy preachiness that lards over authentic and honest observations and juxtapositions. And yet, there are the other poems, not all of them great but many of a high order of accomplishment, that make it worth your while to hack through the linguistic underbrush, often with a machete, to get to the good stuff.
Amateurish, I have said, and that seems more and more to be the right word, for the gifted amateur relies on inspiration, is open to almost anything, improvises what his craft can’t supply, and is therefore liable to make gestures that a more traditionally and reliably trained practitioner might never think of. Emily Dickinson was an amateur, which is one reason she is so impossibly difficult to imitate. Eberhart’s amateurishness is evident even in his famous and “great” poems. How else can one account for the third line of “The Groundhog”:
In June amid the golden fields,
I saw a groundhog lying dead.
Dead lay he; my senses shook . . .
Who else would risk hoots of derisive laughter that any shrewder operator might have predicted with “Dead lay he,” which, against all odds, does work somehow? And what other 20th-century poet of any competence or reputation would risk the windy elevation of the end of the poem? It ought not be possible at all, but he gets away with:
It has been three years, now.
There has been no sign of the groundhog.
I stood there in the whirling summer.
My hand capped a withered heart.
And thought of China and of Greece,
Of Alexander in his tent;
Of Montaigne in his tower,
Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament.
Is it because I read this in the eleventh grade that it seems right? I don’t think it’s just that. I am not absolutely confident of “My hand capped a withered heart,” now that I look at it hard, but I do trust the rest. It is specific and mysterious at the same time. And I am persuaded that, for a young man’s poem, there is a rightness to this and an honesty to the admission that the spirit can, at the oddest times and occasions, soar that way. And if that can happen, it is the poet’s duty to keep the faith somehow and try to find not just the equivalent but the absolutely indispensable language to represent such a soaring.
Richard Wilbur, also a heavyweight (Pulitzer, Bollingen, and NBA winner, and poet laureate of the United States until Howard Nemerov took over from him), also has a book out, a major collection that is rather more handsomely produced than Eberhart’s (but which also lacks an index of titles and first lines). What is striking about Wilbur is how he almost never makes mistakes. There will be, at the very worst, a slight self-indulgence in the too-perfect, almost self-congratulatory low-frequency word that calls attention not only to itself but the talent and virtuosity of the writer. This, though, is a small price to pay and, in any event, is central to what I take Wilbur to be doing, for his poems are, among other things, confrontations of proficiency and sensibility with the welter and mess of experience. The typical Wilbur performance begins with something simple—an array of laundry strung across a Roman street, for instance—and imposes upon it, or persuades from it, something orderly and significant, transmogrifying some dumb datum into something as memorable and eloquent as “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” There must be a dozen such pieces, astonishingly graceful demonstrations not only of mastery but also of sanity and rightness. It is perhaps when he is at his saddest that the saving grace of his work is most clear. He says, for instance, at the end of “Cottage Street,” a poem about Sylvia Plath, that she is
condemned to live,
Shall study for a decade, as she must,
To state at last her brilliant negative
In poems free and helpless and unjust.
Wilbur’s poems are anything but helpless, and it is their justice and the justice of his language that has a psychological and moral as well as literary reliability. He can be playful or serious, cheerful or dour, but he is never nutty or sloppy or disproportionate. He can also reach for a word and, by his grasp, extend our limits. He has an elegy for Dudley Fitts—a man who was my teacher—that has in it what I’ve always thought of as a remarkable series of moves:
Yet in the mind as in
The shut closet
Where his coat hangs in black procession.
There is a covert muster.
One is moved to turn to him,
The exceptional man.
Telling him all these things, and waiting
For the deft, lucid answer.
At the sound of that voice’s deep
The sun winks and fails in the window.
Light perpetual keep him.
To begin with, “covert muster” is amazing, the paradigmatic Wilbur turn. The assemblage of coats in the darkness of the closet is impressive and formal. The odd ring to the conjunction of Latinate adjective and slightly archaic noun suggests the funereal decorum of the occasion. “Muster” also suggests “master,” which is right because Fitts was both a prep-school master and a maestro of poets. And then to go from the darkness of the closet to “lucid,” and from that to the light of the sun winking and failing in the window (it has been prepared for, earlier in the poem), and from that to the closing prayer, “Light perpetual keep him,” is both intricate and effortless. The poem is about the realization of absence, the empty coats in the closet, the “sound of that voice’s deep/ Specific silence,” and the light winking and failing—and then coming back, at least as a presence to be invoked. I simply can’t imagine anything better accomplished.
Auden says somewhere that poets are not reliable judges of the work of other poets, and that there is a risk that we may prefer a second-rate poet from whom we can learn to a first-rate poet from whom we can’t. I think there is substantial truth in that warning, which prompts me to admit that I have consciously addressed myself to Wilbur’s poetry to learn from it as well as I could and to take as much as I was able of what I believe to be the highest level of consistent craftsmanship in any poet now writing in English (or, putting it another way, in any poet since Auden himself). I have assumed what I suppose Wilbur must assume, that we are given lives and personalities and we make of them what we can. The whole idea of craft is that it prevents you from messing up your opportunities, from botching good ideas or betraying promising starts. I think there are poems in this new Wilbur volume that are less impressive than others—that’s inevitable, surely. But there is no poem that is botched, or stupid, or embarrassing. And there are a very great number that are astonishing and admirable.
On the other hand, there are poems in Eberhart that are astonishing too, and that may be even more impressive because of the gaps and lapses in so much of the work. If it is true, as Eberhart claims, that these pieces are often “given,” or, in his phrase, “emitted in a high state of consciousness and control [so that] one has not had to change a word or maybe only a word or two,” it’s not only difficult to criticize but it is also beside the point. For what he—and we—have been given, the only sane and intelligent thing to do is to give thanks. We can ignore what we don’t like. That is what happens anyway. One of the few good things about the lit biz is that it’s only the good stuff that matters; the rest is forgotten quickly enough. The work of both these men, however dissimilar and even contradictory in origin and impulse, is likely to remain with us for a long time.
[Collected Poems 1930-1986, by Richard Eberhart (New York: Oxford University Press) $29.95]
[New and Collected Poems, by Richard Wilbur (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) $27.95]