In 1989 Richard Wilbur published New and Collected Poems, a landmark volume that won that year's Pulitzer Prize. Now, ten years later, he has prepared a collection of all the poetry he has written in the intervening years, together with new translations of Molière (from Amphitryon) and Dante. These twenty-five poems reaffirm Wilbur's stature as one of our greatest living masters of verse.
Richard Wilbur, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his New and Collected Poems
, has occasionally been pilloried for the twin sins of being too immaculate and too optimistic a poet. (Randall Jarrell, for example, noted that he "obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing.") But surely these are peccadilloes when measured against Wilbur's formal mastery and unsentimental pathos. Both qualities are on display in Mayflies
, which collects his work of the 1990s. Not surprisingly, there are more than a few gestures toward mortality, starting with the title poem's evocation of "those lifelong dancers of a day":
In somber forest, when the sun was low,
I saw from unseen pools a mist of flies
In their quadrillions rise
And animate a ragged patch of glow
With sudden glittering...
There is, perhaps, an extra quotient of Frost-like gloom to some of the work here. And indeed, "A Wall in the Woods: Cummington" seems like a deliberate updating of Frost's Yankee pastoralism, although Wilbur imparts an elegance all his own: "What is it for, now that dividing neither / Farm from farm nor field from field, it runs / Through deep impartial woods, and is trangressed / By boughs of pine or beech from either side?" Here and there Wilbur runs out of steam, or bogs down in his own gentility. But he's an appropriately flinty mouthpiece for Dante in "Canto XXV of the Inferno
," which originally appeared in a 1998 round-robin translation, and poems like "For C." or "Icons" or "Fabrications" show him at the top of his game. Formalism could hardly find a more accomplished figure for its standard-bearer, and like the spider web that Wilbur celebrates in the latter poem, Mayflies
handily demonstrates "the bright resilience of the frailest form." --James Marcus