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The Missouri Review 27.3 (2004) 35-48
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An Interview with Richard Wilbur
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© Stathis Orphanos
Interviewer: Looking back through your new Collected Poems, what do you think of your earliest work? Is there an urge to revise any of it?
Wilbur: Reading some early proof for the Collected, I found that I hadn't looked for decades at some of the poems in my first two books. I felt no itch to revise because the poems were the work of a younger self whom I could not be again. But at moments I winced like a perfectionist recalling the social gaffes of his youth; I found a show-off quality in some of the allusions, and here or there a too-decorative surface. And there were other flaws which I found, using both my critical eye and my inside knowledge. At last I told myself that I was the meanest possible judge of my early work, that some of it was damned good and that for the rest I should recuse myself.
Interviewer: The war figures more openly in your earliest poetry but is not very present in the later work. But does your experience in the war still inform your later work, however indirectly? Does our current state of war have any effect on your writing?
Wilbur: In my poems, the most recent explicit memory of war comes in the third section of "This Pleasing Anxious Being," where as a child I "might foresee" such landings as my division made at Anzio or Fréjus. But of course any war experience is formative and forever with you. If you have spent two years in the same company, counting on others and being counted on, you've had a deep experience of solidarity and will have a good feeling about human interdependence in whatever you later encounter. I feel at home in all churches, regardless of persuasion, because they are places of congregation. Mobs are another matter; I agree with Bill Williams in hearing something murderous in the roars of a stadium crowd. I suspect that my service-bred feeling for solidarity underlies a new poem of mine called "Man Running." [End Page 37]
Interviewer: I know you spent some time in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Could you talk about your trip there and the impact on your writing?
Wilbur: Back in 1956, a young San Franciscan who was glamor-struck by the Beats and their romance with the Road, was astonished to learn that I had once ridden freight cars all over the States. "Why didn't you write about it, Mr. Wilbur?" he cried. The fact is that one doesn't write about all one's experiences, especially if the ground has already been covered by others. It was exciting to go to Russia and to meet many Russian writers and to skip stones across Black Sea water, but poems didn't come of it. Friendships came of it, and a number of translations, and a keen sense of the painful wariness of life under tyranny.
Interviewer: You had early accolades, but then because of changing tides your use of formal verse was criticized by some.
Wilbur: Frost used to say that he enjoyed being "crossed off people's lists" from time to time so that he could make another comeback. I doubt that, having suffered obscurity for the first forty years of his life, he really enjoyed the later fluctuations of his reputation. He wanted his poems to matter a great deal to people, all the time. So do I. I learned the other day that a man I respected had for several decades carried a clipped-out poem of mine in his wallet. That's the sort of thing that sustains a poet and keeps him writing. As for what I felt when I was out of fashion, it was defiance.
Interviewer: Where do you think American poetry is today, as it has come down from the tradition...