Redux: Richard Wilbur (1921–2017)

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Every week, the editors of The Paris Review lift the paywall on a selection of interviews, stories, poems, and more from the magazine’s archive. You can have these unlocked pieces delivered straight to your inbox every Sunday by signing up for the Redux newsletter.  

Photo: Vincent Tolentino

This week, we celebrate the late Richard Wilbur, whose poems have a way of turning up where we might not expect them—in an essay on threesomes by Kristin Dombek, for example, or a poem about lying by Robert Hahn.

Richard Wilbur, The Art of Poetry No. 22
Issue no. 72 (Winter 1977)

I often don’t write more than a couple of lines in a day of, let’s say, six hours of staring at the sheet of paper. Composition for me is, externally at least, scarcely distinguishable from catatonia.

“Letter from Williamsburg,” by Kristin Dombek
Issue no. 205 (Summer 2013)

After I stopped believing in God, I would sometimes wake in a panic at being alone without supernatural support. So I memorized Richard Wilbur’s poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” to say to myself in the morning. When I woke with someone in my bed, I would recite it to him or her:

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels …

“Tell the Truth,” by Robert Hahn
Issue no. 127 (Summer 1993)

   To claim, at a dead party, to have spotted a grackle, 
   When in fact you haven’t of late, can do no harm.
   Your reputation for saying things of interest 
   Will not be marred, if you hasten to other topics, 
   Nor will the delicate web of human trust 
   Be ruptured by that airy fabrication.

—Richard Wilbur, “Lying”

You wake and reach for the phone. No one is harmed
if you call your wife to claim you have seen the Pacific
at dawn, running for miles over the quick
blossom-and-fade of an image, on the glassy sand,
when the mist and the lightly stippled sea were a single
tone of gray. A simple invention. Meanwhile,
far below, the trackless beach and the green,
heaving ocean are beginning, only now,
to be disclosed in the wide panes of your room …

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