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The last of the rhyming poets

Richard Wilbur’s meticulously crafted couplets are an anomaly in modern poetry


 
The last of the rhyming poets

Photograph by Tsar Fedorsky

Richard Wilbur, the former U.S. poet laureate who turned 90 this year, is a master of rhyme—something few modern poets aspire to be. Wilbur has been publishing poems since he was eight years old, and most of it preserves what he calls “the incidental pleasure in any repetition of sounds.” Starting July 31, the Stratford Festival will present his translation of Molière’s The Misanthrope (“I didn’t know they were going to do that,” Wilbur told Maclean’s. “That’s wonderful. I’m delighted”), one of his most famous achievements: the original French version is written in rhyming couplets, and instead of converting it to prose or blank verse, Wilbur took on the task of rhyming from beginning to end.

Though Wilbur has written other types of poems, he’s always been best known as a rhymer; actor-director Brian Bedford, who helped select his Misanthrope for Stratford, told Maclean’s that Wilbur’s rhymes, “which are absolutely relentless, give a kind of ebullience to the language.” While Wilbur says he doesn’t let form dictate content—“I don’t, for example, say I’d like to write a sonnet and fish around for a subject”—he usually chooses a classic rhyming pattern. Sometimes he’ll even add rhyme to non-rhyming forms: several of his poems are rhyming haikus, with lines like, “This, if Japanese / Would represent grey boulders / Walloped by rough seas.”

When Wilbur isn’t making the case for rhyme on the page, he’s rhyming on the stage. In The Misanthrope and his other rhymed translations of French plays, he preserved the jingle of rhyme while also keeping the language colloquial in couplets like, “It’s all too obvious that I don’t possess / The virtues necessary for success.” David Grindley, who is directing Stratford’s Misanthrope, told Maclean’s that “the couplets trip off the tongue,” and that Wilbur gives the actors licence to explore their characters “instead of being straitjacketed into a poetry recital.”

His success with The Misanthrope got him his only job as a Broadway lyricist, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. (He says he was recommended for this Voltaire adaptation because he’d already handled “that witty Frenchman Molière.) The result was what Stephen Sondheim called “the most scintillating set of songs yet written for the musical theatre,” thanks to rhymes like, “And yet of course, these trinkets are endearing” coupled with “I rather like a 20-karat earring.”

All this attention to stanza and rhyme, a style inherited from U.S. poets like Robert Frost (“He has been my mentor, always,” Wilbur says), got Wilbur tagged as the country’s leading “formalist” poet. He was an alternative to free-spirited beat poets who saw form as the enemy of expression. Wilbur has always disliked the formalist label, because “nobody breaks into smiles upon hearing the word. It sounds grim. The delight of rhyme and rhythm is utterly concealed by that word.” Still, Wilbur is a representative of an older, more rigorous tradition. Most poets and songwriters today incline toward near-rhyme, but while Wilbur says that “one might in desperation settle for half-rhyme here or there” to preserve the meaning of a line, he prefers pairings approved by a rhyming dictionary. “There’s a little disappointment—isn’t there, sometimes?—when one sound is followed by another sound that isn’t quite right.”

Bedford agrees that Wilbur’s perfect rhyming adds something, in an almost subliminal way: “Sometimes he makes a comical point by emphasizing the rhyme, but often the audience is not aware of the rhyme. But it does do something. It gives it quite an effervescence, you know?” When he did a production of Tartuffe that changed from Wilbur’s version to a good prose translation, Bedford adds, it was like “champagne without the fizz.”

Wilbur himself thinks rhyme is above all “a way of making important words all the more important,” but that it also creates a sense of playfulness that brings poetry “closer to dance and other spirited forms of art.” That’s what we get in some of the couplets from The Misanthrope, including one that certainly doesn’t apply to the author himself: “They wrong you greatly, sir. How it must hurt you / Never to be rewarded for your virtue!”


 

The last of the rhyming poets

  1. Enjoyed…especially your “case” with “page” and “stage,” Wilbur’s “Walloped”
    haiku, and Bedford’s “relentless” with “ebullience”!

  2. Far from his rhyming poems being an anomaly in the modern age, I have to tell you that I have just written about 500 carefully crafted and rhyming and rhythmic poems, mainly for children, but certainly not exclusively, and from my website they go out to a thousand classrooms a day.  I do agree with what he says but teachers are especially seeking out this type of poetry, especially for young children and ESL students because it helps them to develop phonological awareness, a key literacy tool.  It also helps memory development in children and my poems are especially important as performance poems.  Even from the earliest age a child will delight in joining in with a rhyming poem and qjuickly recognizes the fun you can have with words and rhythms.  I play with words from the beginning, often writing rhyming poems into modern verse, which children think is hilarious and want to try themselves:  eg:  Young Mr Hubbard went to the cupboard for things for his Indian curry, but when he got there, something caused him to stare and he left in rather a hurry.  For there on the shelf, sitting all by himself, was a little mouse eating his bread, so young Mr Hubbard closed the door of the cupboard and the family had pizza instead.   Yes, children and adults love this play on words and the earlier you can start children on rhyming poetry the better if you want good readers and writers of the English language. To reach my website to see hundreds of poems just Google JOSIE’S POEMS

    • Thanks,Josie. I began to write poetry in ernest back in my late teens and early twenties.For decades I have mined the works of Robert Frost for my own material and also been influenced by a number of singer/songwriters.Gratefully,over time I have developed my own style,have numerous admirers,and am hopeful of publishing my first book of original poems in the near future.
      May You be blessed with continued success.

  3. Robert Frost disliked free verse stating that” Free verse is like playing tennis without a net”.

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