One of my favorite poems is "Mind", by Richard Wilbur. It begins:
|Mind in its purest play is like some bat|
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.
Wilbur weaves a web of words that leaves me in awe with its sparkle. In a recent essay Stephen Metcalf notes:
[Wilbur's] Collected Poems, 1943-2004 is now out, and it is the indispensable Wilbur, covering recent unpublished work, many of his children's poems and song lyrics, and all of his nine published volumes of poetry. In addition to being filled with light, music and wit, and a generous and very native aplomb, these poems form an argument, about how one goal of the well-lived life might be composure, rather than the mad flowering of a personal signature.
In Metcalf's judgment Richard Wilbur has been too smooth, too metrical, too apparently-effortless, too controlled, to be properly appreciated for the past several decades. Metcalf senses a sea-change, however, and concludes:
Wilbur had the misfortune to come of age at a time when literary criticism was receding into the academy, and simple, repeatable liturgies involving originality made the glamorously obscure poem easy to teach, especially to students with no inherited sense of poetic tradition. That era is thankfully at an end. The emergence of a poet like Wilbur as a hero to a new generation of critics is cause for hope: that readers, not gatekeepers, might rediscover poems written in the spirit of generosity and care, and disciplined by the idea of an uncaptive audience.
After verses exploring the bat-cave of thought, Wilbur's "Mind" explodes in a final starburst of self-reference:
|And has this simile a like perfection?|
The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.
Composure — "one goal of the well-lived life" in Metcalf's words. Enlightenment through quiet competence and the occasional graceful error ...