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!”