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This article is taken from PN Review 266, Volume 48 Number 6, July - August 2022.

Hallowed Gaves, Cold Remains J. Kates
‘This sounds like Lowell translating Racine, making the clear things dark,’ Richard Wilbur penciled in the margin of a poem he was critiquing, part of a manuscript I would be submitting for my Wesleyan degree in 1967.

So much packed into that one remark, not just the richly deserved critique of my own callow writing, a critique I have taken to heart ever since. It also speaks with the voice of Wilbur the Milton scholar (‘dark with exceeding light’) and the voice of Wilbur the literary rival of Robert Lowell, both as leading poets of their time and as translators. (They were born on the same day, although four years apart.)

An apprentice poet sorting out my own voices in the mid-1960s, I read Wilbur, a major figure on the Wesleyan campus, with some wonder and a great deal of appreciation; but I was far from being a follower, took no formal classes with him, and thought I was going my own way. Still, when his ‘On the Marginal Way’ appeared in The New Yorker in 1965, it struck me, as it still does today, in the heart. Reading that poem for the first time under the gloom of war-torn America, I danced in elation around my dormitory room to the craft and music of its hard-won affirmation in impossibly difficult times.
Joy for a moment floods into the mind,
Blurting that all things shall be brought
To the full state and stature of their kind . . . 

And at least one of my own poems of those ...


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