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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Number 131: Richard Wilbur "The Writer"

The Writer

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

-- Richard Wilbur

Hap Notes: By rights, Richard Wilbur (born 1921) should be the most famous living poet in America. Of course, critically he is generally received with appreciation and those who seriously write and read poetry know his work but he should be at least as familiar a name as Robert Frost, whom Wilbur knew and by whom he was somewhat mentored. I suspect his popular reputation is damaged somewhat by his adherence to a sort of "formal" verse and the fact that he crafts a poem and doesn't just blurt out whatever the hell he is feeling at the time and call it a poem (oops- my hostility for shallow surface poetry is showing...I'll try to control it. There is room for all kinds of poetry. Let the reader beware.)

Wilbur went to Amherst college, served in WWII, went to graduate school at Harvard and along his career he has met or been friends with a huge number of the poets we have discussed here: Frost, Bishop, Lowell, Moore, Stevens and more. He was a teaching assistant for I.A. Richards. He's won two Pulitzers, numerous fellowships and was Poetry Consultant (i.e. laureate) for the U.S. His translations of Moliere are unsurpassed. I do believe all that "voice of his generation" stuff tipped him right off the radar since no generation wants to think one single voice is their own. It's a shame that we don't all know "Love Calls to Us The Things of this World" (we'll get to that one this year) or the incredibly beautiful "A Baroque Wall-Fountain at the Villa Sciarra" (which is here: ) by heart, really.

In today's poem we see Wilbur saying something about the act and art of writing. That poor starling struggling to get out of the room is very much like the pains of writing. Thomas Mann once said,"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people" and it's true if one wants to write well and with meaning, it is not an easy thing. I love the poet comparing the sound of the manual typewriter to the sound of "a chain hauled over a gunwhale" on the side of a ship and the image of the writer in the "prow" of the house. The windows are "tossed with linden", the tree branches, leaves and shadows like waves. A writer is always booking his own passage on a tramp steamer bound for somewhere when they sit down to write (with their "cargo" in the hold.)

Wilbur is philosophical and patient about poetry. He is not rushed or worried about it both in its writing and in its future. His forms, while labeled "formal" and perfectionistic are looser than he is described. He has written light verse and was a lyricist for one of my favorite musicals "Candide." While his work is well-wrought, it is not stuffy. One can see an influence of both Frost and Bishop.

Here's a good Wilbur quote: "One of the jobs of poetry is to make the unbearable bearable, not by falsehood but by clear, precise confrontation."

and another:

"Anybody who uses forms as I do is going to go in or out of fashion. When I started writing, there was a very warm reception to my poems generally, and they were cheerfully accepted on the formal side. Come the 1960s, I was suddenly very much out of fashion. So I spent a decade or more simply being defiant, and going on doing things the only way I knew how.

Now I should say there’s a revival of tolerance for so-called formal poetry, and also, many people who have gotten a bit sick of the prosaic creative-writing poem of the past few years have learned to read formal poetry with relish and understanding."

You can find more Wilbur here:

P.S. The starling, as we've noted before, is an import to our shores, brought over by lovers of Shakespeare (no kidding.) Their wings are a bit short so, when flying, they look like a four-pointed star, hence their name. Their winter feathers are spotted but in the summer they are dark and even more iridescent.

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