Joining World and Mind
On the Poetry of Richard Wilbur
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recently rediscovered an old poem by Richard Wilbur that had somehow
slipped from my memory: a poem that is strange-looking on the page because
it opens, not with a word but with a colon, as if to tell the reader right
away that he’s being given the second half of something, and will have
to make do with that because the first half—the secret unknown half
before the colon—is not available. It’s titled “Games Two,” and I
want to begin with this poem because it opens the door to the rest. It
goes like this:
barren coldness birds
Go squadroned South:
from the hollow mouth
The way of words
Is East. When written down
As here, they file
In broken bands awhile,
But never noun
Found what it named; for lame,
Lost, though they burn
For the East, all words must turn
Back where they came
From, back to their old
As pilgrims on a hill
With failing eyes from far
The desired city,
Silence will take pity
On words. There are
Pauses where words must wait,
Spaces in speech
Which stop and calm it, and each
Is like a gate:
Past which creation lies
In morning sun,
Where word with world is one
last four lines take us back to the dream of Creation, Eden, where nothing
dies yet, where the word brought the world into being and the two—word
and world—have not yet parted company. But earlier in the poem, before
the longing backward look with which it closes, we’re told that even
though words burn for the East, for that golden beginning, here, in the
actual present, they are “fallen” and can behold the desired city only
from afar, so that the noun never finds what it names, just as the poem
before us cannot summon up its own first half before that cryptic colon.
Rediscovering this poem made me
think of all the Wilbur poems in which he hints at that same loss, that
same incapacity of language to pin reality down as we all wish it could,
as we imagine that in some perfect place it would—or did. And meandering
through the essays I came across many echoes of that same wish. In
“Poetry and Happiness,” for instance, a description of poetic lists or
catalogs is said to express “… . . a primitive desire that is radical
to poetry—the desire to lay claim to as much of the world as possible
through the names of things.” As if those nouns in poems were setting
out into the world of the real to plant their flags—the flags of
conscious human thought—and claim the terrain as something knowable and
capable of being possessed.
In another essay, “On My Own
Work,” I found this: “What poetry does with ideas is redeem them from
abstraction and submerge them in persons and things and surround them with
a weather of feeling . . .” I love that “weather of feeling,” so
like the “inner weather” that Robert Frost refers to at the end of
“Tree at My Window” as being the human equivalent of the “outer
weather” agitating his tree. And again, in “Regarding Places,” I came across
this: “the imagination . . . when in best health neither slights the
world not stops with it, but seeks the invisible through the visible.”
As if the landscapes we inhabit physically were the one route available to
those other states that we intuit but cannot inhabit.
All of that language reminds me
of poets that I’ve loved all my life. Gerard Manley Hopkins, for
instance, who celebrates the bewildering diversity and endless
transformations of the things of this world, both living and inanimate, as
testimony of the infinite generosity of their Maker, and also as a subtle
argument against those who pretend to understand the nature, limits or
preferences of such an inexhaustibly inventive Maker. It reminds me of St.
John of the Cross, who manages to speak cheerfully and without apology out
of both sides of his mouth. He says, in some poems, the lyrical equivalent
of “Oh, how I want to die, so as to be with God in a better world than
this one!” And then he adds, sometimes in the same poem, “But while
we’re here, let me tell you about the beauty of this landscape, the
gifts we’re given every day through these five partial and imperfect
senses, and the delights of physical love, which is so wonderful that it
will serve as a metaphor for the mutual devotion between the soul and its
It reminds me of Robert Frost,
whose poem “Birches” is cited in one of Wilbur’s essays as an
example of poetry at its “happiest,” precisely because it understands
that “Earth’s the right place for love.” The sense of
“happiness” used in this context springs from Yeats’ remark that
“We are happy when for everything inside us there is a corresponding
something outside us.” It even reminds me of Walt Whitman, whom Wilbur
regards as a “religious poet” who celebrates the real by listing
it—naming it, like Adam in the Garden—and who “leaves nothing
out.” What poets like those are suggesting seems to be that the
transcendent is not the opposite of what we know, but the purest, wholest
version of it, its perfection, which we can imagine only by working
outward from here, from what we know now in this place.
In an essay titled “Sumptuous
Destitution” on the work of Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur writes that
“The subjects to which a poet returns are those which vex him.” That
leads me to think that Richard Wilbur is a “religious poet” too, not
by verbally espousing some specific institution or credo, but rather by
conveying in his poems the religious impulse that underlies and overarches
institutions and credos, informing them without being wholly contained or
represented by any. It’s as if his poems were drawn from the one deep
well in human nature that produces all the basic questions and concerns
that feed religious thought, rather than from the separate, smaller,
mutually contradictory reservoirs into which that first pure water
eventually flows and changes in the flowing—and if I may say so without
giving offense, loses some of its freshness and purity in the process of
that flowing. The religious thought in these poems seems pre-doctrinal,
pre-everything, including the claim to human knowledge of the divine.
It’s like one of those nouns in “Games Two” that never “found what
Grounded in that perception of Richard Wilbur as a poet vexed—or at least compelled, since I don’t perceive this poet as “vexed” by anything—by the religious impulse, I’d like finally to get to the good stuff: several Wilbur poems that deal with the natural world, but exhibit a tendency to expand the reach of those poems far beyond the landscape they focus on.
The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch, and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law?
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream.
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter’s giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
I said, will come of it.
about this poem—the bleak landscape out of which the promise of rebirth
comes, the bow to the language of Genesis in line 13 , the
“I could not believe “ of line 3 that becomes the “set mind, blessed
by doubt” of line 18—marks it as a Creation story for the present, an
example of the poet—that other maker (with a small m), allowing himself
to review the Creation—and give it a thumbs-up—with wit and humor.
to R. F.
Here something stubborn comes,
Dislodging the earth crumbs
And making crusty rubble.
it comes up bending double,
And looks like a green staple.
It could be seedling maple,
Or artichoke, or bean.
That remains to be seen.
Forced to make choice of ends,
The stalk in time unbends,
Shakes off the seed-case, heaves
Aloft, and spreads two leaves
Which still display no sure
And special signature.
Toothless and fat, they keep
The oval form of sleep.
This plant would like to grow
And yet be embryo;
In crease, and yet escape
The doom of taking shape;
Be vaguely vast, and climb
To the tip end of time
With all of space to fill,
Like boundless Igdrasil
That has the stars for fruit.
But something at the root
More urgent that the urge
Bids two true leaves emerge;
And now the plant, resigned
To being self-defined
Before it can commerce
With the great universe,
Takes aim at all the sky
starts to ramify.
a perfect reply to such Frost poems as “Nothing Gold Can Stay”! The
leaves are doomed to “taking shape,” like everything else, rather than
retaining the gold of the unshaped, undetermined potential, but in this
poem that becomes a good thing; the leaves are, first, resigned to their
fate, but finally they go beyond resignation to “take aim” at the sky.
I love the slyness of this poet father and grandfather who plants what we
love most—our children—at the end of stanza two, when he describes the
leaves as “toothless and fat,” with “the oval form of sleep.” How
unappealing, in contrast, the perfection of the uncreated ideal becomes
when you think of it as children whom you cannot caress because they’re
never born! The ramification that ends the poem drags with it all of the
negative possibilities, the limitations, of existence, but all of that is
rendered inevitable—and maybe even desirable—by “something at the
root more urgent” than the yearning for perfection.
Here’s one that St. John of
the Cross would have loved, for its evocation of the sensuous beauty of
creation, both human and non-human:
The full cloves
Of your buttocks, the convex
Curve of your belly, the curved
Cleft of your sex—
Out of this corm
That’s planted in strong thighs
The slender stem and radiant
Some of these poems are full of
the sense of time passing, and remind the reader that every joy is a
delicate bargain with time. Here’s one that summons up the bleak
landscape of the biblical desert, with a stunning and ambivalent closing
Piecemeal the summer dies;
At the field’s edge the daisy lives alone;
A last shawl of burning lies
On a gray field-stone.
All cries are thin and terse;
The field has droned the summer’s final mass;
A cricket like a dwindled hearse
from the dry grass.
And here, one that collects in
one poem images that suggest warfare, the death of the aged and the
stubborn endurance of the young, the stories of Lazarus and Persephone,
and the silence of profoundly wounded veterans, to suggest a dark view of
resurrection, but resurrection nevertheless:
at the lawn’s end
Came stark, spindly,
and in staggered file,
Like walking wounded
from the dead of winter.
We watched them waken
in the brusque weather
To rot and rootbreak,
to ripped branches,
And I saw them shiver
as the memory swept them
Of night and numbness
and the taste of nothing.
Out of present pain
and from past terror
Their bullet-shaped buds
came quick and bursting,
As if they aimed
to be open with us!
But the sun suddenly
settled about them,
And green and grateful
the lilacs grew,
Healed in that hush,
that hospital quiet.
These lacquered leaves
where the light paddles
And the big blooms
buzzing among them
Have kept their counsel,
Of their mortal message,
unless one should measure
The depth and dumbness
of death’s kingdom
By the pure power
of this perfume.
Here’s a poem on the theme of
aging in which one of those magical Wilbur leaps takes place, like the one
from the rose window to the firmament, but this time in reverse, from the
“mosaic columns in a church” to “the trenched features of an aged
man.” It features birches, mosaics and an aged man, with “wisdom” in
the following stanza, and both “wisdom and art” in the final stanza,
suggesting a three-way conversation with Frost and Yeats.
in the final stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium” the speaker vows “Once
out of nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural
thing.” Listen for the way the final stanza of this one replies to those
lines and also to the close of “Tree at My Window”:
Black Birch in Winter
You might not know this old tree by its bark,
Which once was striate, smooth, and glossy-dark,
So deep now are the rifts which separate
Its roughened surface into flake and plate.
Fancy might less remind you of a birch
Than of mosaic columns in a church
Like Ara Coeli or the Lateran,
Or the trenched features of an aged man.
Still, do not be too much persuaded by
These knotty furrows and these tesserae
To think of patterns made from outside-in
Or finished wisdom in a shriveled skin.
Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth,
New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth,
And this is all their wisdom and their art—
grow, stretch, crack, and not yet come apart.
Here is a different aspect of
the poet’s bargain with time, and a different use of nature as part of
an intimately human landscape:
Fringing the woods, the stone walls, and the lanes,
Old thickets everywhere have come alive,
Their new leaves reaching out in fans of five
From tangles overarched by this year’s canes.
They have their flowers too, it being June,
And here and there in brambled dark-and-light
Are small, five-petaled blooms of chalky white,
As random-clustered and as loosely strewn
As the far stars, of which we now are told
That ever faster do they bolt away,
And that a night may come in which, some say,
We shall have only blackness to behold.
I have no time for any change so great,
But I shall see the August weather spur
Berries to ripen where the flowers were—
Dark berries, savage-sweet and worth the wait—
And there will come the moment to be quick
And save some from the birds, and I shall need
Two pails, old clothes in which to stain and bleed,
a grandchild to talk with while we pick.
Note the tendency to converse
with other poets through shared imagery, and the marvelous vaulting leap
from the blackberry blossoms to the “far stars,” and then finally to
“only blackness,” followed by the surprising “I have no time for any
change so great,” which is both a statement of fact and an oath of
allegiance to the present moment. The berries that contain the sweetness
of what we have, but ripened by the awareness of its inevitable passing,
are described as “dark,” “savage-sweet,” and “worth the wait,”
and the poem ends with the perfectly ordinary items that the speaker
admits to needing: “Two pails, old clothes in which to stain and bleed,
/ And a grandchild to talk with while we pick.” Not Eden, but it will
I’d like to end with a poem
that not only accepts the bargain with time suggested by “Blackberries
for Amelia,” but extends it, like a contract applied retroactively, to
the dead whose intimate thoughts we can’t share anymore because not only
are they gone, but also the poems that may have embodied those thoughts.
The language the Etruscans spoke survives only in records of accounting
and epigrams carved in stone: their folded linen books have rotted away,
taking with them whatever they may have contained. This is “To the
Etruscan Poets,” people whose presumed desire to “join world and
mind,” to embody experience in language, is all we have left of them and
of whatever poetry they may have written. But maybe, after all, that
imagined desire itself, the desire at the heart of poetry, is enough:
the Etruscan Poets
Dream fluently, still brothers, who when young
Took with your mothers’ milk the mother tongue,
In which pure matrix, joining world and mind,
You strove to leave some line of verse behind
Like a fresh track across a field of snow,
Not reckoning that all could melt and go.