Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
Rhina Espaillat

Joining World and Mind

 On the Poetry of Richard Wilbur

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          I 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: 

Games Two 


From barren coldness birds

Go squadroned South:

So 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

Capital. Still,

As pilgrims on a hill

Fallen, behold

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

And nothing dies. 

The 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 Maker.” 

            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 it named.” 

            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.

April 5, 1974

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.

Flowers, I said, will come of it. 

Everything 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. 

Seed Leaves 

Homage 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

And starts to ramify. 

What 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:  

A Shallot

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

Flower rise. 

             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 image: 


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

Crawls 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: 

The Lilacs 

Those laden lilacs

  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,

 conveying nothing

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. 

But 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”: 

A 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—

To 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: 

Blackberries for Amelia 

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,

And 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 do. 

            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: 

To 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.

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