Teach me, like you, to drink creation whole/ And casting out myself, become a soul.Richard Wilbur
By Richard Wilbur
The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”
Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.
Richard Wilbur is one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th Century. Few racked up the awards like him; two Pulitzers, the Bollinger Award, Poet Laureate of the United States (the second after Robert Penn Warren), the Frost Award, and you can go on and on. I have honestly never understood or even much liked Wilbur because I never understood his most anthologized poem – The Death of a Toad, until the start of the Ukraine war. And now, I relate to it and him completely differently. It made me go back and reassess Wilbur and I found him surprisingly humorous. I also realized what I had always missed before, the context of his use of animals as metaphors and symbols for the tragedy and violence of human existence are informed by a perspective of having survived WWII as a soldier.
Born into men of letters, the descendant of both a father and grandfather who were editors, it was only natural that Wilbur would find a way to make a living with words. Wilbur may be a little too formal for today’s mainstream poetry taste’s. Even in his heyday he was accused by critics that he favored the smoothness of his poetry, picking the rhyme and meter over emotion and content. But, I think that’s rubbish. There’s nothing wrong with wordsmithing in my opinion if the reader can figure out the emotion on their own easy enough. We never accuse a song writer of being too in love with the rhyme in their lyrics, even when the lyrics are complete nonsense, as long as the song writing and singing are first rate and deliver the emotion. Let’s give poets the same freedom to operate. If the reader can’t summon a little emotion of their own, well then, the poet can bring a reader to the handkerchief, but they can’t make them cry….
There is a sneaky complexity to some of Wilbur’s word choices that I had never considered before reading him this week. Take the poem above. Linger on the second word – warping. What’s being warped? Reread it and ponder how darkness changes the things we see in the light and how we all domesticate, normalize, our fears.
The poem below, read it the first time aloud, enjoy the smoothness of the words, don’t give it much thought as to meaning. Then read it again, now that your subconscious has an idea of what lays ahead, and this time consider how much of the imagery and ideas are a defiance of the God of war. Is his reference to a soul unshelled, the idea of it living beyond the husk of our mortal body, or has it survived, intact, endless mortars raining down, surviving as if it hadn’t occurred? Is it a prophet coming to the streets of your city, or soldiers of war?
By Richard Wilbur
When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God’s name to have self-pity,
Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.
Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?—
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,
A stone look on the stone’s face?
Speak of the world’s own change. Though we cannot conceive
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,
How the view alters. We could believe,
If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip
On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,
These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken
In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.
Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.