Richard Wilbur, RIP.

The man whom I called “perhaps my favorite living poet” is, alas, no longer living. Richard Wilbur is dead at 96. I refer you to that fine NY Times obituary by Daniel Lewis for details of his life and career (as well as some poetry); I’ll quote a couple of poems here (for more, see the first link as well as this post from 2008). First, “Praise In Summer,” from his first book, The Beautiful Changes (1947):

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,
As sometimes summer calls us all, I said
The hills are heavens full of branching ways
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
I said the trees are mines in air, I said
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savour’s in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it? To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

Wilbur took his own suggestion and spent his life playing a tune upon the blue guitar of things exactly as they are. And here is the last stanza of “Mayflies,” from his 2000 collection of the same name (you can read the whole thing, and hear him reading it, here):

Watching those lifelong dancers of a day
As night closed in, I felt myself alone
        In a life too much my own,
More mortal in my separateness than they —
Unless, I thought, I had been called to be
        Not fly or star
But one whose task is joyfully to see
How fair the fiats of the caller are.

Comments

  1. Those were worth reading – thanks for sharing them. Some echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins there…

  2. Definitely!

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    Perhaps overshadowed a bit in death as in life by Ashbery?

  4. A cursory search shows that many people online seem to be interpreting “Praise In Summer” more literally than literarily, alas; as a critique of poetry, however, it seems highly ironic. The playful contrast starts with:

    “The hills are heavens full of branching ways
    Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
    I said the trees are mines in air, I said
    See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!”

    By which we can see the awkward usage of sky-associated metaphors and verbs for describing trees, hills, and moles, and the use of earth-associated metaphors for the sky and the sparrow. Observing the same irony, the poet remarks:

    “And then I wondered why this mad instead
    Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
    Such savour’s in this wrenching things awry.
    Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
    The world to know it?”

    Which is a fairly straight forward way of saying “why the hell do we poets force ourselves into these strange and outlandish metaphors *instead* of the obvious, just to be original”? The “obvious” then ends the poem:

    “To a praiseful eye
    Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
    That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
    And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?”

    But we see even here the “obvious” is not so obvious, but becomes increasingly mired in fancy metaphors – moles “coursing” in clay; sparrows “sweeping” the “ceiling” of the day, which recalls once again the initial metaphorical reversal of earth and sky; hence the irony, because in the end, the poet couldn’t help himself.

    Is this then a praise or criticism of the “mad instead?” Is it a simple acceptance of the poetic enterprise? Is it an attempt to distinguish metaphors that alliterate – “sparrow…sweep…ceiling” from metaphors that assonate and consonate – “star-nosed moles… overhead the dead”; “sparrow burrows”? Who knows, but this exercise was enjoyable, and I thank you for the reference. May the poet rest with peace in the heavens of branching ways.

  5. Amen, and thanks for your exegesis!

  6. marie-lucie says:

    I second LH!

  7. Sir JCass says:

    RIP. Would write more if I wasn’t so busy at the moment. Just to note my approval of Wilbur’s poetry and my disapproval of his death.

  8. filkferengi says:

    His translations of Moliere’s plays, especially _Le Misanthrope_ and _Tartuffe_, were superlative, the closest to the original I’ve ever seen. They kept the poetry, but lived, rather than marching stiffly in rhythmic guise.

  9. Very true.

  10. Yes, they’re terrific, and very popular, at least in America. He said he put several children through college on royalties earned from them. For some reason they’ve never caught on so much in the UK (some big names in theater there have their own versions to peddle). His Racine and Corneille translations don’t seem to get performed very much, either, but give them time and they might. Unlike Moliere, neither R. nor C. are very well known to anglophone theater-goers. I saw his Phaedra at its Stratford, Canada premier and was surprised by his version’s intensity given its somewhat prim look on the page.

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