Sunday, November 13, 2005

Under a tree

We know those tales of gods in hot pursuit
Who frightened wood-nymphs into taking root

And changing then into a branchy shape
Fair, but perplexing to the thought of rape:

But this, we say, is more how love is made -
Ply and reply of limbs in fireshot shade,

Where overhead we hear tossed leaves content
To take the wind in free dishevelment

And, answering with supple blade and stem,
Caress the gusts that are caressing them.

- Richard Wilbur

The last day of autumn. A park bench under the fading sun, the park ankle-deep in fallen leaves. And Richard Wilbur. Such a beautiful melancholy, such a warm and glorious sadness.

Richard Wilbur has long been a poet I greatly admire for the incredible ear he brings to his poetry. His images and metaphors are uneven - strikingly brilliant in parts, disappointingly trite in others and there are times when you can sense the rhyme constraining him - but at his best, he is a poet who combines the verbal precision of Auden [1] with a sound that is pure Frost. This is one of his better poems (I especially love 'Ply and reply of limbs in fireshot shade') and one that seemed strangely apt this afternoon, perhaps because there was an urgency in the air, a sense of imminent parting. The sense, in Shelley's words, of "aught mute but deeply shaken".

[1] Writing on the occasion of Auden's death, Wilbur writes:

"you, who sustained the civil tongue
In a scattering time, and were poet of all our cities,
Have for all your clever difference quietly left us,
As we might have known that you would, by that common door."


Cheshire Cat said...

Dissent, dissent, dissent. This is the sentence: his words are insentient, sense tensely subtends sensation, no season for licence and too much licence for reasons; (deepest censure) he is not essential.

A poet of surfaces, really. Of the complacent fifties, Hecht and he.

Mrudula said...

To lie down on a park bench and read poetry! Bliss! Do you suppose it should be Wilbur? Don't you think he is a bit tame?

Falstaff said...

Cat: Ah, but I like surfaces. I never said he was deep, I like him precisely because his poems have an easy, singing elegance that does not require (or bear) much thinking about. His poems are inherently sensual - full of phrases that cry to be read aloud and then forgotten. I would compare him to Swinburne.

He is not essential, he is a luxury.

Mru: I certainly don't think he's tame - graceful and gentle yes - a poet who speaks more of quietness than passion. But hardly tame. And besides, it was that kind of day

Cheshire Cat said...

Why read Wilbur when you can read Merrill? Just as musical, just as glib, and furthermore, astonishingly prolific...

But to be honest (now wouldn't that be the day), I don't really believe any poet, however minor, can be substituted with another. And I do have a certain affection for Wilbur. It's just that it's so much more fun to tear a poet apart ("Tear him for his bad verses! Tear him for his bad verses!") than to praise him. I read an interview with Wilbur once in which he confessed to being an essentially happy person. Given how the history of poetry is littered with depressives and neurotics, there is something charming, even a little brave, about saying that.

Falstaff said...

Cat: :-). "It is my office to examplify / The published poet in his happiness'
- Richard Wilbur
'Cottage Street, 1953'.

Affection is the right word, I think.