View Full Version : Richard Wilbur

Tuesday, January 18th, 2005, 09:41 AM
I include here a few poems of Richard Wilbur, famed poet and translator, winner of the Pulitzer prize, a "craftsman" poet. His political stance is not out of keeping with an American veteran of his generation, but his work I think is transcendent in general. The following poems I reproduce, having selected from ones that particularly stand out to me now, may well not be his best; his oeuvre ranges widely in content and form, his genius shows in almost all of it. Also of note are his many translations, such as those of Racine, Moliere, Baudelaire and Borges, to name a few.


Lamarck Elaborated

"The environment creates the organ"

The Greeks were wrong who said our eyes have rays;
Not from these sockets or these sparkling poles
Comes the illumination of our days.
It was the sun that bored these two blue holes.

It was the song of doves begot the ear
And not the ear that first conceived of sound:
That organ bloomed in vibrant atmosphere,
As music conjured Ilium from the ground.

The yielding water, the repugnant stone,
The poisoned berry and the flaring rose
Attired in sense the tactless finger-bone
And set the taste-budes and inspired the nose.

Out of our vivid ambiance came unsought
All sense but that most formidably dim.
The shell of balance rolls in seas of thought.
It was the mind that taught the head to swim.

Newtonian numbers set to cosmic lyres
Whelmed us in the whirling worlds we could not know,
And by the imagined floods of our desires
The voice of Sirens gave us vertigo.

Speech for the Repeal of the McCarran Act

As Wulfstan said on another occasion,
The strong net bellies in the wind and the spider rides it out;
But history, that sure blunderer,
Ruins the unkempt web, however silver.

I am not speaking of rose windows
Shattered by bomb-shock; the leads touselled; the glass-grains broadcast;
If the rose be living at all
A gay gravel shall be pollen of churches.

Nor do I mean railway networks.
Torn-up tracks are not great trouble. As Wulfstan said,
It is oathbreach, faithbreach, lovebreach
Bring the invaders into the estuaries.

Shall one man drive before him ten
Unstrung from sea to sea? Let thought be free. I speak
Of the spirit's weaving, the neural
Web, the self-true mind, the trusty reflex.

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 agéd 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.

On the Eyes of an SS Officer

I think of Amundsen, enormously bit
By arch-dark flurries on the ice plateaus,
An amorist of violent virgin snows
At the cold end of the world's spit.

Or a Bombay saint asquat in the market place,
Eyes gone from staring the sun over the sky,
Who still dead-reckons that acetylene eye,
An eclipsed mind in a blind face.

But this one's iced or ashen eyes devise,
Foul purities, in flesh their wilderness,
Their fire; I ask my makeshift God of this
My opulent bric-a-brac earth to damn his eyes.