A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, February 19, 2010

Poem of the Day: Richard Wilbur

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World 

    The eyes open to a cry of pulleys, 
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul 
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple 
As false dawn. 
                            Outside the open window 
The morning air is all awash with angels. 

    Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, 
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are. 
Now they are rising together in calm swells 
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear 
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing; 

    Now they are flying in place, conveying 
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving 
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden 
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet 
That nobody seems to be there. 
                                                     The soul shrinks 

    From all that it is about to remember, 
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day, 
And cries, 
    'Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry, 
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam 
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.'

    Yes, as the sun acknowledges 
With a warm look the world's hunks and colors, 
The soul descends once more in bitter love 
To accept the waking body, saying now 
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises, 

    'Bring them down from their ruddy gallows; 
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves; 
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone, 
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating 
Of dark habits,   
                           keeping their difficult balance.'
--Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur is one of two famous poets (if that's not an oxymoron) who have sat on my couch. (The other, whom I won't identify, hit on my wife. She and I thought it was very funny.) This was back when I was an academic, and we used to entertain visiting writers after their readings. Wilbur was a perfect gentleman, a little shy and also I fear a little bored at having to answer questions from undergraduates. He brightened when I asked him about his work on Leonard Bernstein's Candide, for which he wrote many of the lyrics. I think he was prouder of that than of much of his "serious" verse. 

This poem is from his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Things of This World, as you might guess from its title. And actually, "things of this world" pretty much sums up Wilbur's subject matter. He likes to write about particularities, things in their "haecciety": laundry hanging on a clothesline, a toad dying after being run over by a lawnmower, a sparrow chiding a vulture, driftwood, potatoes, poplar and sycamore trees. It is gentlemanly verse, quiet, thoughtful, observant, sometimes playful and always meticulous. Kind of the way I wish I was.