Saturday, August 01, 2009

`Stays Against Transience'

“There is a poignancy in all things clear,
In the stare of the deer, in the ring of a hammer in the morning.
Seeing a bucket of perfectly lucid water
We fall to imagining prodigious honesties.”

There is, as well, a poignancy in these lines from Richard Wilbur’s “Clearness” (from Ceremony and Other Poems, 1950) and in others from his seven decades of work and, of course, in the ungainly sprawl of literature. One of the reasons we read is for such moments of poignant clarity, of one person’s living perception distilled. Remember Cleopatra’s howl when Antony dies:

“The crown o’ the earth doth melt. My lord!
O, wither’d is the garland of the war,
The soldier’s pole is fall’n: young boys and girls
Are level now with men. The odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.”

Having read this once, and again, it mingles with the sorrow we know when exceptional people die, whether Edgar Bowers, Guy Davenport or an old friend. Literature, Kenneth Burke reminds us, reliably provides such “equipment for living.” A reader has passed along a copy of the introduction David Yezzi gave Wilbur at a reading in New York City in May. Among Yezzi’s observations are these:

“As Robert Frost knew well, `to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of’ is the poet’s ultimate ambition. And Wilbur has lodged with us an extraordinary number of poems, indelible and unforgettable.

“The teaming list of `moments’ that Wilbur has preserved will be different for each reader, since all of his poems perform the function in some way.”

Among them I would propose these lines from “Attention Makes Infinity” (from The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, 1947):

“Contagious of the solid make this day
An infiniteness any eye may prove.
Let asphalt bear us up to walk in love,
Electric towers shore the clouds away.”

And these, from “Winter Spring” (a title and poem that remind me of Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring”) in the same collection:

“And doubtless it is dangerous to love
This somersault of seasons;
But I am weary of
The winter way of loving things for reasons.”

Yezzi says in his introduction, “Wilbur’s poems are the mysterious product of the poet’s lifelong mastery over the momentary; they are stays against transience.” In March, Wilbur turned 88.

1 comment:

Language said...

Another Wilbur fan here -- I like your post, but I thought I'd mention that the first line of the stanza from "Attention Makes Infinity" has a very annoying typo in the new Collected which you have unwittingly reproduced; it should be "Contagions of the solid make this day." (I beat my head against the syntax of the mangled line for some time before checking it against my good old Poems of Richard Wilbur!)