Monday, May 04, 2015

`Displays of Cool Fire'

The calendar says spring and in Houston that means warm days, blue skies and blessedly low humidity. Also, ubiquitous lizards and toads. Male green anoles perform a push-up like motion and flare their reddish dewlaps. Herds of toads move out of the way in the morning before sunrise as I walk to the curb to fetch the newspaper. The dove chorus saws away in the oaks. Mosquitoes hum, and opossums and squirrels skitter along the power lines. Even in our suburbanized city neighborhood, life throbs away. “Praise in Summer” is the second-to-last poem in Richard Wilbur’s first collection, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (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 savor’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?” 

Almost uniquely among our better poets, Wilbur is “called to praise.” I don’t remember a phrase or line of complaint, but Praise in Summer” is a self-critique. Creation needs no embellishment, yet the urge to create and praise lingers and grows stronger. In “Five Favourite Poetry Books” (Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language, 2014) Clive James includes Wilbur’s Poems 1943-1956 (in which The Beautiful Changes is collected), along with titles by Yeats, Frost, Auden and Larkin. James likens his impact on his contemporaries to the arrival of a “rococo asteroid, burning up their air with his displays of cool fire.” On March 1, Wilbur turned ninety-four.


Subbuteo said...

The Wilbur quotation - vertiginous and marvellous.

Chuck Kelly said...

Two things: 1) when I was in Flatonia weekend before last, we sat in the dark on the back porch, way out in the country. Immediately noticeable to me was the loud chorus of frogs, celebrating Nature's abundance. There were tenors, baritones, basses, and basso profundos, all roaring con gusto in praise of recent rains. 2) Our section of Sugar Land is swarming with White Wing Doves nowadays. Until a decade or so ago, White Wings were an exotic game bird that lived in the Rio Grande Valley too timid or precious to venture north. "Big game hunters" safaried south on expensive boondoggles to shoot them. If game laws allowed it, I could have all I want without leaving our patio.