Auld Lang Syne

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The work ahead

Well, today will be a big day for me. I will phone Richard Wilbur to set up the appointment he has agreed to regarding my work on my study of his complete poems. He has agreed to answer five questions. Of course this presumes I have five excellent questions for him. I have been thinking long and hard what it is I want to ask him, what I want to know about his work. I could seriously spend the entire interview time asking questions about what I consider to be five of his best poems (I will list them later). But if I did that, I would miss getting to his view on poetry and on the world his poems inhabit. So I will spring forward into my questions, armed with those poems that might be reference points for the five things I will ask him.

I have loved the poems of Wilbur for a long time. They have a majesty and mastery of diction for one thing. I read a poem and immediately begin asking myself how he "did that." I want to know about his line breaks, his way into and through a poem, his sense of musicality, his ideas about revision. I want to be inside his head. My own head is spinning a bit at the idea that shortly I will be sitting one on one with the greatest American poet of our time. His "career" has spanned over seven decades if not longer (he is 92) and he's been US Poet Laureate, won not one, but two Pulitzers, has been massively published. He had a long and happy marriage to the girl of his dreams and they had a lovely family together. He has gone to war and come home again to write about it. For me, this rich and fruitful lifetime has given him and us as his readers a microcosm of the American experience. We only need to pick up a few poems to see our own place in the world he describes. It is this very thing that makes me want to share my own experience of his poems with others. Where do I think he stands in the world of American poetry? At the top of it all.

I therefore have embarked upon this larger-than-I-thought project, to read and annotate every poem (or nearly every poem) of the great man and write a "biography" of the poems. Not a biography of Wilbur per se, but of his writing. I want it to become a conversation I have with readers and poets of this age. I want to inflame other readers with a love of the poems that so inflame me and inform my own writing every day. Will this be some dreary academic effort? By no means. I hope it will be a conduit of reflection over the work, a way "in" for others. So, the five questions. Hmmmm, the five questions. I have to focus on the five questions and stop being nervous about the meeting. I can do this.

Oh, so you might be asking yourself which five of his poems I consider his best. Here they are, not in any particular order save the first, which I consider to be as close to a perfect poem as one might get.

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
The Writer
First Snow in Alsace
To An American Poet Just Dead
The House

I must say that, with except for the first poem on the list, I might almost exchange any of the next four with four others. I choose these because they have done something visceral to me as I read them. The last on this list has especially affected me. It is a poem that alludes lovingly to Wilbur's wife, now deceased. It suggests a loneliness and a longing to be reunited with her, while realizing now is not the moment. It is poignant, but not at all maudlin. That's the thing about Wilbur: he can DO that with such grace and deliberateness that we do not get annoyed and call him "confessional." We simply sigh and understand him. We who are poets sigh, understand him, and want to write LIKE him.

As I sit here writing this, my eyes wander to the battered copy of his New and Collected Poems, replete with the word COYOTE stamped on it from my undergraduate university bookstore. I itch to get back into the poems. Today, however, I will read and annotate poems from his last two books, Mayflies (2000) and Anterooms (2010). I'm also keen on knowing if he is sitting at his own desk today, writing something new.

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