Auld Lang Syne

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Down with a cold, but up for poetry

I have been totally sidelined by a terrible cold. I have coughed up some things that I believe to be primal, bits of an ancient culture. I have sneezed myself into headaches, blown my nose until I may have given myself a concussion. OK, so I exaggerate here... but you get the picture.

One blessing of being sick (once you pass the phase where you sleep 'round the clock for two days) is that you are forced onto the couch with nothing calling you. I took advantage of this to spend some quality time with Richard Wilbur's poems. I am steaming ahead with the big project to annotate and understand and compare his world of writing. I originally thought I'd begin at the beginning (1947 volume) and move ahead from there. Not a great plan as it turns out. For some reason I was unable to get terribly excited about the early stuff UNTIL I began to read it along with the new material. So I am doing an ends to middle approach at this point. Today I read the first poem (a prologue of sorts) to his latest book, Anterooms.

The House is a sweet and evocative bit of reflection on the dream life you cannot enter: that of your beloved. It addresses the "morning after" when lovers try to get back into the living world and yet are still caught up in the land they left to do so. The poem begins:

Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.

How many times have I awakened still clinging to the phantoms of night, to a place or a person only real in the night world? I have tried to share my dreams with my beloved, only to feel inadequate to include him, and slightly guilty for going there without him. Wilbur captures this fully and succinctly in the opening stanza of the poem.

The middle stanza attempts to do what I try to do in morning: Give details. Include. Explain. Wilbur captures the inadequacy of the attempt. His poem lets me feel included in this holy adventure of dreaming.

I admit that I actually gasped aloud with pleasure when I got to the end of the poem as it turns to the notion that the dreamer is followed to the sea (of dreams) despite the speaker's full knowledge that he cannot find the land she is inhabiting. THAT is love. It is the action of being willing to go into impossible waters alone because the beloved has sailed off in that direction:

Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.

Is this not amazing? It is. I assert that Wilbur is our greatest living American poet (male). My opinion keeps growing stronger with every poem.

Regarding the bones of this poem:

Wilbur embraces always a classic aesthetic in terms of prosody. His poems naturally find themselves rhyming, find their music in iambics (mostly), a four or five beat line. This poem is no exception. The rhyme scheme is abba, cddc, effe. With its volta at line nine, this might be a sonnet, save its 12 lines rather than 14. Wisley Wilbur does not try to stretch out another couplet. The poem ends where it wants. Where it ought.

So, dear reader, since I am still a bit under the weather, I will end here and leave you with one thought:

Take every opportunity to engage with great poems. Tomorrow I will talk to you about my pre-illness trip to Boston to Grolier's Poetry Bookshop, speak of hotels and lobster hash and my coffee mug from the Harvard Book Store. TTFN as Tigger would say.