Excerpt: 'Collected Poems,' Richard Wilbur

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"A real treat for poetry lovers in summer — or any season," says book critic Alan Cheuse of this new trade paperback, recommended in his summer reading roundup for All Things Considered.

Wilbur was born in New York City in 1921 and now lives in Massachusetts. "I once asked Wallace Stevens whether he liked such-and-such a poem of his, and he heartily replied, 'I like all my poems,'" Wilbur writes in the foreword to this collection.

"Every poet has moments of feeling that way, moved by gratitude for all the times when he got something decently said, or hoped to have done so, and could in conscience add another poem to his manuscript. That, I think, is the mood in which a collected poems — as opposed to a sternly winnowed selected — should be assembled."

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Three Selections from 'Collected Poems'

by Richard Wilbur

The Writer

 

In her room at the prow of the house

Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,

My daughter is writing a story.

 

I pause in the stairwell, hearing

From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys

Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

 

Young as she is, the stuff

Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:

I wish her a lucky passage.

 

But now it is she who pauses,

As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.

A stillness greatens, in which

 

The whole house seems to be thinking,

And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor

Of strokes, and again is silent.

 

I remember the dazed starling

Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;

How we stole in, lifted a sash

 

And retreated, not to affright it;

And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,

We watched the sleek, wild, dark

 

And iridescent creature

Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

 

And wait then, humped and bloody,

For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits

Rose when, suddenly sure,

 

It lifted off from a chair-back,

Beating a smooth course for the right window

And clearing the sill of the world.

 

It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.

The Reader

 

She is going back, these days, to the great stories

That charmed her younger mind. A shaded light

Shines on the nape half-shadowed by her curls,

And a page turns now with a scuffing sound.

Onward they come again, the orphans reaching

For a first handhold in a stony world,

The young provincials who at last look down

On the city’s maze, and will descend into it,

The serious girl, once more, who would live nobly,

The sly one who aspires to marry so,

The young man bent on glory, and that other

Who seeks a burden. Knowing as she does

What will become of them in bloody field

Or Tuscan garden, it may be that at times

She sees their first and final selves at once,

As a god might to whom all time is now.

Or, having lived so much herself, perhaps

She meets them this time with a wiser eye,

Noting that Julien’s calculating head

Is from the first too severed from his heart.

But the true wonder of it is that she,

For all that she may know of consequences,

Still turns enchanted to the next bright page

Like some Natasha in the ballroom door—

Caught in the flow of things wherever bound,

The blind delight of being, ready still

To enter life on life and see them through.

Asides

 

Though the season's begun to speak

Its long sentences of darkness,

The upswept boughs of the larch

Bristle with gold for a week,

 

And then there is only the willow

To make bright interjection,

Its drooping branches decked

With thin leaves, curved and yellow,

 

Till winter, loosening these

With a first flurry and bluster,

Shall scatter across the snow-crust

Their dropped parentheses.

Books Featured In This Story

Collected Poems 1943-2004
Collected Poems, 1943-2004

by Richard Wilbur

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