"The Poet and the Poem at the Library of Congress"
An interview with Richard
Wilbur by Grace Cavalieri
Grace Cavalieri Interviews RICHARD WILBUR, First Consultant in Poetry to be named Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, when Congress in 1987. changed the title officially. This interview was conducted with Mr. Wilbur on his Inaugural day, The Library of Congress, 1987.
On Having Misidentified A Wildflower
A thrush, because I?d been wrong, burst rightly into song.
In a world not vague, not lonely
Not governed by me only
Richard Wilbur is the author of eleven books of poetry, prose, in addition to translations, texts, lyrics for stage and orchestra. Richard, have you done that all this lifetime?
Yes, I?ve somehow managed to fit it in. And teach school too.
At Smith. Recently retired from Smith College? Having been at Harvard, Wesleyan, Wellesley?
Yes. Harvard, then Wellesley, then Wesleyan for 20 years, and Smith for the last 10. And now I?m out on the street.
And now as Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. What does that mean you will do?
Well this is my first day on the job, and I?m really down here to find out. I do know a few fundamentals. I?m to advise the Library on their literary programs, the programs they hold in the auditorium here. And I?m to be helpful about what books and poetry should be stressed. Of course they get them all, but what books of poetry they should be happy to have. There are other advisory things I?m to do. I?m also to give a reading in the fall, and a lecture in the spring.
That?s the official duty, right. I?m particularly interested in talking with you, because you?re known as a public poet. I also would like very much if you would read from your new work, and I see here on the brochure from the Library, the poem Hamlen Brook.
Well, I?ll be glad to try it. It takes a little wind as you?ll see. I?ve got one very long sentence in this poem. Hamlen Brook is a brook which runs through my woods up in Covington Massachusetts. And as this poem begins, I?m on the verge of that brook, and looking down into it.
At the alder-darkened brink
Where the stream slows to a lucid jet
I lean to the water, dinting its top with sweat,
And see, before I can drink,
A startled inchling trout
Of spotted near-transparency,
Trawling a shadow solider than he.
He swerves now, darting out
To where, in a flicked slew
Of sparks and glittering silt, he weaves
Through stream-bed rocks, disturbing foundered leaves,
And butts then out of view
Beneath a sliding glass
Crazed by the skimming of a brace
Of burnished dragon-flies across its face,
In which deep cloudlets pass
And a white precipice
Of mirrored birch trees plunges down
Toward where the azures of the zenith drown.
How shall I drink all this?
Joy's trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.
The last stanza is as good as anything in print. Joy?s trick is to supply dry lips with what can cool and slake.Ó Thank you for that. I look at the poem on the page, and because this is radio we have to be very generous with the non-seers. I see that the lines extend themselves, one after another for three lines, and then you contract the fourth line. Is there a name to that form?
Oh no, I don?t think it has a name. I?m a traditional poet in the sense that I use meters. And I suppose it?s traditional to use rhymes as I sometimes do. But, I find myself inventing stanza forms all the time. What I do really is just to let the poem start talking and see how the lines want to fall. And I listen to see whether they want to rhyme.
This might be the new Wilbur form. I don?t know that I?ve seen it before. I have seen variations. But, I?ve seen this more than once in your poetry.
Well I daresay that I?ve written in something like this poem?s form before. I probably happened into it before, and undoubtedly other poets at other times have happened to put together this kind of stanza. What does it amount to? I never scan my poems. But that would be a trimeter line, and a tetrameter line, and then a pentameter line, and back to the trimeter. That?s my stanza. Surely somebody else has done that some time.
Your first book of poetry, Beautiful Changes in 1947. Your third book, Things of This World, won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. You have received the Bollingen, the Guggenheim, Ford Foundation Fellowships, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award. This is going to be embarrassing, but is there a poetry award that you have not yet received?
Oh, undoubtedly there are poetry awards that I haven?t 33…44
One not imagined yet maybe.
I?ve been very lucky, but I know I haven?t gotten them all. Nor am I greedy to get them all.
Well, we are very honored to have you among us in Washington, and we?re thrilled that a man of your spirit is here. I talked to a friend of mine today who said that he sang a cantata of yours recently in Washington choral group.
Oh, at the NSO. Yes.
Yes, it was On Freedom?s Ground.
I was sorry that I couldn?t make the Washington performance of it. I heard the premier in October last at the Lincoln Center, when it was done by the Philharmonic, and a baritone and chorus.
We can talk a little bit about how you mix and match the word to the note. But right now, would you read to us please?
Well, let?s see. Here?s one called The Ride, which is going to be in the new section of The New and Collected Poems I?m going to publish next spring. And this is a poem which came straight out of a dream I had, and out of how I felt when the dream was over and I awoke. The Ride
The horse beneath me seemed
To know what course to steer
Through the horror of snow I dreamed,
And so I had no fear,
Nor was I chilled to death
By the winds white shudders, thanks
To the veils of his patient breath
And the mist of sweat from his flanks.
It seemed that all night through,
Within my hand no rein
And nothing in my view
But the pillar of his mane,
I rode with magic ease
At a quick, unstumbling trot
Through shattering vacancies
On into what was not,
Till the weave of the storm grew thin,
With a threading of cedar-smoke,
And the ice-blind pane of an inn
Shimmered, and I awoke.
How shall I now get back
To the inn-yard where he stands,
Burdened with every lack,
And waken the stable-hands
To give him, before I think
That there was no horse at all,
Some hay, some water to drink,
A blanket and a stall?
I guess what astonishes me is the movement from stanza to stanza, like been a figure skater or something. That is effortless. Is it something that is really very difficultly crafted, but just looks seamless on the page?
Yes, I think so. I?m a terribly slow writer, so if we?re talking about my poems specifically, they were all done very slowly. And if there are easy and spontaneous sounding affects, they were never the less labored for. One thing that?s fun of course about writing in stanzas, I wonder if your hearers heard that that was a four-line stanza, probably so. But one thing that?s good about writing in stanzas is that it gives you another way to stress stopping or starting, slowing or speeding up. Mostly when you write in a stanza, you?re using the stanza as if it were a paragraph, a unit of thought. And many stances will close therefore with a pause or a period. But when you break that convention, and hustle from one stanza into another, you make the poem and what it?s talking about move very fast. It?s another way of controlling your sense, and your hearers sense, of velocities.
At this time many things are fashionable, but you continue to capitalize the first word in every sentence, and is this some kind of equality that you seek for those lines, so that some are not diminished?
I think that my capitalizing of the first letter in every line is simply conventional. Now, of course, if I left them all uncapitalized, that would be conventional too. I?d be in the convention of e.e. cummings. If capitalized some, and left some uncapitalized, well I don?t know what that would mean. Maybe that would be, once again, a way of speeding things up a little.
For emphasis, maybe. Starting at the beginning of each new thought. But I see a great silkiness in your work, and I think that one of the ways is the equal weight you give each thought beginning the line. We are hearing new work, which is soon to be published. And the title of this will be?
New-and-Collected. Hyphenated, you know. All right, here?s one called Gnomons, and a gnomon is that finger which sticks up out of the sundial and casts the shadow. I wrote this poem after reading an interesting book by a Professor Waugh on sundials. And in it he told how the Venerable Bede many, many years ago had kept a daily record, for the length of a year, of the length of his shadow as it lay on the grounds of his monastery. And since Professor Waugh provided the tables that the Venerable Bede had kept, I applied them, with making the necessary adjustments, to my yard in Covington Massachusetts, and found that they were pretty accurate measurements.
In April, thirteen centuries ago,
Bede cast his cassocked shadow on the ground
Of Jarrow and, proceeding heel-to-toe,
Measured to where a head that could contain
The lore of Christendom had darkly lain,
And thereby, for that place and season, found
That a man's shade, at the third hour from dawn,
Stretches eleven feet upon the lawn.
This morning, with his tables in my hand,
Adapting them as near as I can gauge,
Foot after foot, on Massachusetts land,
I pace through April sunlight toward a wall
On which he knew my shadow's end would fall
Whatever other dark might plague the age,
And, warmed by the fidelity of time,
Make with his sun-ringed head a dusky rhyme.
Now that?s one use that rhyme can have. We are having a coincidence of head and head at the end of that poem, and we accompany the idea with a rhyme, on time and rhyme, and stress it all the more by using the word rhyme. Now do you want to hear another one? All right, here?s a somewhat older one, but that?s going to be in this new book that I?m cooking up. It?s called Piccola Commedia, Little Comedy,Ó and it?s not really a confessional poem. It doesn?t tell exactly what happened on any one day. But it comes out of my experience as a hobo when I was 19 and 20, wandering around the country. This is the kind of thing I got into.
He is no one I really know,
The sun-charred, gaunt young man
By the highway's edge in Kansas
Thirty-odd years ago.
On a tourist-cabin verandah
Two middle-aged women sat;
One, in a white dress, fat,
With a rattling glass in her hand,
Called "Son, don't you feel the heat?
Get up here into the shade."
Like a good boy, I obeyed,
And was given a crate for a seat
And an Orange Crush and gin.
"This state," she said, "is hell."
Her thin friend crackled, "Well, dear,
You've gotta fight sin with sin."
"No harm in a drink; my stars!"
Said the fat one, jerking her head.
"And I'll take no lip from Ed,
Him with his damn cigars."
Laughter. A combine whined
On past, and dry grass bent
In the backwash; liquor went
Like an ice-pick in my mind.
Beneath her skirt I spied
Two sea sea-cows on a floe.
"Go talk to Mary Jo, son,
She's reading a book inside."
As I gangled in at the door
A pink girl, curled in a chair,
Looked up with an ingenue stare.
Screenland lay on the floor.
Amazed by her starlet's pout
And the way her eyebrows arched,
I felt both drowned and parched.
Desire leapt up like a trout.
"Hello," she said, and her gum
Gave a calculating crack.
At once from the lightless back
Of the room came the grumble
Of someone heaving from bed,
A Zippo's click and flare,
Then, more and more apparent,
The shuffling form of TED,
Who neither looked nor spoke
But moved in profile by,
Blinking one gelid eye
In his elected smoke.
This is something I've never told,
And some of it I forget.
But the heat! I can feel it yet,
And that conniving cold.
The fun in that is to have someone snapping gum, and a zippo lighter in a neoclassic form.
Yes, I do think that?s part of the fun. It?s true that the verse rollicks along. But it undoubtedly sounds more formal than the goings on in the poem.
But a little popular culture thrown in there.
Yes, I wonder, is there a magazine called Screenland anymore? The poem is probably not dated, simply because Screenland probably is self-explanatory.
We should actually say at this point, that to have one of our Poets Laureate make People Magazine is certainly a new zenith in this country. Was that great fun for you?
Well it was sort of fun. The interviewer was a former student of mine from Wesleyan, David Van Biema, and that made it all the more pleasant.
And the title. Would you share with the audience the title of that article?
Well now, what was the title of the article? I?ve forgotten.
I Have Only Loved One Woman
Huh. I thought that was the caption under a picture of my wife. In any case it?s true.
Richard Wilbur is here, and he?s going to read a similar poetry.
Well, here?s a poem about my wife. It?s called The Catch, and what I?m taking off from in the first couple of stanzas is a familiar phenomenon in people?s photograph albums. You know, how people catch a big fish, and hold it rather awkwardly to the left or the right of them at the end of the dock.
From the dress boxes plashing tis-
Sue paper she pulls out her prize,
Dangling it to one side before my eyes
Like a weird sort of fish
That she had somehow hooked and gaffed
And on the dock-and holds in air33—44
Limp, corrugated, lank, a catch too rare
Not to be photographed.
I, in my chair, make shift to say
Some bright, discerning thing, and fail,
Proving once more the blindness of the male.
Annoyed, she stalks away
And then it?s back in half a minute,
Consulting, now, not me at all
But the long mirror, mirror on the wall.
The dress, now that she?s in it
Has changed appreciably, and gains
By lacy shoes, like perfume
Whose subtle field electrifies the room,
And two slim golden chains.
With a fierce frown and hard-pursed lips
She twists a little one her stem
To test the even swirling of the hem,
Smooths down the waist and hips,
Plucks at the shoulder-straps a bit,
Then turns around and looks behind,
Her face transfigured now by peace of mind.
There is no question33—44it
Is wholly charming, it is she,
As I belatedly remark,
And may be hung now in the fragrant dark
Of her soft armory.
Richard. That?s fun to produce a conjunction of words that seems to have a clash in it but doesn?t of course. Well, I think I?ll read another new one. This is really one of my very latest, and it?s called, Trolling for Blues. There?s a funny story about this poem. It must?ve been about a year and a half ago that John Hersey told me that he was writing a book about bluefish, and more generally about fish, and that he was thinking of including some poems in it. He asked me if I would write him a good fish poem to put into his book. Well, I set to work on my poem, and John set to work on his book. And his book was finished, published, and favorably reviewed before I could finish my poem. That?s how slow I am. But now I?m happy to say it?s been tucked into the fifth printing of John Hersey?s Blues.
Trolling for Blues
As with the dapper terns, or that the sole cloud
Which like a slow-evolving embryo
Moils in the sky, we make of this keen fish
Whom fight and beauty have endeared to us
A mirror of our kind. Setting aside
His unreflectiveness, his flings in air,
The aberration of his flocking swerve
To spawning-grounds a hundred miles at sea,
How clearly, musing to the engine?s thrum,
Do we conceive him as he waits below:
Blue in the water?s blue, which is the shade
Of thought, and in that scintillating flux
Poised weightless, all attention, yet on edge
To lunge and seize with sure incisiveness,
He is a type of coolest intellect,
Or is so to the mind?s blue eye until
He strikes and runs unseen beneath the rip,
Yanking imagination back and down
Past recognition to the unlit deep
Of the glass sponges, of Chiasmodon,
Of the old darkness of Devonian dream,
Phase of a meditation not our own,
That long mZ?lZ?e where selves were not, that life
Merciless, painless, sleepless, unaware,
From which, in time, unthinkably we rose.
May I say, it was worth the wait. I think so. Is there any subject that you would not be able to go into the depths of yourself, and find a perspective? I think the Statue of Liberty was no easy task, to come up with great art about. I think that was a daunting subject.
Well, it certainly was. I remember that my reactions were wholly negative, and really horrified when my friend, the composer Bill Shuman, called me and said that he had a commission to do something about the Statue of Liberty, would I write some words for it. I thought, good heavens, how possibly to avoid all of our Fourth of July clichZ?s - how to find anything new to say. And, he jollied me into it. And I?m very glad that he did. I hope that what I came up with in the way of sentiments about the Statue of Liberty were acceptable to the people who heard my cantata, and his. Because one has no business saying something peculiar and offside on a public occasion. At the same time, I hope there was a freshness about it.
It is unusual, is it not, that he wrote the music first?
In this case, Bill Shuman, who is wonderful about setting words - he?s one of the most verbal composers I know - gave me a kind of general outline of the emotional structure that would serve him well. And I found that it was no difficulty at all to let my ideas, as they came, fit into such an emotional structure. But then he took my words, sometimes giving me a bit of useful criticism about them, and then set them as they came. I have worked with composers, like Leonard Bernstein, very often setting music which they?ve fully written long before I came to try a number.
We should mention Candide, which was a great success.
That was a lot of fun.
I wonder about On Freedom?s Ground, that is the most difficult assignment I can think of, and does it work on the page as well as in performance?
You mean, is my cantata text 33…44
A work of literature.
Can it be read as a poem? I think it can, to a certain extent. So, I am going to put it into my New-and-Collected Poems. But I had to talk to my friends about it before I did, because there is inevitably a difference between words intended for the page, or for the poetry reading, and words intended for music. If you?re writing for music, you have to be as simple as the material will permit. I can remember that in working on the first section of the cantata, I had some echo of Scripture about the wind blowing where it listeth. And William Shuman said, No, you can?t throw that business about listeth into the words for music, because people will simply be confused. Try to make it simpler.Ó And I did, and it was better.
And I know composers say to writers, now make all of your vowels open for the singer. And then the writer says, oh, all right.
That can be hard. But you certainly have talked to a lot of anguished tenors who would say that they could not pronounce such and such a sound that a certain altitude of the voice. I take that kind of thing into consideration, as well as my skimpy knowledge will allow me to.
Another poem here. Here?s one audiences like to hear, because it?s quite straightforward, and the feeling in it is quite plain. It?s called The Writer, and it?s about my daughter as she was back in her high school days. She has since become a very successful writer of short stories.
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.
May I ask about your translations? I know you speak Italian and French. And you translate in Italian and French?
No. I have a sort of kitchen Italian, and I developed, at one time, enough Italian to read Dante with some ease. That?s become rusty, but I can still go back to Dante with a dictionary at my elbow. And, as for French, I?m a bit stumbling with contemporary French, but quite at ease with 17th-century French, as one has it in Moli?re or Racine, from whom I?ve done most of my French translations.
And yet you are an Americanist. I mean, you are the chief scholar Poe.
I?ve said a lot of things about Poe in print. I don?t know just where I?d place myself in the hierarchy of Poe scholars. But I?ve had a great deal of pleasure in investigating him and writing about him.
So, do you believe that the 18th and 19th centuries are your place, you?re the most comfortable in teaching?
I?ve taught all over the lot. I think that my most exciting experience in teaching was in a freshman humanities course at Harvard, where we covered the epic and the novel from Homer to the present, and history from Herodotus to somebody very recent. I think I felt most alive between the ears during those years in which I was scampering in a half-informed, but very excited way through the literature of everywhere, and every time.
Where are we in the long light, as you see it, since you have tasted a little of everything, and imparted a lot of it? What is our writing? How do we stack up right now?
You mean the American 20th century? I think it?s a period of a great deal of talent. I think that in the 20th century, we?ve most definitely become a distinct, though not cut off, culture. We really do have our own American literature now. And there?s much to be excited about in most of the arts, I think. I won?t say all of them, but in most of them. We?ve had a lot of good poetry in America in the 20th century. I have no notion where it?s going now, but I think there are a lot of talented hands around.
Someone was remarking that the art of social commentary is fading in America. People are not as irascible as they once were. No Mencken?s around, maybe.
Well, maybe we don?t have that sort of curmudgeonly figure around. Some of our columnists can sound that way from time to time, thank heavens. George Will for example, who?s a clever fellow, can have his bad-tempered days and be very amusing.
I?ve read some of these poems from college lecterns, and I?ve read in the other places in which an itinerant poetry reader goes. But, some of them are having a fairly early hearing on this occasion. Let me read you one that?s not been read anywhere to speak of. It sounds perhaps more like La Fontaine than me. It?s called A Fable.
Securely sunning in a forest glade,
A mild, well-meaning snake
Approved the adaptations he had made
For safety?s sake.
He liked the skin he had33—44
Its mottled camouflage, its look of mail,
And was content that he had thought to add
A rattling tail.
The tail was not for drumming up a fight;
No, nothing of the sort.
And he would only use his poisoned bite
As last resort.
A peasant now drew near,
Collecting wood; the snake, observing this,
Expressed concern by uttering a clear
But civil hiss.
The simple churl, his nerves at once unstrung,
Mistook the other?s tone
And dashed his brains out with a deftly-flung
Security, alas, can give
A threatening impression;
Too much defense-initiative
Can prompt aggression.
I like pre-emptive stone.Ó Now where did that word pre-emptive ever come from, in relation to stone?
I think I took that out of the vocabulary of 1960s politicians and states people. And of course, it does belong in that poem.
It reminds me of The Prophet, in a strange way.
The poem Advice to a Prophet? I?d like to read that too, while I?m being sort of political. This poem was written back in 1959, and I became able to write something about the threat of nuclear war when I read an article by Bertrand Russell on the likely effects of radiation on plant and animal life. That gave me an angle, you might say. A way to approach the subject somewhat freshly. The poem is called Advice to a Prophet, and the poet who speaks the poem is having the nerve to give a prophet advice as to what to say when he comes to town.
Advice to a Prophet
When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God?s name to have self-pity,
Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.
Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?33—44
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,
A stone look on the stone?s face?
Speak of the world?s own change. Though we cannot conceive
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,
How the view alters. We could believe,
If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoids the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip
On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without
The dolphin?s arc, the dove?s return,
These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken
In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.
Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.
The bronze annals of the oak tree.Ó
Did you think, when you heard that, of the way the oak holds its leaves pretty much year-round? Holds its bronzed leaves until well into the spring.
But bronze is also such a good word for metal, and war, and armor and, it worked out.
Yes, I guess it belongs to all of that, that?s in the poem.
That must be one of your favorite poems.
It is one of my favorite poems, for various reasons. I wanted for so long to say something about this huge fact that?s in all of our lives, the threat of nuclear war. And, at last, I did find a way to do it. I suppose what I said a moment ago, I found an angle, may sound a little Madison Avenue, but the fact is that mere sincerity in poetry isn?t enough.
What year was that published?
Well it was published roundabout 1959. And I think it?s one of my poems which is still topical, alas. We?ve just arranged to get rid of about 3% of our nuclear armament. I can?t wait for the other 97% to go.
Here?s a little poem which I suppose could be called dramatic. It?s called Two Voices in a Meadow, and the two characters who speak are milkweed and a stone. They?re not in conversation. For some reason or other, they?re simply saying what they are, what they?re like. The milkweed speaks first.
Anonymous as cherubs
Over the crib of God,
White seeds are floating
Out of my burst pod.
What power had I
Before I learned to yield?
Shatter me, great wind:
I shall possess the field.
As casual as cow-dung
Under the crib of God,
I lie where chance would have me,
Up to the ears in sod.
Why should I move? To move
Befits a light desire.
The sill of Heaven would founder,
Did such as I aspire.
I can?t sneer on the radio, can I? People can?t see me sneer. But I want the stone to say aspireÓ with a slight wrinkling of the upper lip.
Do you enjoy reading poetry which is various? Do you also enjoy experimental poetry? Do you also read a little of everything that?s going on?
Oh, of other people, yes. Yes, I read here and there, and I like all kinds of things which I?m probably not expected to like. I have pretty Catholic tastes. Critics often put one into a box of one kind or another; put one onto one or the other side of a line they want to draw. And I?m generally associated with words like formalism and elegance and whatnot.
Well, we?re not scared of that at all.
No. Neither am I. The truth is that I, for example, love the poems of William Carlos Williams, and I haven?t any case to make against any good free verse writer anywhere. It?s a hard job to write an acceptable free verse poem, and I applaud anyone who does.
There?s a wonderful Sufi saying about the arrow shot with truth will hit the target, and I think that when the truth is there in the poem, many ways it can be carried, and it can work in various structures.
That?s right. Yes. If it?s urgent enough, it?ll find its own form one way or another. That?s what happens in all of my poems. My poems happen to find their form in meter. Sometimes in rhyme. But, there are other ways of finding form.
I have seen a poet recently where I suspect he wrote the poem, which was of some length, and then pushed the button on the word processor, which made all the lines go in a certain way. I think, because I tried it on my own. It looked wonderful. I think we?re allowed to do almost anything.
Oh yes, there are no rules. There are things of course which are more or less successful. It seems to me that the kind of page you are describing, in which the words are scattered all around like snowflakes, is not likely to sound too good to the ear. It may have more impact on the eye, with its spaces instead of pauses. One thing about concrete poetry which disposes words this way or that on the page, is that it can be very exciting and amusing. It?s seldom moving. I think you need the spoken voice for that.
You can hardly hum it leaving the theater. This is true. I am a little obsessed with your work for the theater. I?ve been working with a composer, and I know some of the things that you go through. Was there ever a time when you felt that the word had to be compromised for the note, and that you had to choose a word that was not really your first choice? And then, there could be a fear that, at first blush, a lyric was trite?
Well, and do you speak about my experience with musical theater? I found myself making many compromises. You have to do that in any collaboration. You have to compromise with your composer, because he?ll be after a certain kind of musical effect, which will make him want to cut your very nice line in half. And, if you see that it?s going to be good for both of you, you agree to it. Now, one of the things I learned very early in the job of writing lyrics for Candide, was that you had to have a stronger sense of the probable awareness of the audience than you do when you write a poem. I never think of the audience, the possible reader, when I write a poem. But, when I was working on a number from Candide, which we dropped rather earlier in the game, I remember writing two lines which went, Let?s find ourselves a simple cot and cultivate the chicken.Ó Well, cot is no longer understood is it, in that sense of the rural dwelling, a farmstead of some kind. As my collaborators said, the man from Scarsdale in the fifth row, if he heard the word cot, was going to think of the Army and Navy Store and miss the point of the line.
I did see that performance. How many places do you think it has played?
Well, Candide has had so many reincarnations, I rather like the present incarnation, which is the opera house version, so-called. It?s playing quite often at the New York City Opera. And I?m particularly glad of the present version, because one of the songs I like best, called Dear Boy, Pangloss?s song, has been restored in this version. But it?s been played all over the world, and the lyrics have been translated into Bantu, I?m sure.
Oh. How many languages do you think?
I have no idea. But I do know that there?s something called Music Theater International that pedals Candide all over the world. And it does play in what we call the circus version which was put together by Al Prince in the early 70s. It plays all over the country during the summer months. There are revivals of it in colleges and universities. It?s still going.
Is that the thing that you want to be remembered for?
Oh, I don?t think so. I think I?d rather be remembered for my translations of Moli?re, if it has to be something besides my own poems.
Richard Wilbur, with his own poems now.
Now, shall I read you another poem or so? Let?s see. Here?s one that?s fairly seasonal. It?s just a little poem called Two Quatrains for First Frost. And here?s the first one. The season I should say, is the end of September, beginning of October.
Hot summer has exhausted her intent
To the last rose and roundelay and seed.
No leaf has changed, and yet these leaves now read
Like a love-letter that?s no longer meant.
Now on all things is the dull restive mood
Of some rich gambler who in quick disdain
Plumps all on zero, hoping so to gain
Fresh air, light pockets, and his solitude.
I think that?s fairly true gambler psychology that I?ve got in that quatrain. I do think that it?s true that most gamblers want ultimately to lose and lighten in their pockets that way. Well, what else might I read? I think I?ll read a poem called Seed Leaves. It?s about vegetable gardening, a thing of which I do a lot. And what happens in the early part of this poem is that a bean seed, or the seed of some other dicotyledonous plant comes up in a row, and I contemplated on my knees from a short distance.
Here something stubborn comes,
Dislodging the earth crumbs
And making crusty rubble.
it comes up bending double,
And looks like a green staple.
It could be seedling maple,
Or artichoke, or bean.
That remains to be seen.
Forced to make choice of ends,
The stalk in time unbends,
Shakes off the seed-case, heaves
Aloft, and spreads two leaves
Which still display no sure
And special signature.
Toothless and fat, they keep
The oval form of sleep.
This plant would like to grow
And yet be embryo;
Increase, and yet escape
The doom of taking shape;
Be vaguely vast, and climb
To the tip end of time
With all of space to fill,
Like boundless Igdrasil
That has the stars for fruit.
But something at the root
More urgent that the urge
Bids two true leaves emerge;
And now the plant, resigned
To being self-defined
Before it can commerce
With the great universe,
Takes aim at all the sky
And starts to ramify.
One of the pleasures in writing poetry is to take a half dead word like ramify, and bring it back to its etymological roots, and make it mean branching again. I think ramify - if you say ramify to most people nowadays, they just think it?s a committee man?s way of saying that things are getting complicated, don?t you think?
That?s a really good remark. Was the line, Which makes stars of fruit33…44Ó
Oh, that?s about Yggdrasil. I always wonder whether I ought to explain to audiences when I?m reading aloud, what the life tree Yggdrasil is in Norse mythology. Whenever I do explain it, every head in the audience nods, and it?s clear that they?ve known it all the time. When I don?t, I sometimes get puzzled looks. But it?s the tree in Norse mythology which is coextensive with the universe, and on which the stars hang like fruit.
That line is exquisite. It?s nice to have the footnote for the humanists.
I suppose anybody who had time would know from the context, what Yggdrasil must be.
I?ve been wanting to ask you about translating, and it?s somewhat relevant to this. When you take a work, or an existing myth or song, especially going from one language to another, is there ever a time when it is all right to be more Richard Wilbur than Moli?re, or are you very careful about that?
I?m very careful about that. I try to be slavishly faithful in translating. Of course you can?t all the time. If you?re translating a Ballade of Villon, for example - the rhyme scheme of it; if you bring over the rhyme scheme, as you should, is going to be so tough, that at certain points you?re going to be forced to leave something out, or to vary what?s in the original. I think the important thing in such a case is to be sure that you don?t leave out any complete thought. And also, that if you vary the original slightly, you do in in the spirit of the original. You want to hear a translation from Villon? Here is my first attempt on him. I did a number of his Ballades. This is The Ballade of the Ladies of Time Past. Or The Ballade of Dead Ladies, whatever you want to call it.
O tell me where, in lands or seas,
Flora, that Roman belle, has strayed,
Thais, or Archipiades,
Who put each other in the shade,
Or Echo who by bank and glade
Gave back the crying of the hound,
And whose sheer beauty could not fade.
But where shall last year's snow be found?
Where too is learned HZ?loS?se,
For whom shorn AbZ?lard was made
A tonsured monk upon his knees?
Such tribute his devotion paid.
And where's that queen who, having played
With Buridan, had him bagged and bound
To swim the Seine thus ill-arrayed?
But where shall last year's snow be found?
Queen Blanche the fair, whose voice could please
As does a siren's serenade,
Great Bertha, Beatrice, Alice33—44these,
And Arembourg whom Maine obeyed,
And Joan whom Burgundy betrayed
And England burned, and Heaven crowned:
Where are they, Mary, Sovereign Maid?
But where shall last year's snow be found?
Not next week, Prince, nor next decade,
Ask me these questions I propound.
I shall but say again, dismayed,
Ah, where shall last year's snow be found?
I had to change this or that a little, in writing a faithful English translation in such a difficult rhyming form. For example, in the original it says, Berthe au grand pied Big Foot Bertha. That?s Charlemagne?s mother. The best I was able to do was Great Bertha. I couldn?t fit the big feet into that line. And then the information about Joan which I give is a little more than Villon gave. But it?s true at any rate, and consistent with his feeling about Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine.
But the line where shall last year's snow be found, is that the actual lineup of words?
Well, let?s see, Mais o? sont les neiges d'antan where are the snows of last year. That?s literally what it is. I think Rosetti prettied up a little when he said yesteryear.
They both sound pretty good.
Well, I?m not going to say a word against Rosetti. Though I think that amongst his translations of Villon, this was not his best one. He did a couple of others beautifully. You want to hear another bit of translation? Let?s see if I can find it. I?d like to read you what amounts to a little aria in my translation of Moli?re?s Misanthrope. In the second act, there?s a malice scene, in which CZ?lim?ne is showing off before her admirers, and knocking her friends. And at one point it is mentioned that CZ?lim?ne?s great admirer Alceste is extremely critical of her. And 33É44liante, a splendid young woman in the cast, steps forward and does this little aria about whether lovers are inclined to criticize their ladies or not.
Love, as a rule, affects men otherwise,
And lovers really love to criticize.
They see their lady as a charming blur,
And find all things commendable in her.
If she has any blemish, fault, or shame,
They will redeem it by a pleasing name.
The pale-faced ladies lily white, perforce;
The swarthy one?s sweet brunette, of course;
The spindly lady has a slender grace;
The fat one has a most majestic pace;
The plain one, with her dress in disarray,
They classify as beautZ? nZ?gligZ?e;
The hulking one?s goddess in their eyes;
The dwarf, a concentrate of Paradise;
The haughty lady has a noble mind;
The mean one?s which he, and the dull one?s kind;
The chatterbox has liveliness and verve;
The mute one has a virtuous reserve.
So lovers manage, in their passion?s cause,
To love their ladies even for their flaws.
I hope that little speech from the Misanthrope shows that it?s absolutely necessary to translate plays of that sort into meter and rhyme. That wouldn?t be any good in prose.
Richard Wilbur is our poet on THE POET AND THE POEM. He is the first Consultant in Poetry at The Library of Congress to be named U.S Poetry Laureate. We?re honored to speak with him on this, his Inaugural day.
We give grateful appreciation to Richard Wilbur for permission; and to Harcourt Brace for reprinting these poems. Special thanks to the Poet Laureate Office at the Library of Congress.
Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. Her latest book is Cuffed Frays (Argonne House Press.) Her newest play, "Quilting the Sun" was presented by the Smithsonian Institution, March 2003. She hosts and produces The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.