Richard Wilbur is a poet who does not press his company on anyone. He does not prod you in the chest with a forefinger and insist on your undivided attention. Almost as modest as Elizabeth Bishop, his poems wait in the brain, outside the spotlight of conscious attention, until you see their sense–and hear it, as Wilbur’s St Teresa hears, pierced by ‘the spear which drew/ a bridal outcry from her lips.’ There is reading and there is this: the direct seduction by the speaking and singing voice of the poet. One is civilised: looking to like, if looking liking move. The other is not civilised–indeed nothing can tame it– a ‘did my heart love till now?’ moment. The first kind of reaction is of a Juliet who is offering a cautious assessment of how she might feel once she has met Paris. It is a rational reaction, an acknowledgement that feelings might grow over time. The second, a Romeo-seeing-Juliet response, is the kind of staggered gasp, the astonished inbreath that comes with a love that seems to obliterate everything else that came before it. Today has been that kind of day, a day in which Richard Wilbur has cast so many other poets that I love into the shadows. He, in my newly reconfigured mind, is teaching the torches to burn.
What has made the difference is hearing the poems. I have been reading them and liking them for years, but recently I acquired the Academy of American Poets’ 1989 recording of Wilbur’s poems, introduced by James Merrill, and as soon as Wilbur began to read his work, the full-throated ease of the poems split me apart like a sharp thumbnail cuts a ripe fig. As I listened, I happened to be driving through a treacherous winter landscape: the car skidded and lost traction at times, but the poems never wandered from the path. Ecstasy escaped like odour from each poem, but the formal shape, the pattern of the metrical dance, was so exact that the ecstasy was never less than rational. Wilbur’s ‘Teresa’ again: ‘And lock the O of ecstasy within/ The tempered consonants of discipline.’
My Teresa moment in the car reminded me that metre, any poet’s metre, comes from the living organism that is the poet’s speaking voice. All rhythms that he or she is able to use spring from the musical rhythms of speech. And yet the great poets’ speaking voices are more than speaking voices. The rhythms used by the poet eventually come to use him: they order and shape his mind so that he is incapable of functioning without them. Indeed, he is those rhythms: falling and trochaic, rising and iambic, his mind moves as a poem moves. Many poets have this quality: when they give interviews and talk, their talk is spilt poetry. A sure test of a poet’s worth? The wash of rhythm rippling through apparently casual conversation, sufficient to make you imagine that rhythm undulating even through his dreams.
Poets such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Kathleen Jamie, for example, seem to take topographical rhythms into their speech. Heaney’s peat-sharp consonants kick alongside bubbling lightness; Longley’s conversation is like the wind coming in off the sea at his beloved Carrigskeewaun in Co. Mayo, a wind that picks up the otter’s water-pulse as it swims offshore, a wind that seems capable of counting the starry sand grains on the beach. Jamie, on the other hand, talks like an Alder in thaw, with a ticking passion and impatience, as if willing the sap to rise again.
Yet some poets, such as John Berryman, do not seem to have any metrical smoothness in their conversation. Berryman’s speech is an odd mixture of explosions and quiet despairing gurgles. Listen to him read at the Guggenheim in 63 and you notice he can make the word ‘but’ bang like sniper fire, and the word ‘elaborate’ drift off upstairs, downstairs, somewheres… His poems have the same kind of nitroglycerine unpredictability. Metre is there but it is volatile, as the Berryman personae swim in and out of focus: Henry’s quiet conscience-voice, the voice who tells Mr Bones that there is indeed a ‘law’ against him, contends against the noisier ‘impenitent’ and ‘seedy’ Henry. Still, even in the case of Berryman, speaking voice and metre are connected: the poems have all the irresponsible anarchy of dreams, and all the loopy order of a fine and fractured mind. Berryman’s speech is that broken mirror too.
Robert Lowell’s poems always sound like the Atlantic battling Melville’s whale. Lowell is the big sea, the ‘brackish reach of shoal’ he evokes in ‘A Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket’–even when he is writing about ducks. Hear him reading ‘The Public Garden’ at the Guggenheim in ’63 along with Berryman and he delivers the lines
the shedding park-bound mallards, how they keep
circling and diving in the lantern light,
searching for something hidden in the muck.
with a voice which seems to thunder like Jehovah. He has no offswitch for that Miltonic grandeur, a quality which gives even his weakest poems a kind of sonic weight, and in interviews, he seems always to drift towards a magisterial iambic: ‘their kind of protest and queerness has hardly been repeated’ he says of Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams in his Paris Review interview, in ruptured hexameter.
Elizabeth Bishop, too, follows the same law of metrical overspill from her poems to her talk. Hear ‘The Armadillo’ on the website of The Academy of American Poets (1) and all her conversational, epistolary modesty seems folded into every line. Her speaking voice crosses current with counter-current. Above is modesty and dignity, an elegant uninsistence; underneath is a struggle, almost with breath itself. What she says is beautiful, but her breathing hints that she can hardly bear to voice it: what poor things the lovely words are, she seems to say–words, as lovely and robust as those ‘frail, illegal fireballoons’ she describes. Bishop’s speech also floats with a hidden, fragile fire. Below is a comment she makes in a 1977 interview with George Starbuck where she discusses the blue snails that appear in her poem ‘Crusoe in England.’
Perhaps — but the ones I’ve seen were in the Ten Thousand islands in Florida. Years ago I went on a canoe trip there and saw the blue snails. They were tree snails, and I still may have some. They were very frail and broke easily and they were all over everything. Fantastic. (2)
Now this is nowhere near as lovely as the description in ‘Crusoe’ where the snails are ‘a bright violet-blue with a thin shell’ and the shells of the dead snails ‘look like a bed of irises’ but the spill of enthusiasm and the joy of seeing is evident. Her rhythm comes from her eye, pulsing and receptive to the energy and fragility of the snails and everything else she encounters. Describing the snails in the poem hasn’t dimmed her enthusiasm for the snails she saw in Florida: that ‘and..and…and…’ gives a sense of the endlessly rocking eye within.
A final instruction: click on the link given below and sample some of the clips of an interview given by Richard Wilbur on The People’s Archive. In them, you will hear his exquisite poetic cadence in so many phrases of explanation, whether he is talking about the ‘excitingly exact concrete perceptions’ of Marianne Moore or the ‘rhythmic jags’ of Hopkins. Interviews like this are valuable because they give the reader a kind of faith in poems as self-generating, self-seeding. To hear a poet talk is to sense poems rising from speech.
But there is a further benefit to be had from listening to poets in conversation. Their talk, whether it be Longley’s, Bishop’s or Wilbur’s, also helps us to think about the question ‘What is a poet?’ After listening to Wilbur being interviewed, a few images come to mind: a poet is a split casing, a discarded pod, content to be left behind by the disciplined ecstasy of the growing flower. Ego needs to cede to voice.
Richard Wilbur on The People’s Archive: http://www.peoplesarchive.com/browse/mpeg4_150k/5786/en/off/
(1) Link to Academy of American Poets and an audio recording of Bishop’s ‘The Armadillo’ http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15214