For some time, Richard Wilbur, one of the greatest of American poets, had fed me as I set out on my poetic seas. But he conjured for me a new channel, or portal, or atmosphere, when I read his "In Limbo."
I know long-ish poems tax the concentration of most, and one of my goals is to entice more to become readers of poetry. So, I try to lower the price of admission. That's my feeble attempt to justify only reproducing the last two of the poem's five thrilling stanzas:
"Someone is breathing. Is it I? Or is it
Darkness conspiring in the nursery corner?
Is there another lying here beside me?
Have I a cherished wife of thirty years?
Far overhead, a long susurrus, twisting
Clockwise or counterclockwise, plunges east,
Twin floods of air in which our flagellate cries,
Rising from love-bed, childbed, bed of death,
Swim toward recurrent day. And farther still,
Couched in the void, I hear what I have heard of,
The god who dreams us, breathing out and in.
"Out of all that I fumble for the lamp-chain.
A room condenses and at once is true--
Curtains, a clock, a mirror which will frame
This blinking mask the light has clapped upon me.
How quickly, when we choose to live again,
As Er once told, the cloudier knowledge passes!
I am a truant portion of the all
Misshaped by time, incorrigible desire,
And dear attachment to a sleeping hand,
Who lie here on a certain day and listen
To the first birdsong, homelessly at home."
Magnificent. As besot as I am with the iamb, of course I love Wilbur for his metrical commitment. But here I received something more: an expansion of poetic sensibility, enabling me to write a poem that was my first in blank verse (if one brackets the concluding couplet) and, more importantly, one moving in a conceptual, emotional, and memorial space to which Wilbur had given me access. He made me more ambitious. That first little poem of mine, fully under Wilbur's spell, written at Redeye Roasters in Hingham, with "In Limbo" sounding through me, was this:
The mornings are different here, or rather now:
Less interrogative the mourning dove
In calling after the beloved’s name;
Less frequentive the fog in paradox
Of cool and sensuality, the beck
And breathing promise of the bridal veil.
I wake, and no one’s there. I wake from dreams
I never can remember, or no longer
Do, into a light oblique yet more acute.
What have I wakened to? What will I find?
Once love was all before—have I been left behind?
I am just starting out. I wouldn't have enough steam without Richard Wilbur. Thank God for the man.
We should end with more of Wilbur's delicious words. He has been carried over the threshold beyond which the beautiful forms finally start to solidify, where "the doom of taking shape" has got one of the grand poets in two sure hands.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.
by Richard Wilbur
(Homage to R. F.)
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 than that 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.