Archive for the ‘Richard Wilbur’ Category

Regular Joe in the Mushy Mushy Middle

May 11, 2019

I love to get along
I’m so sensible and wise
Always helping out the rich folks
Cuz I love to compromise

You can find me on the road
In the mushy mushy middle
With all my big money boys
And the dead armadillos

I’m a Regular Joe
And I love the common man
You know I love your daughter
I’m doing what I can

You can find me on the road
In the mushy mushy middle
With all my big money boys
And the dead armadillos

I’ve been taking their cash
For forty-seven years
I really oughta listen
When they sing in my ear

You can find me on the road
In the mushy mushy middle
With all my big money boys
And the dead armadillos

We sent away your jobs
And we called it free trade
But it worked out pretty well
Cuz all my friends got paid

You can find me on the road
In the mushy mushy middle
With all my big money boys
And the dead armadillos

You wanna save the world
And give the folks a fair shake
Do I look like Karl Marx?
Just give me a break

You can find me on the road
In the mushy mushy middle
With all my big money boys
And the dead armadillos

by Richard W. Bray

love him so much – hurt him so bad

January 26, 2017

zzruthbatke

And I wonder sometimes, what is it in me that hates me?
Richard Wilbur, Complaint

He was the perfect man
Every woman wants to meet
Loving and honest
And friendly and sweet

I love him so much
I hurt him so bad

I beat up his sister
And slept with his dad

I love him so much
I hurt him so bad

I took all his money
And burned down his pad

I love him so much
I hurt him so bad

Left him demolished
And totally mad

I love him so much
I hurt him so bad

Something inside me
Just has to be sad

by Richard W. Bray

Walt Whitman is the Poet We Deserve in the Age of Trump, but Emily Dickinson Reigns

May 28, 2016

wwemily

There are several reasons why Emily Dickinson does not inhabit her rightful position as the greatest writer our culture has yet produced—she sedulously avoided publicity in her own lifetime (“How dreary – to be – Somebody!”); a comprehensive scholarly edition of her poetry was not compiled until almost seventy years after her death (long after the cannon had been established); she is often celebrated for her winsome poems that find their way into the high school textbooks like “I Shall Not Live in Vain” which represent only a tiny fraction of her output; she wrote short poems. (There is an absurd bias among critics in favor of “epic” poetry). Finally, we cannot overlook the obvious fact that Emily Dickinson was a woman and most of our cannon-selectors have been men, many of whom no doubt shared Nathaniel Hawthorne’s contempt for that “mob of scribbling women”

Moreover, elevating Emily Dickinson to her rightful place atop the pantheon of American poets would call into question the singular supremacy of Walt Whitman. Whitman, who sees himself as the great champion of democracy, claims to “contain multitudes” in his writing, but he merely embodies mountains of self-regard:

If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of
   my own body,
or any part of it.

It is his intrepid endeavor to displace God with Self rather than the actual quality of his work which makes Whitman the darling so many humanist critics. As Alfred Kazin notes in God and the American Writer, for Whitman

There is no one supreme Deity, no hierarchy, no heaven. It is on earth and nowhere else that we live out the divine in ourselves to which we are called. We are as gods when we recognize all things as one. Spiritually, we are sovereign—entirely—thanks to our culture of freedom. As we dismiss whatever offends our own souls, so we can trust our own souls for knowledge of the infinite.

Like the self-deluded subjects who claim to see the Emperor’s New Clothes (and like the editors at Social Text who published Alan Sokal’s intentional gibberish) few critics today are able to discern this manifest truth—Walt Whitman is an overblown, narcissistic, self-worshipping buffoon. (“In all people I see myself.”) Of course, in so many ways, Whitman’s solipsism makes him precisely the national icon we deserve, particularly in the Age of Trump. (It is not at all surprising that Bill Clinton gave his girlfriend a copy of a book by Whitman, although we might have expected him to choose “Song of Myself” rather than Leaves of Grass.)

Walt Whitman’s poetry delivers much music but very little sense, irony, or wit. Despite his gargantuan reputation, the words of Whitman taken together hardly amount to a single metaphorical dead white blood cell inside the metaphorical pustule existing inside the metaphorical pimple on Emily Dickinson’s glorious metaphorical backside. Dickinson proves again and again that she is capable of saying more in fewer than thirty syllables than Whitman ever gets across in page after page of his rambling jingle jangle.

One of the wonders of Emily Dickinson’s capacious mind is her ability to entertain opposing thoughts. As Richard Wilbur notes in “Sumptuous Destitution,” his splendid 1959 article on Emily Dickinson, she is “not a philosopher.” This is precisely why she can embrace paradox in a manner that would be difficult for a philosopher, thus expanding our understanding of our bizarre universe.

In “Faith Is a Fine Invention,” for example, Dickinson seems to ridicule the tendency to cling to faith in our modern age.

“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see–
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Note the irony of calling faith (rather than the microscope) an invention. And what is it exactly that gentleman can see? Evidence of an invisible God, perhaps? But she is also lampooning those whose superstitious faith prevents them from seeing what wonders science reveals. One is reminded of Christian Scientists who would deny her children medical attention on religious grounds.

In “I Never Saw a Moor,” however, Dickinson defends faith entirely for its own sake. If you will pardon the tautology, she knows because she knows.

I never saw a moor;
I never saw the sea,
Yet know I how the heather looks
And what a billow be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven.
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the checks were given.

Paradox is not a manifestation of reality; it is a consequence of the limitations of human perception. As Kurt Vonnegut notes in the novel Deadeye Dick, birth and death amount to the opening and closing of a “pinhole.” Great poets enable us to slightly expand the boundaries of our pinhole. That’s why my favorite philosophers are mostly poets.

by Richard W. Bray

Thanks, Max

May 15, 2016

wwThanxMax

 

Why are chase scenes so common in motion pictures? Why do television stations interrupt their regularly scheduled programs to broadcast live police pursuits? Are we rooting for the chasers or the chased? Richard Wilbur suspects it’s the latter. In his poem “Man Running,” Wilbur comments on our tendency to “darkly cheer” the fugitive and “wish him, guiltily, a sporting chance.” Wilbur speculates in the poem’s concluding stanzas that the popularity of chase scenes might be a function of evolution.

Sharing with him our eldest dread
Which, when it gathers a sleeping head,
Is a place mottled, ominous, and dim

Remembered from the day
When we descended from the trees
Into the shadow of our enemies
Not lords of nature yet, but naked prey.

(Collected Poems, Page 9)

Recently in our evolutionary history, human beings made the dramatic transition from prey to predator. But the terror and trauma of millions of years of being feasted upon by other animals has left a strong imprint on our psyche. (Even city kids are terrified of wild animals.)

In her book Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, Barbara Ehrenreich posits the provocative thesis that human bellicosity, particularly as it manifests itself in our perpetual contemporary war-making activity, is largely the result of our atavistic need to overcome animal predators.

When our ancestors figured out how to make weapons and how to work in unison by communicating with one another, it was time for some epic payback on our furry enemies.

Homo sapiens arrived in Eurasia roughly 45,000 years ago, and very shortly thereafter, virtually every large species of prey animal and competing predator was gone. The patently obvious deduction is that Homo sapiens intentionally and methodically wiped out all those other species.

Man, the new king of the jungle, obliterated the competition:

Cave bears, saber-toothed tigers, mammoths, rhinos, lions, leopards, dholes–fierce as they were, they all vanished from the forests and steppes of Eurasia.

And even the Neanderthals, our most serious completion for world domination, “first drastically dwindled and then vanished as well.”

So how did our ancestors transmute from “naked prey” into such effective killing machines? Anthropologists tell us that three evolutionary developments were a key factors in making us the baddest species on the planet: big brains, opposable thumbs, and speech. But according to Steve Donoghue’s review of The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction (a new book by Pat Shipman) dogs also played an essential role in our rise to global dominance:

a pack of canines can detect prey long before humans can, and they can chase that prey farther and longer than humans can, and, crucially, they can keep that prey at bay and stationary until humans can arrive with their superior numbers and projectile weapons. The wolf-dogs would have realized in short order that in exchange for their instinctive distrust of hominins the arrangement would garner them more reliable kills. And the humans would have seen that the wolf-dogs were helping to secure more meat than they’d provide if they themselves were simply slaughtered. And so the 35,000-year-old partnership between humans and dogs began – in multiple genocides.

So I think it’s time for me to publically say, “Thank you, Max, you adorable little Shih-poo early warning intruder protection device. Thank you and all your canine ancestors for enabling us to eliminate the competition.”

 

by Richard W. Bray

What Was I Thinking?

January 31, 2016

wwwwwwwwwwtip

And I wonder sometimes, what is it in me that hates me?

Richard Wilbur, Complaint

What was I thinking?
Am I insane?
I wonder what happens
Inside my brain

Boss took me out
To announce my promotion
I puked on his shoes
And got a demotion

Whenever life hands me
The perfect shot
It ties up my tongue
In a perfect knot

She asked for my number
I was ready to score
Why did I tell her
She looks like a whore?

Whenever I’m offered
A True Romance
I flub all my lines
And ruin my chance

My mind is an iceberg
I just see the tip
I cannot control
What comes across my lips

by Richard W. Bray

This Happy Now

January 20, 2015
Not Me and Max

Not Me and Max

As soon as Max sees me grab the leash, he goes into spasms of delight, jumping in the air and making little pirouettes. Joy. It’s not just for humans.

(I try not to say the word “walk” in front of Max unless I’m ready to take him for one. So in order not to tease him, I’ll say, “Maybe I’ll take Max for a ‘W-Word’ later this afternoon.”)

Like so many poets, Max is giddy for the natural world, and he cannot contain his enthusiasm for outside smells, sights, and sounds. And like Max, William Wordsworth began to cultivate his love of nature exploring “those few nooks to which my happy feet/ Were limited.”

Unlike so many human beings, however, Max is not overburdened by the demands of his quotidian existence. And I’m pretty sure he’s never given much thought to the meaning of life. It is therefore unlikely that Max could share with Mr. Wordsworth

That blessed mood
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lighten’d:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which affections gently lead us on,
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the things of life

But ecstasy also hurts. Wordsworth referred to such ecstatic moments as “spots of time.” Spots of time are often induced by nature, and as Sheldon W. Liebman explains, nature is “a domain in which the fundamental conditions of life are mixed, even paradoxical.” Ecstasy hurts because even in its thrall we realize that soon we will return to a world where

That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,

Once we get beyond joy “And all its dizzy raptures” we are once again confined to “The still, sad music of humanity”

In the poem “Hamlen Brook,” Richard Wilbur calls this phenomenon “joy’s trick.” (Collected Poems 115).

Confronted with the immense beauty of the natural world, Wilbur laments his inability to “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.

For his part, Robert Frost argues that “Happiness Makes Up In Height For What It Lacks In Length” (Collected Poems 445).

There are many moments in Frost’s poetry when

We went from house to wood
For change of solitude. (445)

And the trick for human beings is to appreciate this happy now on its own terms. Frost explains in “Two Look at Two” (283).

‘This must be all.’ It was all. Still they stood,
A great wave from it going over them,
As if the earth in one unlooked-for favor
Had made them certain earth returned their love.

by Richard W. Bray

Under an Arch of the Railway: In Praise of W. H. Auden on his One Hundredth Birthday

February 21, 2013

railway arch

I’d like to read one of W. H. Auden’s best-known poems and one of the best-known poems, I suppose, modern poems of the last ten years. Probably someone will find that it was written in the last nine years, but it doesn’t matter…”As I walked Out One Evening.”

—Dylan Thomas (from the Caedmon Collection)

No poet consistently knocks me on my tailbone the way W.H. Auden does. Listening to Auden read Death’s Echo from the Voice of the Poet recordings makes me want to lie down in the fetal position and turn out all the lights.

As I Walked Out One Evening, depressing as it is, leaves me with some hope, however. At my lowest points, I try to remind myself that my life remains a blessing although I cannot bless.

Each stanza of “As I Walked out One Evening” is by itself a masterpiece, containing more literary merit than you will find on this entire blog.

The theme of the poem is certainly nothing new: Everything human beings do and feel is ephemeral. But a poet’s task is not to discover new themes. As Richard Wilbur notes, the “urge of poetry” is to bring its subject matter “into the felt world.”

The poem has many notable lines, but I’d like to focus on one that seems mundane at first reading, line seven:

“Under an arch of the railway”

There are, of course, many less lovely ways to express this particular image: Beneath the railroad line, below the arch which a train passes over, underneath the elevated train tracks, etc. But Auden’s construction magically sings itself off the page and into my brain where it will remain until such time as I am forced to surrender my smidge of nitrogen to the World Fund

Richard W. Bray

The Vaster Economy of Desire: Richard Wilbur on the Sumptuous Destitution of Emily Dickinson

November 16, 2012

brook

Philosophers are bound to paradigms and past pronouncements. But no paradigm comes close to capturing our multifarious world. That’s why my favorite philosophers are mostly poets. Poets are less likely to get boxed in by theory or even worry too much about what they were saying a week ago.

Richard Wilbur notes that Emily Dickinson (“not a philosopher”) was “consistent in her concerns but inconsistent in her attitudes” (10; 5). One of Miss Dickinson’s major concerns is the limited capacity of human beings to absorb even a fraction of what we crave. Our gargantuan appetites are ill-fitted to our frail, finite, and terminable bodies. But instead of lamenting this unsuitable arrangement, Emily Dickinson celebrates privation for its own sake:

Heaven is what I cannot reach!

In his 1959 article “Sumptuous Destitution,” Wilbur explores Dickinson’s “huge world of delectable distances,” where desire trumps actual possession (11). As Wilbur explains Dickinson (“Linnaeus to the phenomena of her own consciousness”) the poetess finds anticipation far more enticing than actual possession because “once an object has been magnified by desire, it cannot be wholly possessed by appetite” (4; 8). Employing physical hunger as a metaphor for all human desire, Dickinson explains in “I had been Hungry All the Years” how she “found”

That hunger was a way
Of persons outside windows,
The entering takes away.

Frustration is the inevitable consequence in Dickinson’s world of perpetual want where itching vanquishes scratching. The vigor of Dickinson’s yearnings are “magnified” by elusive wants:

[N]ot only are the objects of her desire distant; they are also very often moving away, their sweetness increasing in proportion to their remoteness. “To disappear enhances” one of the poems begins (11-12).

When Dickinson asserts that

Success is counted sweetest
By those that ne’er succeed

she is “arguing the superiority of defeat to victory, of frustration to satisfaction, and of anguished comprehension to mere possession” (9). Wilbur posits convincingly that, for Dickinson, the dead soldier in “Success is Counted Sweetest” made “the better bargain” than his compatriots who survived the victorious battle because his “defeat and death are attended by an increase of awareness, and material loss has led to a spiritual gain” (10).

Emily Dickinson chose her seclusion, and “At times it seems that there is nothing in her world but her own soul, with its attendant abstractions, and, at a vast remove, the inscrutable Heaven” (12). The God of Emily Dickinson’s capacious consciousness is immense and mysterious. We can spend our lives contemplating Him, but He can only be ingested in small bites.

The creature of appetite (whether insect or human) pursues satisfaction, and strives to possess the object in itself; it cannot imagine the vaster economy of desire, in which the pain of abstinence is justified by moments of infinite joy, and the object is spiritually possessed, not merely for itself, but more truly as an index of the All (11).

In his poem “Hamlen Brook,” Richard Wilbur discovers sumptuous destitution when he is nonplussed by overwhelming natural beauty.

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.

by Richard W. Bray

For All They Care

June 30, 2012

W. H. Auden

Which is more significant, a person or a star?

People could not exist without stars. Not only does our sun provide us with essential warmth, light, and sustenance, but astronomers believe that all solid matter, ourselves included, is made up of the debris from former stars.

Compared to a person, our abiding sun is surely great and grand. But as far as we can tell, a star is neither sentient nor alert to its own existence. So unlike a human being or even a shih-poo who responds to the name of Max, a star will never want for anything.

W. H. Auden ponders his unreciprocated affection for stars and correctly concludes that despite a star’s magnificence, between the two, the poet himself is ultimately “the more loving one.”

Thus human beings gaze at stars with a longing that the stars themselves could never “return.”

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,

And although the breadth of a star’s life is incomprehensible to a human being, a star is nonetheless ephemeral like everything else in our universe. (When the dividend is eternity, all quotients are miniscule.) Some day every star will “disappear or die.”

Getting back to my original question, is a star’s immense, blazing endurance a match for a human being’s cognizance and sensitivity? It’s a rhetorical question, of course. Even if it weren’t a false alternative, the answer would still lie beyond the scope of human imagination. We could not survive in a universe without stars, and as Richard Wilbur inquires,

How shall we dream of this place without us?–

For his part, Thomas Hardy maintains that the “disease of feeling” is overrated, and “all went well” prior to “the birth of consciousness,”

None suffered sickness, love, or loss,
None knew regret, starved hope, or heart-burnings;
None cared whatever crash or cross
Brought wrack to things.

If something ceased, no tongue bewailed,
If something winced and waned, no heart was wrung;
If brightness dimmed, and dark prevailed,
No sense was stung.

Auden is similarly cynical about the ultimate value of human sentimentality:

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total darkness sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

by Richard W. Bray

Eleven Stanzas that Strike Like a Chime through the Mind

May 29, 2011

Christina Rossetti

Richard Wilbur

e e cummings

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

from Uphill by Christina Rossetti

Let Observation with extensive view,
Survey mankind, from China to Peru:
Reark each anxious toil, each eager strife:
Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate,
O’spread with snares the clouded maze of fate,
Where wavering man, betrayed by venomous pride,
To tread the dreary paths without a guide,
But scarce observed, the knowing and the bold
Fall in the general massacre of gold;
Wide-wasting pest! That rages unconfined,
And crowds with crimes the record of mankind;
For gold his sword the hireling ruffian draws,
For gold the hireling judge distorts the laws;
Wealth heaped on wealth, not truth nor safety buys,
The Dangers Gather as the Treasures rise

from The Vanity of Human Wishes (The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated) by Samuel Johnson

We have it and it doesn’t do us any
Good because nobody gets what they
Deserve more than everybody else.

from Family Values by Robert Pinsky

I am tired of tears and laughter,
And men that laugh and weep;
Of what may come hereafter
For men that sow to reap:
I am weary of days and hours,
Blown buds of barren flowers,
Desires and dreams and powers
And everything but sleep.

from Garden of Proserpine by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

from The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd by Sir Walter Ralegh

Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.

from Hamlen Brook by Richard Wilbur

“I see the guilty world forgiven,”
Dreamer and drunkard sing,
“The ladders let down out of heaven,
The laurel springing from the martyr’s blood,
The children skipping where the weeper stood,
The lovers natural and the beasts all good.”
So dreamer and drunkard sing
Till day their sobriety bring:
Parrotwise with Death’s reply
From whelping fear and nesting lie,
Woods and their echoes ring.
The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
The dance’s pattern; dance while you can.

from Death’s Echo by W. H. Auden

To fight aloud, is very brave —
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe —

from To Fight Aloud is Very Brave by Emily Dickinson

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

from I Knew a Woman by Theodore Roethke

and nothing quite so least as truth
—i say though hate were why man breathe—
because my father lived his soul
love is the whole and more than all

from my father moved through dooms of love by e.e. cummings

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.

from Provide, Provide by Robert Frost

by Richard W. Bray