If we're lucky, frequently enough we encounter poems that move us,
cause us to think and learn, and leave us grateful to their writers. But
occasionally we come across poems which leave us awestruck. The more we
think about them, the more their qualities of mind and heart, and the
impressiveness of their skill, unfold for us. For me two such poems are
Richard Wilbur's "Zea" and "Signatures," both
written in nine haiku-like stanzas, strictly observing the traditional
Japanese three-line form, with five, seven, and five syllables in
successive lines. But the form as Wilbur handles it is not only
Japanese; here there is rhyme, and a familiar English metrical pattern
is generated to create moving effects.
This brief essay is a presentation and discussion of the two poems
and those features which to me seem noteworthy. Part of their attraction
is that they are poems which I cannot imagine anyone else having
written; they are inimitable. Their subjects, apprehended by this most
original poet's extraordinary close looking at small natural phenomena,
are made meaningful through unexpected associations with the largest
human concerns. And all of this in the context of a tactful,
Here is the first poem, which I happened upon while paging through
the "New Yorker" magazine sometime in 1995:
by Thomas Carper)
Once their fruit is picked,
The cornstalks lighten, and though
Keeping to their strict
Rows, begin to be
The tall grasses that they are—
Lissom, now, and free
As canes that clatter
In island wind, or plumed reeds
Rocked by lake water.
Soon, if not cut down,
Their ranks grow whistling-dry, and
Blanch to lightest brown,
So that, one day, all
Their ribbonlike, down-arcing
Leaves rise up and fall
In tossed companies,
Like goose wings beating southward
Over the changed trees.
Later, there are days
Full of bare expectancy,
Downcast hues, and haze,
Days of an utter
Calm, in which one white corn-leaf,
Its fabric sheathing
A gaunt stem, can seem to be
The sole thing breathing.
There is wonderment with one's first glance at "Zea."
Although the opening lines of the poem explain the title adequately for
an understanding of what is being described—cornstalks after the corn
is picked—I certainly, and many other readers probably, repair to
their dictionaries if they wish to learn that zea is "the maize
genus." The title, then, contributes, from the first moment of
encountering the poem, a sense of strangeness, of expectation that one
will discover new revelations as reading goes on.
The first stanza, recited aloud or heard in the mind, seems to have
three beats in each line, although "The CORNstalks LIGHTen, and
THOUGH" is less obvious than "ONCE their FRUIT is
PICKED." In the terminology of the Attridge prosody, the
"double offbeat" in the second line causes, for me, a
lightening of the line, which metrically contrasts to the more rigid
feel of the third line. After line seven, this sense of a three-beat
metrical base for most lines continues until, in the "utter
calm" at the ending of the poem, the first and third lines of the
two final stanzas reduce quietly to two beats.
As I begin reading the poem and hearing the beats—particularly when
I encounter line seven, "As CANES that CLATTer," which doesn't
fit my first expectation for metrical consistency—I become aware that
the poet is not only playing a traditional metrical game, but also
playing the haiku game, strictly and admirably.
Perhaps I should have spotted the haiku shape when I first saw the
poem, assuring myself about the discovery by counting out each line's
syllables with my fingers. Perhaps I should have been aware of Richard
Wilbur's earlier use of the form in poems like "Thyme Flowering
among Rocks," "Sleepless at Crown Point," and "Alatus."
But I had been invited into the poem by its rhythm, and the additional
presence of the still somewhat exotic form came as a pleasing surprise.
Was the Japanese form making its own contribution to the poem's sense of
controlled elegance and refinement?
The cornstalks, lightened after the corn has been picked, are
confined to their rows even when they are changed, as later in the poem
trees are changed by the change of seasons. Yet they become, as autumn
approaches, "lissom" (supple and graceful) and free. And in
graceful freedom the poet imagines—or is it this reader who imagines?—that
they are like canes of bamboo or sugar- cane on tropical islands; then
that they are like feathery reeds in, perhaps, New England lakes. The
world is opening up. The field of cornstalks is extending its geography
as the sense of its significance to the poet enlarges.
After the cash crop is in, most farmers clear their fields. But what
if the cornstalks are not cut down? What if they are simply left to be
"the tall grasses that they are"? What if they retain their
freedom? The poet tells us what will happen, but only after hinting that
the illumination the poem moves toward might never have been arrived at,
might have been cut off.
Allowed to stand, the ranks of stalks become alive. They whistle,
grow lighter colored, and toss their leaves; and this farmland activity
is in its turn enlarged by the comparison of the cornstalks' rising and
falling leaves to the wings of geese aloft on their fall migrations.
From the imagined heights of the birds' seasonal passage, the new colors
of the autumn landscape below are suggested in the simplest, most direct
language conceivable: "the changed trees."
As the poem moves on in time, an extraordinary peace is entered into—days
of "bare expectancy" which, in spite of their bareness, are
"full," with deepening colors, haze, and utter calm, a calm in
which a little miracle occurs. Here, at the end of autumn, in a
transformed field, a single white corn-leaf appears miraculously alive.
Oddly aflutter, it seems "the sole thing breathing."
What does it all mean? For me there is a sense of having moved into a
stillness where the human spirit (perhaps suggested as the
"soul" of the "sole" corn-leaf), now aged from
lightest-brown to white and attached still to the gaunt stem of its
body, remains alive in that apprehended permanence which only the human
imagination can occasionally achieve—in a poem.
In 1997, two years after I had encountered "Zea," a friend,
the fine-press printer and publisher Michael Peich, included in his
family's handset 1997 Christmas greeting card the second of the recent
Wilbur poems which have impressed me so particularly. Mr. Wilbur
apparently allowed Mike to use "Signatures" (which was then
scheduled to appear in "The New Republic") for this purpose,
and so the poem had an incomparable first presentation—handsome type
on special paper, with a colored drawing of a blooming stem of False
Solomon's Seal. Though many gardeners and flower lovers are familiar
with both Solomon's Seal and False Solomon's Seal, I had never
encountered either of these wildflowers—or if I had, while walking in
woods, I hadn't known their names. But as with "Zea," in his
poem's early lines the poet explains briefly all I need to know to move
beyond wildflowers to meditations on spirituality and poetic prophesy.
Coming into my life later than "Zea,"
"Signatures" immediately revealed its formal near-identity
with the earlier poem. I knew at first glance that the poem was almost
certainly a series of haiku stanzas, and a syllable count of a few lines
confirmed that. Then, the opening stanza's rhyming first and third lines
told me what to expect: as earlier, the poet's pattern would be
faithfully observed throughout the poem. Moreover, a three-beat meter
quickly made itself felt and would contribute powerfully to the poem's
musicality. Only in the final stanza, as the poem achieved its
culmination, would the first and third lines be felt clearly as two-beat
lines, providing a closure both modest and firm.
So from the start I was prepared to be pleased, and was—although
only attention to the details of the poem in its progress began to open
up its particular excellences. Here is the poem:
by Thomas Carper)
False Solomon's Seal—
So called because it lacks a
Star-scar on the heel,
And ends its arched stem
In a spray of white florets,
Later changing them
To a red, not blue,
Spatter of berries—is no
Falser than the true.
Solomon, who raised
The temple and wrote the song,
Wouldn't have dispraised
This bowed, graceful plant
So like an aspergillum,
Nor its variant
With root duly scarred,
Whose bloom-hung stem is like the
Bell-branch of a bard.
Liking best to live
In the deep woods whose light is
Both are often found
Where mandrake, wintergreen, and
Dry leaves strew the ground,
Their heads inclining
Toward the dark earth, one blessing
And one divining.
"Signatures," like "Zea," begins with puzzles,
which the poet quickly explains. What is False Solomon's Seal? How is it
identified? How does it differ from a variant, the "true"
Solomon's Seal? What are the signatures of the two "deep
The poet lists them. The heal, or root, of False Solomon's Seal is
different from the heal of Solomon's Seal because it does not have a
star-shaped marking which resembles the six-pointed symbol associated
with King Solomon. Then, False Solomon's Seal has red berries rather
than blue ones. Finally, its flowers form like a cloud of tiny droplets
rather than as bell-shaped blooms. (I learned these things from a
dictionary and illustrations in a book on wild- flowers.) But the two
flowers are equally "true." Their differences give neither
flower precedence, we learn, as the poet identifies each with a high
calling—a priestly vocation for one, a vocation as prophet and poet
for the other.
The identification is made by an astonishing leap backward to
Biblical times where King Solomon himself is recognized in each of these
roles as the person "who raised the temple and wrote the
song." The builder of the Temple in Jerusalem and the traditional
poet of the Songs of Solomon "wouldn't have dispraised" either
of the flowers bearing his name. And further details about each of the
wildflowers make them, and what they represent, increasingly
significant. The False Solomon's Seal is "like an
aspergillum," an instrument for sprinkling holy water when a priest
gives a blessing; the Solomon's Seal's blooming stem is "like the
bell-branch of a bard."
These priests and bards of nature live their contemplative lives in
the subdued light of deep woods where further symbol-auraed plants are
found: mandrake, whose roots have long been said to resemble the human
form; wintergreen, a shrub that throughout the year appears ever fresh;
and dry leaves, reminders of the death of seasons. In this special place
they bow their heads as if in reverence to the earth which sustains them
(and us) to bless, seek intuition, and prophesy.
"Hear the voice of the Bard! Who Present, Past & Future sees,"
exclaims William Blake when he begins his "Songs of Experience."
Richard Wilbur's tone in the poems looked at here is more modest,
but the utterance is as intense. The bard we hear speaks quietly,
but the extraordinary care with which he organizes his rhythms, syllables,
and symbols conveys an equal earnestness. Few poets have brought home
such a harvest from a flowered spot in deep woods or a field of cornstalks.
"Zea” first appeared in the New Yorker. Copyright © 1999 by
Richard Wilbur. Reprinted by permission of the author.
“Signatures” first appeared in the New Republic.
Copyright © 1999 by Richard Wilbur. Reprinted by permission of the author.