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"Zea" and "Signatures"
 by Richard Wilbur:
 Two Remarkable Poems

by Thomas Carper
















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, self-effacing presentation.

Here is the first poem, which I happened upon while paging through the "New Yorker" magazine sometime in 1995:

           click to hear Thomas Carper read Zea by Richard Wilbur(read 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,
Oddly aflutter

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:

                     click to hear Thomas Carper read Signatures by Richard Wilbur(read 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
Most contemplative,

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 woods" flowers?

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.




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