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Old 03-27-2001, 06:02 AM
Alan Sullivan Alan Sullivan is offline
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With apologies to ChrisW, who has posted a poem on old photographs, here is a selection from Richard Wilbur's recent collection, <u>Mayflies</u>:

Icons

They are one answer to the human need
For a second life, and they exist for us
In the secular heaven of photography,
Safe in emulsion's cloud

Through which we glimpse them, knowing them as we know
The angels, by report and parched surmise.
Like Milton's seraphim who veil their gaze
Against the beams of God.

Often we see them handsomely asquint
When captured by a bursting photoflash
Or dazzling and bedazzled on that beach
Where currently they sun;

And yet perhaps they seem most brilliant when,
Putting away all glamour, they appear
In their old clothers at home, with dog and child,
Projecting toward the lens

From a couch not unlike our own, a smile
Sublimely confident of mattering.
They smile, too, when we spot their avatars
Upon the actual street,

Sharing with us the little joke that we
Have known them in a different dimension;
But since they strike us then as subtly changed--
Pale, short, a trifle older--

It is hard not to yield them back to dream,
From which their images immutably
Bestow a flourish on our muted lives,
Even though death betray them.

Still there are fewer sightings year by year
Of the trenchcoat carried niftily over the shoulder,
The innocent sultry look, the heaved guitar,
The charming pillbox hat,

And fewer of their dreamers left to grieve
As all those glossy selves, transcendent still,
Slip unaccountably into the morgues
And archives of this world.

--Richard Wilbur
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Old 03-27-2001, 08:27 AM
ChrisW ChrisW is offline
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I love this poem -- I loved all of _Mayflies_ really. But this was one of my favorites out of that book. Should have benefited more from it.
Anyway, I especially love "by report and parched surmise" and 'handsomely asquint' and the brilliant wordplay of "where currently they sun".
--Chris
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Old 03-31-2001, 08:21 PM
Esther Cameron Esther Cameron is offline
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Even though Wilbur's poem is gorgeous and all that, I'm not sure but what I like Chris's better. It isn't overloaded with imagery, and the sense of an immediacy between the people in the photograph and the onlooker is *there*, does not have to be laboriously brought forth.
Esther
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Old 04-01-2001, 06:07 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Chris' "Note on the Back of an Old Photograph" is very fine indeed, and better in the six line version Esther posted last night. But it is the work of a young man assuming the POV, the voice of the dead. And it doesn't hold a candle to "Icons." This is one of the few great "Sic Transit Gloria Mundi" poems of our age, in which an artist who has enjoyed celebrity contemplates its transience. It must be read in the larger context of Wilbur's entire ouevre, a courtesy due to great poets. I think Mayflies is Dick's best book. Wilbur's meditations on his encroaching mortality and his abiding faith may be the most persuasive additions to the Christian poetic tradition in English since Herbert joined the angels.
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Old 04-01-2001, 01:08 PM
ChrisW ChrisW is offline
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Since Tim raises the point, let me say how much I admire Wilbur's handling of his faith in his poetry. Religious faith expressed in poems often puts me off. But this never happens with Wilbur. His handling of religion in "Mayflies" (the poem) and in "The Ride" (I trust I'm right about what's going on in that poem) is entirely free of religiosity or any need to contradict readers of other persuasions. He simply shares his experience, which happens to be, in part, religious. A faith which doesn't seem to depend upon getting everyone else to agree is the only sort of faith one might wish for oneself.
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Old 04-01-2001, 02:06 PM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Chris, Have you read The Editor from Hell thread on the Discerning Eye Board? There I recount how Alan saved Wilbur from marring the last line of "Mayflies." My favorite poem in the volume is "For C.," which rivals "Hamlen Brook" as my favorite Wilbur poem
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Old 04-01-2001, 06:36 PM
ChrisW ChrisW is offline
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I have only one criticism of Richard Wilbur -- that he didn't think it necessary to put an index in his _New and Collected Poems_ (or is that a criticism of his publisher) -- finally found Hamlen Brook near the beginning, having expected it to be earlier for some reason.
I love that ending -- the way the last line "nothing can satisfy" can stand on its own, though it is part of a larger (though somewhat less grand) statement. It reminds me of a similar effect in "Baroque Wall Fountain in the Villa Sciarra" -- though in this case it is a part of a line:
...the dreamt land/toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.
It's like listening to the tinkle of a fountain and suddenly realizing somewhere in that playful sound is the stern voice of Apollo.

Anyway, in answer to your question, Tim, I had read your account in the "Editor from Hell" thread. I remember delighting in the last line and in 'fiats' (also the pun on 'fair') when I read the poem. (I'd heard him read it at Harvard before I read it myself, but doubt that I picked up on the word at the time.) I'm surprised he would have thought of changing it to dictates -- Alan is certainly to be thanked!

I hadn't decided which was my favorite poem in _Mayflies_. Besides "For C.", I absolutely love "Mayflies" "Wall in the Woods: Cummington" and "This Pleasing Anxious Being" -- not to mention "Icons", which was also a candidate for favorite in the book.

But I will say, that "For C." is the only one I actually memorized. I think it's also the only one I insisted on reading to my (non-poetry-reading) relatives. It is amazingly moving and beautiful and a wonderful rebuttal to the claim that committed and long-lasting love is 'tame and staid' -- and to the romantic movie-images he starts with.
(I love how it begins with the "clash of elevator gates" -- which, by the way, recalls the first quatrain of "A Late Aubade"). Amazing how he manages to be so moving without saying anything very specific about the only actual lovers in the poem.

Let me end this haphazard appreciation with a general reflection that seems appropriate to the "Musing on Mastery" Board. I sometimes wonder why I write verse, when others can do it so much better, but when I look at how much trying to write my own verse helps me read and appreciate someone like Wilbur, I think that alone gives me some excuse. In fact, it really is a pity that schoolchildren are no longer taught to write competent verse, since writing a little of it yourself seems the best way to appreciate what a really excellent poet is doing.
Well, Tim, your remarks were short and sweet -- my response was long-winded as usual. Wonder if there's a pill I can take. (I like the new title, "poet lariat", by the way.)
--Chris

[This message has been edited by ChrisW (edited April 02, 2001).]
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Old 04-02-2001, 08:05 AM
Alan Sullivan Alan Sullivan is offline
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Nothing wrong with being long-winded, Chris, when you have a lot to say. I agree entirely with your (and Tim's) remarks on Wilbur as a Christian poet. This is the principal theme of my essay on Wilbur in the current Sewanee Review.

I regret that many poets and critics share the indifference to Wilbur evinced in Esther's remarks above. It may be a symptom of our solipsistic age that poets find it difficult to admire or even recognize achievements in styles and voices unlike those they choose for their own work.

Alan Sullivan

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Old 04-03-2001, 10:33 AM
ChrisW ChrisW is offline
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Allen,
I very much like the bit of your article posted in another thread -- will have to look up the rest of it.
I certainly can't take any credit for not being "solipsistic" -- I'd BE Wilbur if I could -- or maybe Auden.
I find it really hard to appreciate Ashberry, though.
Still trying to decide whether your remark about long-windedness is reassurance or remonstrance -- don't tell me though, I find the uncertainty exhilerating!
--Chris
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Old 04-05-2001, 12:32 PM
Alan Sullivan Alan Sullivan is offline
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I must admit that I hadn't considered the alternate reading of my comment Chris. It seemed self-evident that you did have a lot to say. I intended no slight. My apologies.

A.S.
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