Persisting in Madness
Persisting in Madness1
Alan was still writing songs in the 1970’s, while I turned out historical narratives in iambic pentameter. We were much influenced by the Greek Alexandrian poet Konstantin Kavafy, and his sexual candor. We also admired A.L. Rowse’s exposé of Homosexuals in History and Mary Renault’s historical novels. Such reading inspired this poem, which was my first sonnet.
While Xerxes’ fleet labored along the coast,
ten of his triremes crossed the open sea
to reconnoiter the Hellenic host
his spies expected at Thermopylae.
Falling upon three Greek ships near the shore,
the Persians boarded their outnumbered foes
to pick a victim for their god of war.
Leo of Troezen was the youth they chose,
handsomest sailor in the Argive ranks.
Stripping the breastplate from his manly chest,
they spilled his entrails on the sea-bleached planks.
And nobody was terribly distressed
that one so handsome died a sacrifice.
The gods bestow their blessings for a price.
During my tutelage by Robert Penn Warren — an accomplished practitioner of free verse — I had continued my attempts upon meter and rhyme. With a smile, the old man suggested that if I intended to persist in “this madness,” I should get in touch with “Dickie Wilbur” because he was “the best we’ve got.” Wilbur had won his first Pulitzer at age 35. I read him, but I was too intimidated to send him any of my own novice efforts.
By 1977 I had a small sheaf of poems that I deemed adequate for “the best we’ve got” to read, yet I hardly dared to hope for a response. I was living and working in Minneapolis, far from the literary scene. As far as I knew, formal verse was disappearing, and Wilbur would be the last poet of note to emulate Frost or Auden. The reply was astonishingly prompt, but also daunting. In tiny script on a postcard, the master offered a terse set of observations to the novice. Some were purely technical, concerning fine points of meter, or flaws in particular lines. But one remark reverberated in my heart, and in Alan’s. “Just because you are writing about the matter of K. Kavafy does not excuse you from the task of sufficiently charging your language.”
I spent years pondering that admonition. Not for a moment did I think it sprang from prejudice. I detected no trace of the common disdain, which my first mentor could not hide. Instead Wilbur’s challenge spoke to the central task of poetry: the merger of language and feeling into songs that seem spontaneous yet inevitable. My literary affectations suddenly seemed jejeune. Fifteen years passed before I contacted Wilbur again. Once I ‘got a life,’ I took to writing about my farms, my family, and my losses. I switched from large pentameters to terse songlike forms. Occasionally I revisited the themes of my youth with the method of my maturity. Poems like this would result.
“And who remembers them?”
— A. L. Rowse
Dragonflies whose wings
flutter in sultry air
between the olive trees
crisscross a limestone stair
climbed by Simonides
and some forgotten kings.
This was my tiny ‘Ozymandias,’ contrasting the immortality of Simonides’ famous dragonfly poem with the oblivion of kingship. While I built my own small holdings in North Dakota, the poems kept accumulating, unpublished. In the meantime Wilbur won a second Pulitzer in 1989 for his New and Collected. In the fall of 1993 I wrote him again, and sent a sheaf of the new work. This time the reply was equally swift, but quite different in tone: collegial rather than professorial. A few months later, en route to our first sailboat charter at Tortola, Alan and I visited him in Key West.
The day we were to meet the Wilburs I was so excited that I became physically ill. Trying to calm myself, I nipped through a pint of whiskey by midmorning. Then I called the cottage to doublecheck directions. Richard said “You see from the map how Key West is laid out on a grid, and there is only one diagonal street, Windsor Lane.” I replied, “Oh you’re near the cemetery.” “VERY near the cemetery, young man,” he replied.
I was hyperventilating and could hardly talk when we got there. I had been so isolated that I thought my host the only poet in the English-speaking world. But Alan engaged him in the biota of the walled garden, then I managed to recite ‘Passel o’ Pups,’ a poem in Scots, and ‘Harvest of Sorrows,’ a poem that would mete and rhyme if it were translated into Anglo-Saxon. These were well received, and we started to talk about memorization. This topic intrigued the elder poet, who confessed that he could not keep various drafts of his own work clearly enough in mind for him to recite from memory.
Charlee was shopping, but she joined us for dinner that evening. So we met one of the most indomitable souls ever to grace this planet. At one point I asked Dick the secret of his success, and Charlee interjected: “He married well.” She was direct, intense, even argumentative, and never dull. She told us how a childhood heart murmur caused her parents and physicians to fear she could die from the least exertion. Escaping the bondage of their care, she traversed the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. The murmur vanished, and a few years later she met the love of her life. After more than fifty years, that love was undiminished, inexhaustible. It was no surprise to me when Dick wrote ‘For C’ four years later.
As our acquaintance deepened, Dick Wilbur proved as unfailingly kind and generous as Mr. Warren was. His postcards always included memorable phrases. His concision and precision were not reserved entirely for poetry. He also sent drafts of his own new work, carbon copied off his 1948 L.C. Smith typewriter. On subsequent visits Alan even ventured a few editorial suggestions. Once the senior poet expressed doubt about his use of the word ‘fiats’ at the end of ‘Mayflies,’ which he had just completed. He feared it might be too obscure for readers. ‘Fiat lux!’ said Alan, settling the question once and for all.
When Mr. Warren told me to read Wilbur, Dick was in his late forties. I went wild over his translations: ‘The Pelican,’ ‘A Prayer for Going to Paradise with the Donkeys,’ ‘L’ Invitation au Voyage.’ But the light touch, the grace notes of his own work, did not appeal to me at Yale. I was swooning over Keats, Yeats, Tennyson, reciting ‘Ode to a Nighingale,’ ‘All Souls Night,’ or ‘Morte d’Arthur’ to my stupefied friends. Wilbur was celebrated for his civil voice, and love did not call me to the things of this world; I wanted “to be immortal and then to die.” But by the time I visited Key West, Wilbur’s work had changed, and so had I.
Even in Wilbur’s early work, I now discern many signs of the metaphysical bent that makes him seem a rightful heir to George Herbert. By the time I met him, I was seeking more than mere critique or validation. In his poetry of praise, I sensed an antidote to my own deepening gloom. Younger essayists have greeted the publication of Wilbur’s latest Collected Poems (Harcourt, 2004) by citing verses he wrote when I was five years old. Some have counterpoised him with mad Robert Lowell, as though disdaining Wilbur’s stubborn refusal to self-destruct. But when I read “For C,” “Mayflies,” “Security Lights at Key West,” and “Blackberries for Amelia,” I see the grace of a sage overcoming life’s troubles. Even his garden expresses the man’s spiritual dimension. Alan found a poem in Wilbur’s quixotic quest for a boreal artichoke. Note the verb ‘grace’ in the fifth tercet.
Je veux que la mort me trouve plantant mes choux.
Your garden is the envy of the hill.
Who would have thought this plot of glacial till
susceptible to horticultural skill?
Still, there are bounds to vegetable duress
that less ambitious tillers don’t transgress.
Endive and kale, anise and watercress,
yes, but why set your heart on artichokes?
You might (with more success) attempt to coax
truffles up from the roots of chestnut oaks.
Folks hereabout must think you wholly daft
to mound the mulch around each bristly shaft
at the first breath of a chill Berkshire draft.
Grafted afresh, your budding hopes inflate
each year for shoots that merely vegetate.
At last one severed head graces your plate.
Sated too briefly by this buttered globe,
you wake at daybreak, don your dotty robe
and wander out with trowel in hand to probe.
Job himself would have known enough to grow
no artichokes on slopes so prone to snow.
Desist, lest you be reaped with what you sow —
though that, perhaps, is how you’d choose to go.
by Alan Sullivan
Wilbur may be the most misunderstood of modern poets. In our secular time, the religious man seems as incomprehensible as an atheist among medieval monastics. Fortified by faith, he endures and surmounts. Not for him the fashionable angst of academia. On visits to the Wilburs’ hilltop home in the Berkshires, I have slept on a fold-out sofa over which hung my favorite portrait by Richard’s father, who was an artist of real ability. In the painting Dick must be about 15, and his younger brother Lawrence perhaps 12. Both boys are holding racquets; they radiate youth and innocence. It’s terrible to know that Lawrence Wilbur has spent his entire adult life institutionalized — shell-shocked by World War II. This is just one of many tragedies that beset the Wilburs. Reading ‘A Storm in April,’ one isn’t explicitly told that the poet’s youngest son was afflicted with autism, but how devastating the first quatrain becomes if you know its private symbolism:
Some winters, taking leave,
Deal us a last, hard blow,
Salting the ground like Carthage
Before they will go.
The cover of A.D. Hope’s Selected Poems bears a motto ‘Sapientia Viribus Iungenda.’ Wisdom and strength conjoined — these are virtues I would ascribe to both Wilburs. I think they give Dick’s recent verse the greatest power of anything written by an octogenarian since Thomas Hardy’s final decade, though Hope himself wrote remarkable poetry in his old age. But the Wilburs have outlived most of their literary peers. So many of their friends were destroyed by alcohol: Schwartz, Lowell, Auden, Roethke, Bishop, Wright. Aware that Dick and Charlee feared for me, I would never drink anything stronger than iced tea in their presence. I have to say though, that the night I met her, Charlee had two double martinis and got so ‘elevated’ that she told me stories I shall refrain from recounting. Others found their way into a poem.
From Charlee’s polished table
gaze multitudes of faces
her memory embraces,
the drunken and unstable
Dylan Thomas sobbing
before his last disaster,
daunted by every Master
he was reduced to robbing.
There’s liquor in the kitchen
untouched since John Ciardi,
brooding on Yeats and Hardy,
perfected his perdition.
Now Edna Ward’s daughter,
fretting that I’ve grown thinner,
lays out a lavish dinner.
Tonight I’m drinking water.
Acknowledgements: ‘The Optimist’ and ‘Dodwells Road’ were first published in the Hudson Review. ‘The Sacrifice’ and ‘Scaling Parnassus’ were published in Timothy Murphy’s first book, The Deed of Gift, Story Line Press, 1998.