Friday, February 6, 2009

Barred Owl

Back to Richard Wilbur, and the thin volume of more recent poems that sits atop my bookshelf, "Mayflies".

This was the first poem I heard Wilbur read:

"A Barred Owl" by Richard Wilbur

The warping night-air having brought the boom

Of an owl's voice into her darkened room,

We tell the wakened child that all she heard

Was an odd question from a forest bird,

Asking of us, if rightly listened to,

"Who cooks for you?" and then "Who cooks for you?"

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,

Can also thus domesticate a fear,

And send a small child back to sleep at night

Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight

Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

Two observations:

1. There is a beauty here in the means a parent has to console a child. In the urban setting of Manhattan, when a child was frightened by the enormous sound of a truck's horn at night, I said we could imagine it was a ship's horn at night in the fog and a story about that ship and where it was sailing brought consolation and sleep.

2. As I look at Wilbur's poetry against his mentor Robert Frost, I think that both are masters of observing the beauty and personality of natural things. Frost is probably more in tune with introspection as he relates to natural beauty, while Wilbur brings the realm of natural beauty to bear in human relationships. I'm not sure, but I think that Wilbur is sort of better with people as I read his poems.

If I were to draw a line from Frost's beliefs to his poetry, it is that he did not experience the love of God personally. He stated he feared but did not know God in a 1947 letter to a friend: "My fear of God has settled down into a deep and inward fear that my best offering may not prove acceptable in his sight."

In interviews Wilbur has identified himself as a Christian but not as one who writes poetry on matters of doctrine (much) as did, for example, TS Eliot in his later work. But it is interesting that the affection that Wilbur has for the material world is often linked with the depth of human relationships amidst the beauty of the world.

I don't say Frost or Wilbur couldn't have written another way, but they do notice different things from the same New England landscapes. It makes me wonder if the different worldviews, thoughts on eternity, and views of God by these two connected poets is significant to that.

What do you think? Any Frost fans out there?


Anne said...

Tackling a poet's relationship with God vis a vis the poetry is always a challenge, says this good postmodern reader. Frost had a difficult life, by any measure, sad, challenging, and burdened. He would have produced more had he not faced so much loss and distress. However, I get great joy from reading his poetry and want to encourage you to take another look more directly at the text. John Timmerman, in his book "Robert Frost: The Ethics of Ambiguity," makes the point that oblique readings (in which I would include readings that incorporate the author or artist's biography), fall into the category where he writes about the irritation readers have with Frost's intricate play of form and language as tantamount to "want[ing] to play tennis with the net down and then talk[ing] about how good the game was." When I examine the work of art, I always have to set aside the speaker/maker and let interpretation be my guide. Frost's poem, as example, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" is often read as the poet's contemplation of death. But I read it, every single team, as a celebration of winter, as a reveling in the joy of seasons. Just some thoughts for you in suggesting another look at Frost's poetry.

Clifford Swartz said...

Great comment, thanks!

I think that what I wanted to observe was that both men take the same material, Nature (particularly the natural beauty of New England) and write poems that celebrate the wonder of it.

One of them (Frost) writes about his internal life, in the main, and what interactions there are with people are somewhat alienated (e.g., "walls make good neighbors"). The other poet (Wilbur) often takes the beauty of the surroundings into interactions between people. And since both his poetry (one from the 60's on the incarnation) and his description of how religious thoughts affect his poetry in interviews, I think it is right to make the connection.

It's not necessary that Frost (as a diest, I think) would write rather more somber poetry than Wilbur, but I note that Wilbur's take on nature as created good but fallen accords with his presentation in poetry.

But I'm not a postmodernist, so I allow what the author tells me inform my interpretation.

By the way, I love Frost's poetry, and more so because he was my doorway to Wilbur...

Clifford Swartz said...

Hey, I think my reply was too snappy. Sorry about that and thanks again for your thoughtful comment.