The Unreal Grackle

Last Monday Richard Wilbur gave the 97th Turnbull Poetry Lecture at Johns Hopkins University, following in the footsteps of T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, and, well, himself. Wilbur gave his first Turnbull lecture, titled “Round About a Poem of Housman’s,” in 1961. This time he did less lecturing and more reading of his own poems. Wilbur is now 88 years old — “a lucky age, or so regarded in China,” he said with a twinkle.

For decades Wilbur has been translating the Latin riddles of Symphosius. He began the reading with some newer translations, several of which can be found in the reborn Hopkins Review. “All things I powerfully crush and blend. / I have one neck, with a head at either end. / To more anatomy I don’t pretend.” And this: “My head is large, but what’s within are small. / I’ve one leg only, but it’s very tall. / Sleep loves me, but I get no sleep at all.” (Time’s up; answers below.)

Before turning to what Eric McHenry termed the “collected magisteria,” Wilbur shared a few more uncollected pieces, including “A Measuring Worm,” an unsettling haiku series that appeared a year ago in The New Yorker. (“It’s the kind of poem you find yourself writing at 88,” he said dryly.) Then he opened his 585-page Collected Poems and began flipping through it. “Sorry about all the groping that I’m having to do,” he said, “but I’ve simply written too much.”

About “A Barred Owl,” Wilbur reported a student having said, “Oh, that’s the poem that begins like a lullaby and ends with a nightmare.”

A few poems later he arrived at the marvelous “Lying,” which starts,

To claim, at a dead party, to have spotted a grackle,

When in fact you haven’t of late, can do no harm.

Your reputation for saying things of interest

Will not be marred, if you hasten to other topics,

Nor will the delicate web of human trust

Be ruptured by that airy fabrication.

Later, however, talking with toxic zest

Of golf, or taxes, or the rest of it

Where the beaked ladle plies the chuckling ice,

You may enjoy a chill of severance, hearing

Above your head the shrug of unreal wings.

[ . . . ]

What is it, after all, but something missed?

Commenting on the poem in the 1985 anthology Singular Voices: American Poetry Today, Wilbur wrote,

Not long ago, I was fascinated to find, in a memoir of Dylan Thomas by one of his boyhood friends, that the young Thomas had entertained a similar notion. It seemed to him a poetic act to inform his mother that he was carrying a handkerchief in his right-hand pocket, whereas in fact the handkerchief was in his left-hand pocket.

My poem “Lying” is not an indictment of du Bouchet and Thomas, whose early aesthetic ideas, like mine, could be briefly, airily, and somewhat jocularly held. But I do owe to them my unreal grackle. It occurred to me (apparently) that a poem about truth and poetry might well start obliquely with a piddling and ludicrous instance of fraudulent “creation,” and then proceed to take its implications seriously. It is a fundamental impulse of poetry to refresh the aspect of things. . . . The poem assumes that the essential poetic act is the discovery of resemblance, the making of metaphor, and that, the world being one thing, all metaphor tends toward the truth.

Speaking to the Hopkins audience, Wilbur said, “It’s a poem about the relatedness of all things.” (He had told something similar to his wife, following her initial reaction to the poem, which went, “Well, you’ve finally done it; you’ve managed to write a poem that’s incomprehensible from beginning to end.” She eventually came around.)

Metaphor-making, of course, depends upon “the relatedness of all things.” Aristotle valued riddles because, like metaphors, they demonstrate an ability to find likenesses among unlike things: “the mark of genius,” he said, and the poetic faculty most difficult to teach. In his 1988 Library of Congress lecture “The Persistence of Riddles” (collected in The Catbird’s Song), Wilbur writes,

If poetry deals in surprise and delayed apprehensions, then the riddle exaggerates an essential characteristic of poetry. If metaphor, the perception of resemblances, is central to poetry, then the riddle operates near that center. If lyric poetry perceives wonder and mystery, so does the riddle. And if poetry may be seen as offering a continuing critique of our sense of order, the riddle has its peculiar aptitude for that.

Later, in the same lecture, Wilbur adds,

The famous catalogues of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” with their headlong jumbling of disparate images, are akin to riddles in their bracketing of things supposedly unrelated and their vision of a metamorphic world in which all things are of one nature. To be sure, Whitman’s catalogues work less by metaphor than by juxtaposition, parallel grammar, and manic impetus; still, we are not surprised when, in the midst of one of his inventories of everything, he modulates into riddle and speaks not of the moon but of “the crescent child that carries its own full mother in its belly.”

(More on Whitman next week, after I emerge from a stretch of “tumult and chaos.”)

But back, briefly, to the Hopkins reading. Wilbur ended the evening with “The Prisoner of Zenda,” a zany feat of rhyming and doubling-up that almost demands to be memorized. (Jim Holt wrote about memorization in The New York Times several days ago. He quoted Wilbur: “If one is delayed in a bus terminal, or sitting in a foxhole, it’s wonderful to have an inner anthology to say over, yet again, in one’s mind.”) Following the reading, audience members bought books (Opposites seemed to move especially briskly) and requested autographs. Here are two “Opposites” (classified, by Wilbur, as “Poems for Children and Others”):

What is the opposite of flying?

For birds, it would be just not trying.

Perhaps the opposite for us

Would be to take a train or bus.


An echo’s opposite is the cry

To which the echo makes reply.

Of course I do not mean to claim

That what they say is not the same.

If one of them calls out “Good day”

Or “Who are you?” or “Hip, hooray”

Or “Robert has an ugly hat,”

The other says exactly that.

But still they’re opposites. Know why?

A cry is bold; an echo’s shy,

And though it loves to shout yoo-hoo,

It won’t until it hears from you.