Honoring Richard Wilbur, a national poet in the Berkshire hills — BTW column

The morning air is all awash with angels.’

The early morning scene has stayed with me since high school. It isn’t etherial or oversweet. In the early light about dawn, a man wakes and hears the laundry going up to dry. ‘The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,’ concrete, squeaking, and he lies at the beginning of the day, in the moment of getting up and into it.

I’m quoting Richard Wilbur’s Love Calls Us to the Things of This World. It’s the poem that led me to his work 25 years ago. Since then I have read his words in quiet moments, and with friends, and late at night at my desk in the newsroom. And one day I will never forget, I sat with him in a book-lined room in Cummington and listened to him.

In my Berkshires Week days, just before his 90th birthday, he invited me to come up the ridge with my notebook. I remember his voice, his gentleness and perception. He seemed humorous and quiet with grief and infinitely tough.

He died on Oct. 14, at 96. And I miss him.

He has twice won the National Book Award and twice the Pulitzer Prize, and has also served as National Poet Laureate, and Williamstown Theatre Festival has performed many of his translations of French classic plays. And he lived just up the road for years.

So his poems take him through the woods and cornfields. Here he is running down a dirt road along an old stone wall. And here he is listening to his daughter type a story at night ‘at the prow of the house.’ He is writing in form and rhyme as casually as talking to a neighbor, the way (I once heard) he and William Jay Smith, also a National Poet Laureate and a longtime friend, used to sit at a sunny table in the Cummington Creamery doing crossword puzzles and turning over ideas.

Wilbur wrote poems in friendship, and he wrote love poems to Charlee, Mary Charlotte Hayes Ward, when they had been married for decades. He makes their long love vital — ‘a wild sostenuto of the heart, a passion joined to courtesy and art, that has the quality of something made’ …  Here he is holding her at noon and inventing a laughing aubade, the Provençal troubadour’s poem to his lover at dawn, lamenting the moment when they will part.

Wilbur’s Late Aubade is light-hearted, teasing, asking his wife and love to stay with him though the morning is becoming afternoon. It is a celebration because they can fall grinning into the clean sheets. And at the same time, it is a reckoning of time. Reminding her of all the less vital things she could be doing, he is also reminding her their time is finite.

On the morning I met him, he had recently published Anterooms, a new collection that begins with another poem waking in the morning. She wakes beside him from a recurring dream of a quiet house near the sea. The book came out three years after she died; he lost her in 2007, and the poem is full of quiet anguish. ‘Only a foolish man would hope to find / that haven fashioned by her dreaming mind. / Night after night, my love, I put to sea.’

He never denied the creaking pulleys, the hard work of washing or the pain, guilt, rage a man might hold inside a clean shirt. He never denied the hardness of the day. And yet he wrote about a clean, fresh air in the morning and made it live. He loved. He wrote about love in a way I have rarely heard — he made it life-and-death, laughing and brilliant, open to pain and larger, as real as soap and earth and blood.

And he gave many people a haven fashioned from his dreaming mind. I hope he, and Charlee too, found their own havens in their many years together, and sunlit mornings that stretched into afternoons.


This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle’s A7E section on Oct. 23. My thanks to Arts and Entertainment Editor Jeffrey Borak

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