02 January 2014

Poetry Thursday - Love Calls us to the Things of this World by Richard Wilbur

Angels in bed-sheets and blouses?
detail from "Deep Canyon" by Millard Sheets (painted 1933-4) (via)
Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every bless├Ęd day,
And cries,
“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.”

--Richard Wilbur

(from here, where you can read more poems by Richard Wilbur)


In this video, Wilbur says the title is derived to some extent from St Augustine, then goes on to read the poem. Later he says, "One thing I like about that poem is that I managed to use the word 'hunks' in it" - a word out of keeping with the rest of the language in the poem "but that's precisely why I'm glad that it's there and that I've gotten away with it." It seems that the poem was written in Rome, inspired by a line of laundry hanging outside his window.

Wilbur, born in 1921, was appointed the second poet laureate of the United States in 1987. Though he had been publishing poetry since the age of 8, it was his experience as a soldier in WW2 that drove him "to versify in earnest" - his first collection, in 1947, is shaped by an emphasis on order and organisation. In addition to winning lots of poetry prizes, Wilbur has translated plays from French and written prose and for children.

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