Monday, March 18, 2013

Richard Wilbur and Sylvia Plath

This is a favorite anthology of mine. I used it a few years ago when I was teaching a course on Modern American Poetry. It's as heavy as a brick and pretty expensive, and I haven't taught that course again, so I haven't used it in class again. However, this anthology contains poems I have found in no other anthology, so I keep tapping it for its riches.  For example, here is a poem Richard Wilbur wrote, remembering his early meeting with Sylvia Plath:
Cottage Street, 1953     by Richard Wilbur

Framed in her phoenix fire-screen, Edna Ward
Bends to the tray of Canton, pouring tea
For frightened Mrs. Plath; then, turning toward
The pale, slumped daughter, and my wife, and me,

Asks if we would prefer it weak or strong.
Will we have milk or lemon, she enquires?
The visit seems already strained and long.
Each in his turn, we tell her our desires.

It is my office to exemplify
The published poet in his happiness,
Thus cheering Sylvia, who has wished to die;
But half-ashamed, and impotent to bless,

I am a stupid life-guard who has found,
Swept to his shallows by the tide, a girl
who, far from shore, has been immensely drowned,
And stares through water now with eyes of pearl.

How large is her refusal; and how slight
That genteel chat whereby we recommend
Life, of a summer afternoon, despite
The brewing dusk which hints that it may end.

And Edna Ward shall die in fifteen years,
After her eight-and eighty summers of
Such grace and courage as permit no tears,
The thin hand reaching out, the last word love,

Outliving Sylvia who, condemned to live,
Shall study for a decade, as she must,
To state at last her brilliant negative
In poems free and helpless and unjust.                  

He wrote this in 1976, in hindsight. I am haunted by this poem. It connects , for me, with Seamus Heaney's words on Plath, quoted in a post here a few weeks ago.


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