Richard Wilbur’s Poetry Captures Our Days

Richard Wilbur’s Poetry Captures Our Days May 31, 2016

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Last night I read a poem that showed me in a flash why I save evening-time for listening to classical music while I knit, or browsing through an art book, or reading fine poems like this one.

I’ve said in a previous post that I keep a volume of poems by my bed for evening reading. But I hadn’t known why until, with Richard Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems the current volume, I opened last night to his poem “C Minor.”

The poem begins with Wilbur and (presumably) his wife having breakfast while the radio plays something of Beethoven’s. Something passionate and angst-ridden; something typical of the C minor tonality which was Beethoven’s favorite for expressing dark, turbulent moods.

The poet’s wife turns off the radio. He writes: “You are right to switch it off and let the day / Begin at hazard…”

What follows for most of the poem is an account of some typical “hazards”—that is, chance happenings of a day.

The morning’s newspaper will present “sad / Or fortunate news.” Then:

The day’s work will be disappointing or not,
Giving at least some pleasure in taking pains.
One of us, hoeing in the garden plot
(Unless, of course, it rains)

One of us might, he goes on, “rejoice” at a lovely sight in the garden, or maybe instead pace “dissatisfied” inside.

These are the vicissitudes of anyone’s normal day. Moods swing. Things happen that are pleasant or painful. Yesterday, for instance, I’d planned to roast a chicken for dinner. But I forgot to take it out of the freezer in time. So I had to scurry to re-conceive the meal.

Trivial? Yes. But Wilbur is musing on how this is the stuff of our days. And even if this stuff turns suddenly rough—like last week when I had to take my husband to the ER—it is still part of the same mix of what constitutes a life lived minute by minute.

“Shall a plate be broken? A new thing understood?” This opening line of the next stanza is astonishing and brilliant. To put on the same level (in the same line) a broken plate and a new understanding: for me, this in itself was a new understanding! The juxtaposition represents precisely the random happenings that our day brings, from one minute to the next (or in the same minute).

Then in the closing two stanzas, Wilbur returns to the Beethoven piece that his wife switched off at breakfast:

… even if we were fated
Hugely to suffer, grandly to endure,

It would not help to hear it all fore-stated
As in an overture.

There is nothing to do with a day except to live it.
Let us have music again when the light dies
(Sullenly, or in glory) and we can give it
Something to organize.

“There is nothing to do with a day except to live it.” I’ve been pausing over this extraordinary line, wowed by how it states the obvious in a way (and in a context) that makes light bulbs flash.

I mean, yes, what can we do with a day except to live it?

Yet there is more. There is music. Even as the options of mood continue—”when the light dies / Sullenly, or in glory“—music takes the day’s chance happenings as “something to organize.”

This, then, is what music does: it organizes the vicissitudes of our days. And not only music; all the arts do this in their particular medium. Awhile back, my fellow Good Letters blogger Morgan Meis wrote about how Matisse’s painting does this.

Wilbur’s poem intimates that Beethoven’s music does it.

And this poem itself does it: takes the random, trivial (or important), comic (or tragic) stuff of our day and organizes it—shapes it with wordplay and line-breaks and rhyme—so that we see that “stuff” in a new way.


Image is by Ben Seidelman, licensed by Creative Commons.

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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