Merely bearing witness

Did you read that the poet Richard Wilbur died? You will recall that he was the Poet Laureate of the U.S. for awhile. He taught at Smith College when I was there.


He was much honored in his lifetime, but, of course, the NY Times obit tends to focus on the negative, stating snidely, “By the early 1960s, however, critical opinion generally conformed to Mr. Jarrell’s oft-quoted assessment that Mr. Wilbur ‘never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.'”

Well, I rather liked him.

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.
Not that the world is tiresome in itself:
We know what boredom is: it is a dull
Impatience or a fierce velleity,
A champing wish, stalled by our lassitude,
To make or do. In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light:
Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment…

(Read the whole poem, “Lying,” here. BTW, “velleity” is a wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action. I had to look it up.)

Wilbur’s papers are housed at his alma mater Amherst College.


I like this photo of Wilbur by Tsar Fedorsky (AC 1982)

Here’s an article about the archive.

While we are musing on Berkshires themes, don’t forget that today is the anniversary of the first publication of Moby-Dick in 1851, in Britain. Its publication in America followed on November 14, 1851.

“Speak, thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab, “which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world’s foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went; hast slept by many a sailor’s side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw’st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw’st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insatiate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed — while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!”

And this struck me as very sad.


Yes, Country Curtains, a Berkshires favorite that started off selling a simple unbleached muslin curtain by mail order, will shut down by the end of the year in the face of unrelenting online competition.

I remember when they were a little mom-and-pop operation in Stockbridge and we would see their ads in the old Yankee magazine. I remember looking at their catalogs with my mother.  And I bought some of those plain muslin curtains–the ones with the pompoms–for our first apartment after the OM and I were married. I bought some curtains there just last year–they have elephants on them. Sigh.

But this was funny:

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Onward and upward. Hang in there and join me in a toast tonight to Richard Wilbur, Herman Melville and Country Curtains.