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Poetry readings: Love Calls Us to the Things of This World


Poetry readings: This Pleasing Anxious Being
Richard Wilbur Poet
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A while ago, I came to realise, belatedly, that there is such a thing as the past, that there was such a thing as my own past. I had felt until really quite late in life that if I wanted to get back to anything I'd enjoyed before, I could go and see particular friends and talk about it, or I could go to a particular place and have my sense of it renewed. Well, so many places have utterly changed. The North Caldwell in which I was brought up is now a junior executive suburb, or perhaps an executive suburb. The buildings are very impressive and they are chock a block. Yes, many of the places I once could go back to have disappeared, many of the people have disappeared, and when this was borne in upon me I found myself writing, almost for the first time, a poem of retrospection called This Pleasing Anxious Being. That takes its title from the country churchyard poem we all know. It's in three parts and I guess I'll just plunge into part one.


In no time you are back where safety was,

Spying upon the lambent table where

Good family faces drink the candlelight

As in a manger scene by de La Tour.

Father has finished carving at the sideboard

And mother's hand has touched a little bell,

So that, beside her chair, Roberta looms

With serving bowls of yams and succotash.

When will they speak, or stir? They wait for you

To recollect that, while it lived, the past

Was a rushed present, fretful and unsure.

The muffled clash of silverware begins,

With ghosts of gesture, with a laugh retrieved,

And the warm, edgy voices you would hear:

Rest for a moment in that resonance.

But see your small feet kicking under the table,

Fiercely impatient to be off and play.


Susan Snively talking about this poem the other day quite rightly observed that the vegetables being offered at the family table are Southern in character, they are out of my mother's Baltimore kitchen. We were so Baltimorean in fact that because of the strong German influence in Baltimore cuisine, we always had sauerkraut with our Thanksgiving turkey. The second part of this poem starts with a reference to the Angel of Death, Azrael.


The shadow of whoever took the picture

Reaches like Azrael's across the sand

Toward grown ups blithe in black and white, encamped

Where surf behind them floods a rocky cove.

They turn with wincing smiles, shielding their eyes

Against the sunlight and the future's glare

Which notes their bathing caps, their quaint maillot's,

The wicker picnic hamper then in style,

And will convict them of mortality.

Two boys, however, do not plead with time,

Distracted as they are by what? perhaps

A whacking flash of gull-wings overhead.

While off to one side, with his back to us,

A painter, perched before his easel, seeing

The marbled surges come to various ruin,

Seeks out of all those waves to build a wave

That shall in blue summation break forever.

That's my father of course. My father was devoted to painting the sea and here in my study is my father's self-portrait with waves breaking behind him. The third part.

Wild, lashing snow, which thumps against the windshield

Like earth tossed down upon a coffin-lid,

Half clogs the wipers, and our Buick yaws,

On the black roads of 1928.

Father is driving, Mother, leaning out,

Tracks with her flashlight beam the pavement's edge,

And we must weather hours more of storm

To be in Baltimore for Christmastime.

Of the two children in the backseat, safe

Beneath a lap-robe, soothed by jingling chains

And by their parent's pluck and gaiety,

One is asleep. The other's half closed eyes

Make out at times the dark hood of the car

Ploughing the eddied flakes, and might foresee

The steady chugging of a landing craft

Through morning mist to the bombarded shore,

Or a deft prow that dances through the rocks

In the white water of the Allagash,

Or, in good time, the bedstead at whose foot

The world will swim and flicker and be gone.


Sometimes a poem fairly recently written needs a footnote for younger readers. I think many people hearing me read this haven't been sure what the jingling chains were about. They don't remember when there were tyre chains in the snowy and icy weather. The bombarded shore is either Anzio or the shore of Southern France near Fréjus and St Raphael. As for the canoe, which is dancing through the rocks of the Allagash, I must confess that I never canoed in the Allagash River, but I've done various adventuresome things and I have done some canoeing, and Allagash was simply the right sound at that point. It sounds like a lively river.


Acclaimed US poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) published many books and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He was less well known for creating a musical version of Voltaire's “Candide” with Bernstein and Hellman which is still produced throughout the world today.

Listeners: David Sofield

David Sofield is the Samuel Williston Professor of English at Amherst College, where he has taught the reading and writing of poetry since 1965. He is the co-editor and a contributor to Under Criticism (1998) and the author of a book of poems, Light Disguise (2003).

Tags: This Pleasing Anxious Being, Allagash River

Duration: 7 minutes, 34 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008