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Poetry readings: Digging for China


Poetry readings: opposites poems and playful poems
Richard Wilbur Poet
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Well now, something about children. We've had four children, all quite wonderful. The fourth had the bad luck to be born autistic, but he's come along pretty well and is perhaps the most cheerful of us all.

All during the time our children were growing up, I did a great deal of playing with them and reading to them, and found that it kept me playful and flexible, as we ought to be. Children I think have a strong sense of order, have a desire for order. At the same time, I think that they like to play around with it, indeed play against it. It's a child who notices that the emperor has no new clothes, and I think of, of Alice at the end of the second Alice book saying, 'You're nothing but a pack of cards'. Every now and then a child finds it very refreshing to say that to the world and to its presumptive order. That's why my children liked to hear me read Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear to them. They highly relished nonsense and any other way of testing the conventional order of things. They were fond of riddles and I wrote some poems to entertain them and to appeal to this side of the child. Let's see if I can find some good specimens. Well, I wrote some poems called Opposites, and I probably can't find exactly the, the opposite which will explain the form, but... now here's one I like.

I wonder if you've ever seen a 
Willow sheltering a hyena?
Nowhere in nature can be found 
An opposition more profound: 
A sad tree weeping inconsolably! 
A wild beast laughing uncontrollably!

I don't know whether that puts anything in question as an opposites poem is meant to do. I think poetry of this kind is meant to shake up your sense of reality a little, shake up your sense of order and of what is opposite to what, and then of course refresh your sense of what the order of things is.

When you are playing on a harp, 
The opposite of flat is sharp, 
And both sound very good if they 
Are what the music says to play. 
But when you think it's time to stop 
And drink a bit of soda pop, 
How bad the thought of flatness is!
A soda should be full of fizz.

Maybe I'll read also some specimens of a kind of playful poem I wrote more recently. I had put out a little book called The Disappearing Alphabet, and... well, you'll see from the samples I give what the strategy is.

What if there were no letter A?
Cows would eat HY instead of HAY. 
What's HY? It's an unheard of diet, 
And cows are happy not to try it.

Now, that doesn't really profoundly shake our sense of what hay is or what cows are, but at least it makes a kind of an attack on the word hay and shakes it up for a moment.

What if the letter Q should be destroyed? 
Millions of U's would then be unemployed, 
for Q and U belong like tick and tock, 
Except, of course in places like Iraq.

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: Opposites, The Disappearing Alphabet, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear

Duration: 4 minutes, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008