Wilbur’s “A Wood”

In “Waking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations(1969)” and “The Mind-Reader: New Poems (1976)” Wilbur, as the title indicates, introduces a number of translations to his work. Wikipedia notes, that he is known not only for his translation of poems but of several French plays. Personally, I found the translations less interesting than his own poems, but that’s probably largely a matter of personal taste.

Although I didn’t find any poems that stood out from the rest as in the earlier collections, I did find numerous poems that I enjoyed. My favorite poems usually deal with nature as does:


Some would distinguish nothing here but oaks,
Proud heads conversant with the power and glory
Of heaven’s rays or heaven’s thunderstrokes,
And adumbrators to the understory,
Where, in their shade, small trees of modest leanings
Contend for light and are content with gleanings.

And yet here’s dogwood: overshadowed, small,
But not inclined to droop and count its losses,
It cranes its way to sunlight after all,
And signs the air of May with Maltese crosses.
And here’s witch hazel, that from underneath
Great vacant boughs will bloom in winter’s teeth.

Given a source of light so far away
That nothing, short or tall, comes very near it,
Would it not take a proper fool to say
That any tree has not the proper spirit?
Air, water, earth and fire are to be blended,
But no one style, I think, is recommended.

I must admit I’m somewhat ambivalent about Wilbur’s formal style. It’s hard not to admire his ability to rhyme without allowing the rhymes to intrude into the poem, as they so often do, but when combined with phrases like “adumbrators to the understory” and “Maltese crosses” it begins to intrude upon the content of the poem.

Despite that, the poem offers a delightful observation, one that’s seldom made. “Mighty oaks” has become a cliché because past poets emphasized their majestic strength, their longevity. And it’s not only poets who have perpetuated these clichés. Just consider this purple passage, for instance.

Unfortunately, there’s a natural tendency to notice the obvious and ignore the hidden, to value the mighty and devalue the weak, to prefer the ostentatious to the subtle. It takes the artist to convince us of the value, and the beauty, of all.