Nine years ago, I stood on the steps in front St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, looking east down the Via della Conciliazione in the twilight, and I saw something very much like this:
I was mesmerized.
I remember gazing and gazing, drinking in the strange juxtaposition of that wild, restless image with the stately columns of Bernini’s colonnade–the whole scene washed in that special golden light that settles on Rome in the autumn evenings. I remember trying to describe what I had seen to my friends who were back on campus south of Rome, to my parents back in Boston, to my journal, to God. “That’s neat,” they said. Or, “Wow, I’ll look out for that next time I’m in the city.” Or, “Beautiful, honey.” And, of course, God didn’t need me to explain it to Him.
It wasn’t until a year later, however, back in Dallas, that I discovered words that gestured at what I had seen. They were written by a poet who lived in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, who had visited Rome himself back in the 1950’s. And I knew at once he had seen it too:
An Event As if a cast of grain leapt back to the hand, A landscapeful of small black birds, intent On the far south, convene at some command At once in the middle of the air, at once are gone With headlong and unanimous consent From the pale trees and fields they settled on. What is an individual thing? They roll Like a drunken fingerprint across the sky! Or so I give their image to my soul Until, as if refusing to be caught In any singular vision of my eye Or in the nets and cages of my thought, They tower up, shatter, and madden space With their divergences, are each alone Swallowed from sight, and leave me in this place Shaping these images to make them stay: Meanwhile, in some formation of their own, They fly me still, and steal my thoughts away. Delighted with myself and with the birds, I set them down and give them leave to be. It is by words and the defeat of words, Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt, That for a flying moment one may see By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.
That poet’s name is Richard Wilbur, and he died this past Saturday.
How lovingly he shows us in “An Event” what it is like to see starlings swirling in the twilight: they appear “as if a cast of grain leapt back to the hand” or “like a drunken fingerprint across the sky” (1, 8). Just savor those two images for a moment. Grain, going back into the hand that cast it! A fingerprint, drunkenly scrawled across the sky–both intricate and unpredictable! How well he captures their wildness and strangeness and beauty!
And yet how humbly the speaker admits that even his words cannot capture the birds or their movements: they “refus[e] to be caught / In any singular vision of my eye / Or in the nets and cages of my thought” (10-12). Indeed they, like all truly beautiful wild things, abandon us and the poet as well: they “leave me in this place / Shaping these images to make them stay: / Meanwhile, in some formation of their own, / They fly me still, and steal my thoughts away” (15-18). The poet, “shap[es] [his] images” to pin down what he sees, but even a master like Wilbur realizes that this is a futile endeavor. The birds themselves have their own sort of poetry, their own sort of “formation”, and their language forever eludes us.
Note how the speaker’s tone shifts throughout the poem: he is full of wonder in the first stanza as he gazes upon them–in the second, as soon as he takes his eyes of the birds and thinks of himself, he falters a bit; he is unsure, abashed: “Or so I give their image to my soul” (9). Perhaps his image is inadequate. And when he realizes his words really aren’t doing the birds justice at all, that these starlings refuse “to be caught” in any fancy metaphor or poetic device, that they “shatter” and “madden” space itself “with their divergences”, he admits a touch of loneliness and even a sense of deprivation in the third stanza (13-14). They have left him, and they refuse to remain with him even in his words on the page.
But then it’s that last stanza, with its rather sudden hopeful turn, that is so characteristically Wilbur.
The speaker is “Delighted“–not only with those beautiful birds, but even with himself, in the very face of failure (19). Wilbur delights not only in the natural world, but in the human capacity to love it, however imperfectly. And so he gives the birds “leave to be.” Their beauty and strangeness is beyond his power to articulate, and that is just fine.
Yet this gentle acquiescence is not some sort of meta-poetic anti-noetic white flag. The battle we wage with words isn’t over, even if we are always bound to lose.
Wilbur reminds us that “It is by words and the defeat of words” that we arrive at some small revelation of truth. It is worth it to write poetry, to write music, to write anything, to speak at all–to try to honor, with our feeble syntax and impoverished vocabularies, the reality we see and feel.
Even if only for a “flying moment”, Wilbur assures us that we can glimpse the strange “cross-purposes” that mysteriously dreamt up our mysterious world. And that brief look is worth the ultimate defeat of all our words.
Best Article I’ve read on Richard Wilbur: “God’s Patient Stet”