Poems for Pleasure 9
Richard Wilbur, born New York, 1921, has long been a favourite poem maker. He fought with the American forces during WW II and went on to be a university lecturer after being demobbed. Wilbur has been regularly criticized, ever since Randall Jarrell complained that "he never goes far enough," for having avoided the serious issues of the modern world, for being too oblique or emblematic in his approach to contemporary problems, or, in comparison to such poets as Lowell, Berryman, Plath, and Ginsberg, for not suffering enough. This is what Jarrell says of Wilbur: “What he says about his childhood is true of his maturity:
‘In my kind world the dead were out of range/And I could not forgive the sad or strange/In beast or man.’ This compulsion limits his poems; and yet it is this compulsion, and not merely his greater talent and skill, that differentiates him so favorably from the controlled, accomplished, correct poets who are common nowadays.” (From Randall Jarrell, "Fifty Years of American Poetry," The Third Book of Criticism (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970, 331-332.)
The poem I wish to recall here is a brilliant subversive poem called “First Snow in Alsace.” I have always loved war poetry ever since my old college lecturer in English, Mr. John Devitt introduced me to the greats of such poetry like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and WW 1 poets and the wonderful Randall Jarrell of whom I’ve written in these pages before. However, I was really smitten by the subversion of this wonderfully strong, unique and somewhat disquieting poem. Enough words – now to the poem itself:
First Snow in Alsace
The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.
Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.
As if it did not know they'd changed,
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.
The ration stacks are milky domes;
Across the ammunition pile
The snow has climbed in sparkling combs.
You think: beyond the town a mile
Or two, this snowfall fills the eyes
Of soldiers dead a little while.
Persons and persons in disguise,
Walking the new air white and fine,
Trade glances quick with shared surprise.
At children's windows, heaped, benign,
As always, winter shines the most,
And frost makes marvelous designs.
The night guard coming from his post,
Ten first-snows back in thought, walks slow
And warms him with a boyish boast:
He was the first to see the snow.
Alsace is a place where much suffering was endured during many wars, so the title brings us into the worst nightmares of man. At one and the same time, however, the snow is offering some comfort as well as artificial covering. This poem is subversive for me because it suggests, contrary to my convictions, that the snow can be more than an artificial covering, that it can be healing and curative to some extent in bringing the sensitivities of soldiers back to their first childhood experiences of the wonderful mystique of the snow experience. This is almost anathema for me because I have been transfixed by the horrors of Owens’ wonderful depictions of what he terms “the pity of war”. I’m inclined to agree with Jarrell that this positive vision in avoiding the awful pain of war limits his poems. Yet this subversion of the natural and horrific depiction of war suggests a wish to transcend and transform the sad world humankind have created.