The Writer Richard Wilbur 1976

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One of the most praised poems in Richard Wilbur's collection The Mind-Reader, "The Writer" is both typical of Wilbur's scrupulous metaphors and unusual in its relaxed form. Wilbur is known for his careful and adroit formalism, so this poem seems unusual, as it neither rhymes nor adheres to a meter. Wilbur's tercets (three-line stanzas) are in a loose or accentual meter (moving freely between iambic and anapestic feet), with three, five, and three beats per line (see prosody and free verse). This is worth noting, against the com parative strictness of Wilbur's other poems, to show that one of poetry's most gifted formalists sometimes loosens the reins.

"The Writer" is more typical of Wilbur's work, however, in its strict and careful attention to metaphor. The poem opens by describing Wilbur's daughter, tentatively typing a story, as if writing meant setting out on a sea voyage: Her room is like the prow of a boat, the linden-tree outside toss like ocean-waves, the typewriter's clatter sounds like an anchor-chain dragged over the ship's edge. However, accuracy compels Wilbur to reject this first comparison in favor of another—a maneuver seen in other Wilbur pieces, such as "Mind" (1956), "The Mind-Reader" (1976), "Trolling for Blues," and "Lying" (both 1987). Hearing the intense silence between the bursts of typing—the pause while his daughter strains for the right words— Wilbur remembers a bird, a "dazed starling," that had been trapped in his daughter's room years ago. This starling, battering itself bloody against the windows until it finds the single open one, becomes the vehicle of a new metaphor: Wilbur realizes that his daughter, in her writing, is more like that wild and desperate creature than like a mercantile sailing-crew, and suc cess in her writing means a fortunate and graceful escape. For her, as for any writer, he remembers, "It is always a matter, my darling, / Of life or death." The distant rhyme between "darling" and "dazed starling" seems to confirm this comparison. Wilbur then wishes his daughter what he wished her earlier—"a safe pas-sage"—but, this time, as the stakes are higher, he wishes "harder." Grace Schulman has called this image "one of the best metaphors I know . . . for the creative process" (346), and it seems one of our poetry's most heartfelt benedictions for young writers.


Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. A Reader's Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.

Jensen, Ejner J. "Encounters with Experience: The Poems of Richard Wilbur." In Richard Wilbur's Creation, edited by Wendy Salinger. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983, pp. 243-264. Schulman, Grace. "'To Shake Our Gravity Up: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur." Nation 223 (October 9, 1976): 344-346. Wai, Isabella. "Wilbur's 'The Writer.'" Explicator 53.4 (summer 1995): 240-242.

Isaac Cates

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