Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Richard Wilbur, Great American Poet: An Appreciation

I read in the New York Times this week of the death at 96 of the great American poet, Richard Wilbur. Wilbur was a former poet laureate of the United States, a two time Pulitzer Prize winner and a National Book Award winner, who published numerous volumes of poetry, as well as children's books, translations of Moliere plays, and song lyrics. He teamed with Leonard Bernstein as the lyricist for the Broadway musical, Candide. Wilbur held a special place in my heart, not only because of his great poetry, but also because he was one of the very few great American poets that I actually got to meet and talk to.

In 1967, Wilbur was a visiting artist at the Spring Arts Festival at Bloomsburg State College (now University), where I was a sophomore history major and aspiring actor. As part of the Festival, and as a way to honor Wilbur, the Bloomsburg Players were putting on Wilbur's translation of Tartuffe, by Moliere. As a member of the cast, I was invited to a seminar that Wilbur gave on campus, just a dozen students sitting around a table and chatting about poetry and plays.

Wilbur was central casting for my youthful idea of "poet." He was in his forties then, quite handsome and urbane, wearing a turtle neck and patch sleeved sport coat, and smoking a pipe. His voice was deep, resonant, friendly and authoritative. I clearly remember that day that Wilbur discussed one of his poems, The Juggler.

The Juggler 
A ball will bounce; but less and less. It's not
A light-hearted thing, resents its own resilience.
Falling is what it loves, and the earth falls
So in our hearts from brilliance,
Settles and is forgot.
It takes a sky-blue juggler with five red balls

To shake our gravity up. Whee, in the air
The balls roll around, wheel on his wheeling hands,
Learning the ways of lightness, alter to spheres
Grazing his finger ends,
Cling to their courses there,
Swinging a small heaven about his ears.

But a heaven is easier made of nothing at all
Than the earth regained, and still and sole within
The spin of worlds, with a gesture sure and noble
He reels that heaven in,
Landing it ball by ball, ,
And trades it all for a broom, a plate, a table.

Oh, on his toe the table is turning, the broom's
Balancing up on his nose, and the plate whirls
On the tip of the broom! Damn, what a show, we cry:
The boys stamp, and the girls
Shriek, and the drum booms
And all come down, and he bows and says good-bye.

If the juggler is tired now, if the broom stands
In the dust again, if the table starts to drop
Through the daily dark again, and though the plate
Lies flat on the table top,
For him we batter our hands
Who has won for once over the world's weight. 
I remember, in particular, Wilbur telling us that he tried to get that last line "Who has won for once over the world's weight" to sound like a ball bouncing on a floor, less and less, until it finally stops still. The poem is typical of Wilbur's poetry: formal. witty, spiritual, but not preachy, and absolutely virtuosic in its command of form.
When I became a teacher, I discovered that Wilbur also wrote (and illustrated) books for children, including his series called, Opposites, which I would often use in class.
Some Opposites

What is the opposite of riot?
It is lots of people keeping quiet.

The opposite of doughnut? Wait
A minute while I meditate
This isn’t easy. Ah! I’ve found it.
It’s a cookie with a hole around it.

What is the opposite of two?
A lonely me, a lonely you.

The opposite of a cloud could be
A white reflection in the sea
Or a huge blueness in the air
Caused by the cloud’s not being there

The opposite of opposite?
That’s much too difficult. I quit.
In Wilbur's translation of Moliere's Tartuffe, I got to speak these lines.
Enough, by God! I am through with pious men!
Henceforth I'll hate the whole false brotherhood,
And persecute them worse than Satan could.
My character was a fool who had been duped by a false prophet. Not all were so taken in by the would be cleric's  piety. The young Damis says this:
Good God! Do you expect me to submit
To the tyranny of that carping hypocrite?
Must we forego all joys and satisfactions
Because that bigot censures all our actions?
Great fun and simply a joy to perform.
Richard Wilbur was a great poet who deserves to be celebrated, but most importantly read. If you were looking to buy just one volume of his work, I would recommend New and Collected Poems, one of his two Pulitzer Prize winning volumes.
I'll finish this piece with one more of my favorites.
The Boy at a Window
Seeing the snowman standing all alone
In dusk and cold is more than he can bear.
The small boy weeps to hear the wind prepare
A night of gnashings and enormous moan.
His tearful sight can hardly reach to where
The pale-faced figure with bitumen eyes
Returns him such a God-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to paradise.

The man of snow is, nonetheless, content,
Having no wish to go inside and die.
Still, he is moved to see the youngster cry.
Though frozen water is his element,
He melts enough to drop from one soft eye
A trickle of the purest rain, a tear
For the child at the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear.                         

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sunshine Patriots

These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. - Thomas Paine, The American Crisis

In The American Crisis, Tom Paine was, of course, writing about the events leading up to the Revolutionary War some 250 years ago, but I have always thought that "summer soldier and sunshine patriot" line could be applied to many contemporary "patriots."   I am thinking, in part, of those Americans who stand for the national anthem at sporting events with their hat in one hand and a beer in the other and who think that that is an act of patriotism. 

I would have to think that our founding fathers would laugh. They understood that true acts of patriotism required commitment and risk. That real patriotism meant taking action, not standing idly by. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine have more in common with Colin Kaepernick than they do with Donald Trump. Yes, all of these men are flawed human beings, but four of these flawed creatures were and are fighting for America to live up to its own ideals and one is using the guise of patriotism to attack the true patriots and to appeal to the basest instincts of those who think patriotism means "my country right or wrong."

Let's get this straight. We do not dishonor the flag or the veterans who fought under it in all of our wars by taking a knee during a sporting event. We do the most to dishonor the flag when we allow the flag to stand as a symbol of discrimination and inequality. What did our veterans fight for, if not for "liberty and justice for all?" We do our flag and our veterans the greatest honor by continuing to fight for that great American ideal. If Donald Trump does not understand this, he is the "sunshine patriot" in chief.

One place that this controversy will surely appear soon is the public schools. Schools are the places where the playing of the National Anthem and other symbolic patriotic activities, like the Pledge of Allegiance, are daily occurrences. How do teachers respond? How do administrators respond when the inevitable happens and students start to take a knee? We've already seen how one school district in Louisiana is responding, by threatening students with disciplinary action if they choose to exercise their rights.

I have always thought that our job as teachers is to clearly set forth to children what the American ideals are, to inform them about the many ways we have lived up to those ideals and the many ways that we have failed to live up to those ideals and then show them the tools the Constitution and the laws of this country provide for us to try to protect those successes and correct those failures.

Early in my teaching career, I taught a high school freshman course in Civics and American Government. As a part of that course, we studied the Bill of Rights. The first amendment of that document says the following.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

After we read this, I asked the students that if the Bill of Rights says that "Congress shall make no law concerning the establishment of religion", why were we required to say The Pledge of Allegiance, including the words "under God" every morning at the start of the school day?

I then provided a little history. The Pledge of Allegiance, originally drafted in 1893 and revised several times over the years until it was approved for recitation in the schools by Congress in 1942, did not include the words "under God." It was only in 1954, with the country in the grip of the communist witch hunt known as McCarthyism, that Congress decided to add these two words. The argument was that these words would distinguish the US from godless communism. Almost since the words were first added, various groups and individuals have challenged the constitutionality of having school children recite a pledge that included these words.

Should I have raised this issue with 14 year-olds. Many would likely say no, but if we are truly in the education business to provide an educated citizenry that can carry on the greatest democracy the world has ever known, it seems to me these citizens in training need experience in analyzing and questioning the actions of their government. Besides it does no good to lie or sugar coat history with these children, for those lies will turn to resentment once these young people inevitably discover the truth.

To recognize that the USA is not perfect is not unpatriotic. To want the country to do better by all of its people is not unpatriotic. In fact, to recognize it and to do something about, such as taking a knee at a nationally televised football game or taking a seat in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, or declaring your independence from a tyrannical king, is a very patriotic thing to do and in the grandest traditions of this country's true patriots.

I would like to see all school children learn this - the true nature of patriotism.