Richard Wilbur, among our most distinguished living poets and a longtime contributor to this magazine, celebrates his ninetieth birthday on March 1 of this year. As the snows of Wilbur’s western New England were slowly yielding to auguries of spring, I found myself thinking, on this portentous event, of a passage from his poem “The Event,” in which he tries to fix in words the elusive significance of a swirling flight of birds.
Let that be the image on this birthday card for Wilbur, with the first eight lines of the poem for inscribed text, culminating in a wondrous and multifaceted simile:
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!
Let others make the case for Wordsworth’s lonely cloud or Eliot’s etherized patient or Hughes’s raisin in the sun or Shakespeare’s summer’s day. My favorite simile in all of poetry is Wilbur’s “Like a drunken fingerprint across the sky!”
Effective similes always move in two diverging directions, helping us to see an object more clearly via a vivid comparison while at the same time distracting us by the very vividness of the other thing we’re invited to imagine. This happens all the time with Homer’s looping similes of bees and sheep, which take us far, far away from the killing fields of Troy and, then, drop us back, refreshed, for more horror and murderous mayhem. As Wilbur asks in another poem, “What, though for pain there is no other word, /Finds pleasure in the cruelest simile?”
We learn in high school that a simile is a comparison using “like” or “as,” that it is composed of two terms, tenor and vehicle, though no one can remember which is which. It doesn’t take long for it to dawn on us, however, that Wilbur’s drunken fingerprint has three parts: the birds and the fingerprint, obviously, but also the drunkenness. Do we imagine the birds as drunken, or the fingerprint? Or is it the poet-spectator who has drunk a little too much wine, like a woozy FBI investigator contemplating a suspect’s fingerprint? “It certainly looks like a match, but…”
In Wilbur’s poem, I see the birds in flight more clearly, as I imagine them, “with headlong and unanimous consent,” imitating the whorls and rivulets of a fingerprint. But then, for a split second, it’s as though the birds have flown away and I only see a giant fingerprint spread out against the otherwise empty sky.
In his lovely early sonnet “Praise in Summer,” Wilbur wondered why we needed such comparisons to see the world more clearly. Why, he asked, is there such “savor” in “this wrenching things awry./ Does sense so stale that it must needs derange/ The world to know it?” Apparently the answer is yes. The world must be renewed, made strange, or all of us are blind. “What is an individual thing?” In the poet’s imagination, at least, an individual thing is both itself and everything else that it resembles.
In one of his finest recent poems, “Lying,” Wilbur likens all literature to lying, made up of analogies and similes that equate one thing with something it’s clearly not: “Odd that a thing is most itself when likened.” Consider, for example, the onion: “How the shucked tunic of an onion, brushed/ To one side on a backlit chopping-boards/ And rocked by trifling currents, prints and prints/ Its bright, ribbed shadow like a flapping sail.” “Prints and prints…” Suddenly, for the first time, I notice the word “print” in that “drunken fingerprint,” the analogy with the imprint of poetry.
Looking for meaning in the patterns of birds in flight is an ancient form of divination, known as augury. When the Achaeans at the start of the Iliad are trying to figure out why Apollo is treating them so badly, showering them with plagues, they call on Calchas, “the clearest by far of all the seers/ who scan the flight of birds. He knew all things that are,/ all things that are past and all that are to come” (Book I, 80ff, Fagles translation). Wilbur’s opening simile of the cast of grain leaping back to the hand implies the vision of the augur, as do his closing lines:
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.
Actually, Wilbur’s drunken fingerprint draws on two kinds of divination. One is augury by reading the flight of birds. Another is palmistry, reading the future in the whorls of a person’s open hand. Perhaps there is a third kind of divination, or at least inspiration, in that Dionysian drunkenness, that mood in which we try, sometimes against our better judgment, to envision in the blurred mirror of a wineglass a future rife with possibility.
The mood of divination, of dreaming some larger pattern in the seemingly random events of the world, is at the heart of many of Wilbur’s most memorable poems, such as the recent and heartbreaking “The House” (in which a widower summons an imagined house from memories of his wife’s recurrent dreams) and such superb longer poems as “Advice to a Prophet,” “Walking to Sleep,” and “The Mind-Reader.”
And so, Richard Wilbur, strong dreamer, let our birthday greeting end with your own prayer from “Walking to Sleep”:
Let all things storm your thought with the moiled flocking
Of startled rookeries, or flak in air,
Or blossom-fall, and out of that come striding
In the strong dream by which you have been chosen.
Christopher Benfey is a contributing editor for The New Republic.