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  • Raymond Obstfeld

Poem #3: Richard Wilbur's "The Writer"

Updated: Mar 17



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"The Writer" is a touching exploration of a successful writer coming to understand his young daughter's struggles to become a writer, and his helplessness in guiding her.


"The Writer" by Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,

My daughter is writing a story.


I pause in the stairwell, hearing From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys

Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.


Young as she is, the stuff Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:

I wish her a lucky passage.


But now it is she who pauses, As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.

A stillness greatens, in which


The whole house seems to be thinking, And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor

Of strokes, and again is silent.


I remember the dazed starling Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;

How we stole in, lifted a sash


And retreated, not to affright it; And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,

We watched the sleek, wild dark


And iridescent creature batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk-top,


And wait then, humped and bloody, For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits

Rose when suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back, beating a smooth course for the right window

And clearing the sill of the world.


It is always a matter, my darling, Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.


Why This Poem

Richard Wilbur has written so many great poems that it was very difficult for me to select which one of his to start with in this blog. Two others, “The Juggler” and “The Pardon,” are brilliant works of great depth and stunning artistic skill. I will include them later. But I’m starting with “The Writer” (1976) because it affects me more on an emotional level than the other two. Whenever I read this poem in class, I get to the last stanza and, even though I steel myself with admonishments of “Keep it together,” I always choke up. So, in keeping with the title of this blog—Poems That Move—I chose the one that moves me the most.


In general, I stay away from writing that is about writing. There’s something too self-pitying and self-aggrandizing about them: “Woe is me, look at the suffering I endure for my art!” Everyone suffers in every profession. What makes this poem an exception is that it isn’t about writing, it’s about parenting. The narrator starts off with a smug attitude about his place in the world, especially his relationship with his daughter, only to realize as the poem progresses that he misinterpreted everything. She’s not the one who learns the most during the poem—he is.


This poem is pretty straightforward so you probably don’t need any commentary from me. But I’m hoping that maybe I’ve presented a notion or two you might not have thought of.


What the Poem Means to Me

I have two children—a daughter in high school and son in college—both are writers. It would be easy for you to conclude that they are the reason I identify so strongly with this poem. It’s my actual life. You would be wrong. I have loved this poem long before I had children, long before I could even articulate why I loved it. What impressed me was the tone of love—even when misguided—and kindness here. Conflicts in poetry are usually much more dramatic, aggressive, brittle. Life and death, longing and suffering. The Big Themes. This is also big, but in a quiet more compassionate way.


I started writing before I started writing. I mean that I realized in elementary school that I preferred fantasy to real life. One evening I watched Peter Pan with Mary Martin and I knew from that moment on that Neverland was where I wanted to live. Pirates, adventure, fairies. The next day in school, all I could think about was Peter Pan and Neverland. Within a couple days, I couldn’t stand being at school because it kept me from imagining my adventures there. Unknown to my parents, when they thought I was getting the school bus, I doubled-back and hid in the basement all day. The real world of elementary school was too oppressive in its blandness. A few days later I got caught and was sent back to school. But Peter Pan’s adventures started me thinking that if I couldn’t really go to Neverland, I could recreate the feeling by drawing and writing. And so it began. Two-page stories, heavily illustrated with swords. A Civil War novel about a young bugler called Runaway Bugle. It ended up a concise ten pages. The best I could do as a third-grader.


I returned to writing in earnest when I was fourteen, after watching Of Mice and Men on TV. I cried so hard at the ending that I wanted to write something that would affect people the same way. The next day I wrote a one-act play about racism and suicide. Yuck! After that, I wrote a poem, though I still have no idea why I chose either the play or poem over the more obvious fiction. Oddly, I wrote the poem after coming back from rehearsing a play I was in at school. I showed it to a girl, she liked it, and that inspired me to keep writing poems. That’s right, I became a writer to impress girls. And it worked. Eventually, I branched out into fiction, non-fiction, screenplays, TV scripts, and comic books. Now I write to impress my wife and kids.


When my children come to me for advice about writing, I always think of this poem and it guides me in my reaction. I remember that they don’t need a professional writer advising them, they need a father. You’ll see what I mean in the poem.


All the biography you need to know for this poem

Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) published his first poem at the age of eight. Later, he graduated from Amherst, served overseas in the army during World War II, then received a master’s degree from Harvard University in 1947. He taught for over thirty years at Wellesley, Wesleyan, and Smith. Wilbur was also revered for his translations of 17th Century French playwrights Moliere and Jean Racine. He has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize (in 1957 and 1989), National Book Award in 1957, and many other honors. In 1987 he was named the nation’s second Poet Laureate.


Line-by-Line Musings (An Analysis)

The Writer (title)

Every English major learns never to attribute biographical knowledge about the author to the poem. A poem must stand on its own without any information about the writer. So, I can’t technically say that Richard Wilbur is the narrator of this poem or that it’s about his daughter Ellen, who is a writer (even though Wilbur said exactly that in a YouTube video

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kOOtgjfdqM). That goes against the sworn Code of English Teachers. And I agree with that code.


However…


Even though there is nowhere the poem specifically says the narrator is a writer, it seems to be implied by the patronizing isn’t-she-cute attitude he starts with. As if he knows better. And I will allow that because the narrator expresses himself in the first person in a poem. The poem itself is evidence.


Which is why the title describes both the father and the daughter. Then why isn’t it called “The Writers”? Because Wilbur wants us to think, at first, that this poem is about the daughter’s journey, only to realize at the end, it is about the father’s.


In her room at the prow of the house Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,

My daughter is writing a story.


The prow is the part of a ship’s bow (front) that is above the water. By

introducing this nautical term, the father is referring to his house as a ship, of

which he, of course, is the captain. Because she’s at the front of the “ship,”

which he is guiding as captain, she’s in a position of hope, heading for a bright

future (“Where the light breaks”).


I love the image of the light breaking, but the windows are tossed with linden,

as if obscuring the light somewhat. The father seems to be implying that her

vision of things may be compromised—probably by youth and inexperience

which is why it is up to him to guide her. Of course, he doesn’t yet recognize

that his own windows are tossed with linden and he doesn’t yet see what’s

really going on.


The simple declaration that “My daughter is writing a story,” which appears on

its own line, conveys his pride in her doing this creative act as well as following

in his literary footsteps. Also implied is that he is pride in his own ability to be

such a good captain/father to provide her the opportunity to write.


I pause in the stairwell, hearing From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys

Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.


He’s listening near her shut door to typewriter keys as she writes. What’s

interesting is how he describes it so dismissively. The sound is a “commotion”

not a melody, as if her typing was random, emotional, without thought.

Furthering his ship motif, he compares the sound of her typing to a chain being

hauled over a gunwhale (the upper edge of the side of a boat or ship). As if her

typing were hard unskilled labor, unlike his own implied grace.


Young as she is, the stuff Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:

I wish her a lucky passage.


Dad is being a bit patronizing here, referring to his daughter’s concerns as

vague “stuff.” He concedes that it is a “great cargo,” some of which is “heavy.”

But even that minimizes her emotional baggage as mostly not important in the

grand scheme of things. This is the way of most parents, who consider the

drama of school to be mostly manufactured and cliched. How often we tell our

kids that within a few years they won’t even remember what happened. But we

know that’s not completely true. There are battle scars of being a teenager that

never heal. The “stuff” of those formative years is as “heavy” for them as the

weight adults later bear.


His easy-breezy wish for her to have a “lucky passage” continues the nautical

motif that she is merely a passenger on his ship, too young to control her own

passage and therefore in need of luck.


But now it is she who pauses, As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.


This is the moment of realization for the father. The daughter pauses to think

about what she’s writing. He understands that her typing isn’t a commotion, but

passion tempered with thought. That pause rejects his entire characterization of

her writing and his simplistic characterization of her.


A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,


How terrific is the phrase “A stillness greatens” to describe the silence? He

doesn’t even use the word silence because it is so much more than that. The

stillness greatens implies a weight to the silence, a conjuring, a building of

power. Greatens isn’t just the increase in the stillness, but that the thinking

process it describes in the daughter greatens her, greatens what she’s writing.


“A stillness greatens” also describes the ominous feeling inside him as he slowly

realizes what he’s about to lose: the comforting notion that he is in control of

the house, of his daughter—of anything.


“The whole house seems to be thinking” because he is thinking about his

daughter’s thinking. By now he’s dropped the nautical conceit of the house as a

ship and he it’s steadfast and wizened captain. Now it’s just a house and two

people thinking.

And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor

Of strokes, and again is silent.


This time he describes her sudden flurry of typing as a “bunched clamor of

strokes,” a much more appreciative phrase than “commotion” or “a chain hauled

over a gunwhale.” “Bunched clamor” is more melodic, more deliberate. And the

word “strokes” implies a more artistic approach, like a painter.


I remember the dazed starling Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;


Here the father begins to recall a trapped starling. Of course, any story about a

bird trapped in a room is symbolic of trying to escape the confines of something

—toxic relationships, tradition, irrational society, etc.—to enjoy the freedom on

the other side of the window. See also a similar scene in the film Remains of the

Day when Anthony Hopkins as the English butler trapped by cultural tradition

helps free a bird and watches it with longing as it flies away.


The confines here are of the father’s own making: how he still sees her as a little

girl dabbling in art rather than serious about it. In this case, he will have to free

her from his outdated view of her, which in turn will free him from his outdated

view of himself as her captain. That freedom allows them to have a different,

more equal relationship.


How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;

And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,

What touches me about this almost too obvious metaphor is how he frames it

as an adventure the two of them shared. A father-daughter moment in which

he is teaching her, even without knowing it. He is teaching her that it is

worthwhile saving the starling, that they need to be patient and not try to

dominate the bird. Let it find its own way out. The key here is his admission that

they are “helpless,” just as he is helpless in guiding his daughter right now.


We watched the sleek, wild dark

And iridescent creature


His physical description of the bird is with the knowledge that he is also

describing his daughter: “sleek, wild dark, and iridescent creature.” The “wild

dark” suggests what’s hidden from him about his daughter, maybe even

deliberately hidden by her. Whichever it is, a part of her will always be

unknowable by him. Of course she’s “iridescent” to her, glimmering not just

because she’s his daughter, but in admiration for her artistic drive. “Creature”

tells us that he recognizes that she is separate from him, her own being, and

that much of her is as unknown to him as if she were a different species.


batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk-top,


The starling seems to be flapping against the window—“batter against the

brilliance”—in a futile effort to escape. So, too, does the daughter batter against

the typewriter keys in an attempt to express the brilliance in her mind. He’s not

calling her brilliant, but the ideas in a writer’s head are like a brilliant light that

the writer tries to translate into words. It’s always futile, always a losing cause.

All you can hope for is a rough approximation. The effort is exhausting and so

the bird and daughter drop.


And wait then, humped and bloody, For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits

Rose when suddenly sure,


The bird is “humped” into a ball of exhaustion, similar to the way his daughter

would be humped over the typewriter. Remember the pauses his daughter

made earlier before returning with a fury to type again? That is them waiting for

the bird to regain its “wits to try again.”


It’s a lovely moment when the father rejoices with “how our spirits/Rose” when

the bird—“suddenly sure”—takes flight. Like the practice of writing, there are

moments of clarity when the writer is certain, for now, of the right word, right

phrase, write plot path, and charges forward with confidence.


The father’s spirits rise now knowing his daughter is finding her own voice as

she heads toward the window. (Remember the linden-tossed windows of her

room that partially obscured the view?) But there is another meaning here: the

work itself—her story, this poem—also makes the readers’ spirits rise. It’s a

story within a story within a story. Living the starling experience with his

daughter made their spirits rise; retelling it in the context of his daughter as the

starling makes his spirt rise; the reader experiencing his epiphany and soaring

spirit makes our spirit rise.


It lifted off from a chair-back, beating a smooth course for the right window

And clearing the sill of the world.


The “sill of the world” is the vast world of experience outside the window for

both the bird and the daughter.


It is always a matter, my darling, Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.


What always chokes me up in this stanza is his inclusion of “my darling.” It is an

unexpected moment of true intimacy, not from a captain swaggering around his

ship, but of a humbled father who must accept that he no longer is all-powerful

over his daughter, that she has become her own person. That acceptance is

bittersweet, of course, because he’s happy she’s maturing—it means he’s done

your job. But it also means he can’t go back to the relationship he once had.

That part of his purpose is now gone and he is once again “helpless.” (Side note:

I also like how “darling” rhymes with “starling.”)


He realizes not to be dismissive of his daughter’s drama and conflicts, that her

issues are as important and impactful to her as his are to him. Every age group

looks back on the conflicts they had at various times and wonder, “What was all

the fuss about?” Each decade we get older provides a smug platform from

which to gave backward.


When he says, “I wish/What I wished you before, but harder,” he’s

acknowledging that he will have less ability to protect her now. He may also be

commenting on the difficulties of the life of a writer, or any artist, in facing the

daily self-scrutiny involved in creating art.


The ending reminds me of the ending of John Updike’s short story, “A&P.” After

19-year-old grocery store checker Sammy watches the pious manager berate

three young girls in bathing suits for not dressing decently, he quits. It’s a

spontaneous action brought on by a contempt for the store and the customers

whom he considers moral sheep without any thoughts of their own. When he

walks out of the store, he looks back:


Looking back in the big windows, over the bags of peat moss and

aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement, I could see Lengel

in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark

gray and his back stiff, as if he'd just had an injection of iron, and my

stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me

hereafter.


What he sees shakes him: he’s easily replaced. His big gesture had no effect of

the grocery store nor anyone else. He tells us earlier in the story that he knows

he made the right choice, but he also acknowledges how hard the world will be

on him because a person who makes their own moral choices, especially if they

go against the social norm, will have a hard life. The consequences of eating the

fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is to be marginalized by those

who don’t. Though probably not related, whenever I read that line, “I wish/What

I wished you before, but harder,” I think of this. Maybe from now on, you will,

too.

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