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#10 Richard Wilbur “The Lilacs”


I’m always kind of suspicious at poems with weird formation on the page. Not because I don’t think it’s interesting and useful, but at the same time, if it doesn’t change the way one reads the poem why do it? It’s like those weird enjambments or ending a stanza in the middle of a sentence. If one is still going to read the line as a whole statement then it doesn’t matter how “interesting” it looks, the enjambment doesn’t mean anything and it’s just putting on airs.
I feel like we treat the writing of a poem as a thing in itself without realizing the purpose. We write poems so that people can read them correctly without us being there and line breaks, punctuation, stanza breaks, etc. are all so that the reader can know what this poem is supposed to sound like. It’s basically sheet music. If a song doesn’t stop in the middle there’s no reason a staff would break off in the middle and start again on the next line.


So I don’t know how I feel about “The Lilacs”. I can see that it may be a sort of representation of the lilacs being “in staggered file”, but I guess I would have to hear the poem read to know if that’s truly important, though the left side of the poem can be read as a poem in and of itself, so that heartens me to see the division of the poem create an effect that has some rime and reason.


Those laden lilacs
                        at the lawn’s end
Came stark, spindly,
                     and in staggered file,
Like walking wounded
                        from the dead of winter.
We watched them waken
                     in the brusque weather
To rot and rootbreak,
                     to ripped branches,
And I saw them shiver
                    as the memory swept them
Of night and numbness
                    and the taste of nothing.
Out of present pain
                       and from past terror
Their bullet-shaped buds
                    came quick and bursting,
As if they aimed
                       to be open with us!
But the sun suddenly
                    settled about them,
And green and grateful
                       the lilacs grew,
Healed in that hush,
                    that hospital quiet.
These lacquered leaves
                    where the light paddles
And the big blooms
                    buzzing among them
Have kept their counsel,
                      conveying nothing
Of their mortal message,
                   unless one should measure
The depth and dumbness
                   of death’s kingdom
By the pure power
                   of this perfume.


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