Feb 1, 2010
Although I predict that several of Richard Wilbur's poems are canon-fodder (that is, immortal--I couldn't resist playing with Falstaff's words), I especially admire "Still, Citizen Sparrow," which offers the scavenging vulture as a hero in whose shadow mere sparrows are told to be still.
In "Still" as the opening word, there is more muscularity of language, more purposeful ambiguity and layered meaning, than I find in many entire poems, especially those we politely call "conversational." First and foremost, I hear "Still" as "Be still," an instruction to the chattering sparrows, who are that most mediocre of things, "citizens." Shut up and behold the hovering vulture as he lords ("Lords"?) it over trivial you with his necessary, purgative work.
However, that meaning of "Still" doesn't hold up grammatically; we'd need a semicolon or period after the command to "citizen sparrow." So the literal and grammatically sensible meaning is probably, "Even so, citizen sparrow . . . ." It's an introduction to the more elaborate argument that follows. It's as if the sparrows, just before the poem begins, have proposed their own cuteness along with the vulture's grotesqueness, whereupon Wilbur's speaker is offering a counter-argument. "Oh yeah? Well, consider this about Mr. Vulture, whom you call ugly . . . ."
I won't continue with this kind of attention to detail or I'll never finish. But do, please, take time to admire a couple of gems:
". . . lumber again to air / Over the rotten office . . . ." What could better capture the rhythm of the buzzard's flight than "lumber" or the brutal accuracy of its mission than "rotten office"? Remove the carcass in order to eat it: ". . . bear / The carrion ballast up . . . ." And because the vulture's the hero who does the dirty work, he is able to "lie cruising" at the "Tip of the sky."
". . . the frightfully free // The naked-headed one . . . ." Maybe he's "frightfully" free because what he does seems, or is, "unnatural." It's not just garbage collection; it's also something like cannibalism, and by virtue of this shredding and munching, the hero "mocks mutability." Death? I laugh at it. I casually eat Death and cruise on.
". . . childheart . . . bedlam hours . . . slam of his hammer . . . " All of those am sounds are verbal sledge hammers against the chirpy multitudes of sparrows, who, in their small lives, might protest, "Oh, Buzzard, stop preparing for heroism--we sparrows can't sleep (or chatter) with the slam of your hammer going on and on and on."
And these bits of elegance speak for themselves, I think:
How high and weary it was . . .
He rocked his only world, and everyone's.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew . . .
Wilbur proclaims that sparrows didn't know much. They haven't "rocked" anything; they know nothing of "high and weary" labor--or the soaring that goes with it. Trash collectors and undertakers probably know a lot more than most of us. Odd as it may seem, the poem is an apotheosis of those who tidy up after messes, including our corpses. And there we find the vulture glorified as the lofty, silent one, the solitary Noah among us nattering nabobs of sparrow-hood..
As something of a skeptic about heroes, I don't know how much I agree with Wilbur's argument, but I admire its creative logic and presentation, the power of its imperatives ("Do this; do that"), the poem's passion bucking against the constraints of its formal structure, just as its argument bucks against the expectations of most of us, who might like a sparrow in the back yard rather than a buzzard, no matter that the sparrow makes messes while the buzzard cleans them up.