Feb 1, 2010

"Still, Citizen Sparrow" by Richard Wilbur


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.


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Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what the hell it means, but I like the rhythm and the words.

At first I thought maybe talkers vs doers. But no, Wilbur is too precise about the vulture task. But surely he doesn't mean to restrict it to professions.

Banjo52 said...

AH, I probably went too far by specifying garbage collectors and undertakers, although the comparison interests me.

I wanted readers to appreciate Wilbur's imagination and logic in seeing buzzards as heroes and linking them to Noah, via the idea of heroes as those who do what's difficult and dirty, soaring and solitary. And essential.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I've been thinking on/annoyed by this poem all day. Why does a vulture have to remind a sparrow of his (the vulture's) value? There are some big scavenger smelly annoying bigger animals in my life - and I don't like them any better when they remind me of my insignificance to them. They might be heroes... but what does it change? Am I supposed to feel the vulture's weariness?

Anonymous said...

Ok, now you've bothered both Bren & me. I soared with this part:

and at the tall
Tip of the sky lie cruising. Then you'll see
That no more beautiful bird is in heaven's height,
No wider more placid wings, no watchfuller flight;

Until it takes you down with all the carrion imagery. Is it very simple? Not a metaphor, just we humans are too pejorative in that which we witness in nature? We can't appreciate beauty if it has any association with death? (or, ugh, eating death?)

Anonymous said...

Oh, I hate I can't zap my comments on your site, because I would have zapped that.

I think this guy was looking at a Nat'l Geographic program. And instead of appreciating the beauty of the wildcat in pursuit, the economy with which he catches the prey, and his joy in tearing into the stomach, all we can think is, "Oh, poor wildebeast."

Banjo52 said...

Brenda and AH, you're making sense to me, even if you're not quite sharing my enthusiasm for the poem.

It's probably significant that Wilbur chooses a scavenger rather than a predator. The heroism is more unexpected that way, AND we don't have to see the hero as a killer, a predator like Brenda's "bigger animals," which surely we all have in our lives.

Even so, we have to see a creature who operates in an arena most of us don't even like to mention. We create euphemisms.

"What does it change?" Maybe nothing except our awareness of ourselves, our mortality, and the fact of others who carry on, who "git 'er done," carrion or not, rotten office or not--maybe a little like the father in "Those Winter Sundays" and "love's austere and lonely offices."

AH, nicely clever on National Geographic stuff. As for the Wildebeests, ever notice that the herd of dozens or hundreds stands there and watches 1 - 4 lions eat one of their babies?

In one remarkable video, one Wildebeest gets pissed off, takes on a lion, enough to intimidate it and shoo it away, and saves the baby Wildebeest. But that episode is remarkable because it's rare. Right? Aren't the multitudes more likely to be sparrows or the typical Wildebeests?

So, Brenda, I imagine that Wilbur, among other things, WOULD want us to feel the vulture's, the hero's, loneliness . . . (Let's assume Wilbur's vulture is not one of your "annoying bigger animals" . . . Love it. On the other hand, I don't want one for a pet. Ever get somewhat close to really see one of the "naked headed ones"?).

Lovely language notwithstanding, it's a gritty poem.

Might it be celebrating those who defend palm trees against politicians and developers or those who train family dogs into nursing home service?

Probably too much soap box. Sorry.

Banjo52 said...

P.S. Should I fetch the Wilbur poem about the toad caught in the lawn mower blade . . . ???

Was that wicked? That was wicked, wasn't it. I apologize.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Nah, that one I want to read.
Unless it is gory.

Oh hell,never mind.
Can't we go on to some Tennyson? Or my all time favorite, Anonymous?

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