Saturday, June 23, 2018

V 8 N. 39 A Poem on Running by Richard Wilbur

John Cobley sent us this note and poem on running by Richard Wilbur, one of America's much honored poets.  For more on Mr. Wilbur, you can simply follow the google trail.   Mr. Cobley writes one of the best distance running blogs to be found on the internet,  He was once a teammate of Lasse Viren at BYU.

Running, According to a Great American Poet.

Richard Wilbur (1921-2016) was one of the finest poets of the 20th century. In 1969, at the age of 48, he  published the poem “Running” in Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations.

The poem is divided into three parts that are set in 1933, 1957 and 1969 respectively. These three parts correspond to Wilbur’s childhood (age 12), adulthood (age 36) and middle age (48).

The poem expresses his regret as a middle-aged man that it’s too late for him to take advantage of one of life’s pleasure’s—running. In the first part he equates childhood running during outdoor games with happiness. In the second part he watches the Boston Marathon with his son and feels shame that he’s watching when he could be running. In the third part he is out for a jog and feeling his age when he slows to a walk on hearing “boy-shouts.” This reminds him that he would still like to have that feeling of youth that comes from running. However, “the god of that” has left him and all he can do is vicariously experience the joy of running through the two boys—the joy of running that he had experienced at age 12.


I.  1933
(North Caldwell, New Jersey)

What were we playing? Was it prisoner’s base?
I ran with whacking keds
Down the cart-road past Rickard’s place,
And where it dropped beside the tractor-sheds

Leapt out into the air above a blurred
Terrain, through jolted light,
Took two hard lopes, and at the third
Spanked off a hummock-side exactly right,

And made the turn, and with delighted strain
Sprinted across the flat
By the bull-pen, and up the lane.
Thinking of happiness, I think of that.

“Keds” refers to an old make of sport shoe or gym shoe
“lopes” surely is wrong here. A lope is a stride but it’s gentle and easy. The boy here is sprinting and leaping.
“whacking,” “spanked”: interesting choice of words to convey the sound of his running. Both words also suggest, especially for kids, physical punishment.

(Wellesley, Massachusetts)

Restless that noble day, appeased by soft
Drinks and tobacco, littering the grass
While the flag snapped and brightened far aloft,
We waited for the marathon to pass,

We fathers and our little sons, let out
Of school and office to be put to shame.
Now from the street-side someone raised a shout,
And into view the first small runners came.

Dark in the glare, they seemed to thresh in place
Like preening flies upon a window-sill,
Yet gained and grew, and at a cruel pace
Swept by us on their way to Heartbreak Hill—

Legs driving, fists at port, clenched faces, men,
And in amongst them, stamping on the sun,
Our champion Kelley, who would win again,
Rocked in his will, at rest within his run.

“fists at port”: fists at rest—like ships in a port.

(Cummington, Massachusetts)

I jog up out of the woods
To the crown of the road, and slow to a swagger there,
The wind harsh and cool to my throat,
A good ache in my rib-cage.

Loud burden of streams at run-off,
And the sun’s rocket frazzled in blown tree-heads:
Still I am part of that great going,
Though I stroll now, and am watchful.

Where the road turns and debouches,
The land sinks westward into exhausted pasture.
From fields which yield to aspen now
And pine at last will shadow,

Boy-shouts reach me, and barking.
What is the thing which men will not surrender?
It is what they have never had, I think,
Or missed in its true season,

So that their thoughts turn in
At the same roadhouse nightly, the same cloister,
The wild mouth of the same brave river
Never now to be charted.

You, whoever you are,
If you want to walk with me you must step lively.
I run, too, when mood offers,
Though the god of that has left me.

But why in the hell spoil it?
I make a clean gift of my young running
To the two boys who break into view,
Hurdling the rocks and racing,

Their dog dodging before them
This way and that, his yaps flushing a pheasant
Who lifts now from the blustery grass
Flying full tilt already.

Richard Wilbur, 1969

“swagger”: walk proudly
“frazzled”: worn out
“debouches”: emerges into the open

Asking John's permission to use his comments on the poem, he replied,  
George: You are welcome to do that—as long as you think my notes aren’t too “teacherly.” There’s a lot more I could have written about the poem.  For example, why did he choose to mention Heartbreak Hill? Why did he spend so much time describing the landscape in the third poem? John"

  " John, I'd also like to know why Wilbur didn't add to the poem as he progressed further down the aging path.   Perhaps he wrote so many other poems he forgot about this one?  Or he sensed it was complete.   How much would we  give to be 48 again and full of the fire of youth?     When he used the word 'port' in the first poem to describe the runners' arms, I sensed the military term   'port arms'  which is a postion a soldier holds a rifle in front of himself as he runs or double times with the rifle.  The arms come up and are bent much as if you were running long distance. George"

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