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Analysis of the Poem "The Writer" by Richard Wilbur

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Richard Wilbur and A Summary of The Writer

The Writer is Richard Wilbur's metaphorical exploration of what it is to be a writer, of the challenge a writer faces, especially when that writer is a family member, a daughter.

The poem takes the reader directly into a house and from there the scene is set, described by a first person speaker who is on the stairs listening to his daughter typing.

  • The first line of the poem is the foundation for the extended metaphor. That word prow means the front part of a ship, pointed, above water. So the house is a boat sailing through life.
  • More words associated with sailing vessels follow, deepening/extending the metaphor - look out for chain, gunwale, cargo, passage - all relate to the journey through the sea of life.

Note also:

  • Stanzas 1 - 5 focus on the daughter and her writing in the present time.
  • Stanzas 6 - 10 concentrate on a wild bird, a starling, used as a symbol for the writing career of the daughter. This is a memory so is in the past.
  • Stanza 11, the last, is a personal summing up of what it takes to be a writer and how the process can feel like life or death. There's a return to the present again.

Richard Wilbur is well known for his technical mastery, breadth of language and formal approach within his poetry. Many of his poems use a range of full rhyme and set rhythms within tight structures.

  • This poem is a bit different because it is in free verse; there is no rhyme scheme and the meter (metre in British English) is also varied.

It was first published in 1976 in the book The Mind Reader.

The Writer


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.

Analysis of The Writer Stanza by Stanza

The Writer is a simple poem on the surface - a father listens to his daughter typing away in her room and wishes her good luck. Yet, as with most of Wilbur's work, a closer look at the poetic devices and language he employs to convey feeling will reveal so much more.

Stanza 1

The first line is an anapaestic gem...In her...at the ...of the...bringing a gentle rising rhythm to proceedings. And that all important word prow hints strongly at the metaphor. The prow is the front of a boat and cuts through the water. Here is a house about to embark on a long journey through the seas of life.

The speaker (the father and no doubt, Wilbur himself) knows the room intimately. He knows about the light and the way the trees, linden (lime), move in the window space as his daughter writes inside.

This stanza's structure, three lines, the longer middle line sandwiched between two shorter, sets the pattern for the rest of the poem.

Stanza 2

The first person speaker, in the stairwell, pauses to listen as his daughter taps away on the typewriter. Her room door is shut because she doesn't want to be disturbed. Writing is a solo task. Not many can write in a noisy social atmosphere.

Note the enjambment of both lines giving the idea of flow as the writer busies herself.

  • The metaphor continues with that phrase Like a chain hauled over a gunwale, a simile, comparing the sound of the typewriter keys to that of a chain catching on the upper side of a boat. The chain suggests heaviness, heavy links, perhaps used to tie down cargo, or keep the vessel anchored.
  • Is this the vessel weighing anchor, that is, lifting anchor, leaving the port for the high seas?

Stanza 3

The metaphor stretches on. This time the word cargo immediately brings to mind a fully laden boat. His daughter may be young but because she has chosen to write her life is deemed already to be substantial.

We don't get to learn of the specifics but it is clear from the language that she'll need some luck to get through. That word passage is again related to (sea) travel and means to get from one place to another...to have a safe passage through.

Stanza 4

Then the typing stops, leaving a sort of vacuum in the house. The speaker suggests it could be the daughter's response to his own thoughts - he has too easily wished her luck and worked things out which isn't really worth that much - the young generation's response to adult thinking.

This is a pause, a silence that greatens - increases, deepens - and pervades the whole house.

Stanza by Stanza Analysis of The Writer

Stanza 5

The speaker is thinking about his daughter and her life which is already carrying a heavy load, what with the writing and all. Now, because of the pause in typing, the house seems to be weighing up the situation.

But before it has time to conclude she resumes her typing, her thoughts begin to flow or at least stutter. On and off. The sound of keys being worked then silence as the daughter readjusts her thoughts and words.

This is very much the world of the writer. Thoughts quickly turn into typed words which flow quickly and thickly but then just as suddenly as they start they stop.

Stanza 6

As the speaker listens he recalls an event from the past which parallels the daughter's writing career.

It's a story of entrapment. A wild bird somehow got into the room and had to be helped out.

Stanza 7

Enjambment between stanzas continues the story. Both father and daughter were involved. They had to be careful as they didn't want to scare the bird, so all they could do was make sure a window was at least open then sit back, watch, and hope the bird could figure things out.

There's a repeated And retreated/And how...which reinforces the sense of waiting.

Stanza 8

The bird, a starling, has special plumage which is iridescent (changes color depending on the angle of the viewer) and as it tries to escape the two watchers note this.

It flies again and again into the window (the brilliance...that is, the light through the glass) but fails, dropping like a glove in a heap.

Stanza 9

The couple are there for an hour unable to do anything, watching this poor bird miss its opportunity...until...it somehow manages to gather itself together and muster one great effort, much to the relief and delight of father and daughter.

Stanza 10

The starling escapes clearing the sill of the world so described because it is now free to fly where it will.

This final act sums up the work of the writer too, who has to try again and again to attain freedom and get the words to fly. It can be a life's task, it can seem an impossible mission; there are at times obstacles seemingly insurmountable.

But, keep banging your head against a wall until that day, that one time, when rejection ends and the writer flies through an open window that was there just waiting, all the time!

Stanza 11

The speaker comes back to the present and rhetorically speaks to the daughter. Being a writer, getting thoughts out onto the page, onto the screen, can be harrowing. One day the words come flying free, other days they can't get off the ground, they're blocked by something.

The speaker knows this from experience so wishes greater luck to his daughter. Luck is dependent on fate and coincidence. Some think we make our own, others believe it's a question of Que sera, sera....

The Writer - Brief Analysis of Meter

The Writer is a free verse poem of 11 stanzas, each with three lines (a tercet) making 33 lines in total.

There is no set rhyme scheme and the meter (metre in British English) varies throughout. Here are some sample lines to give an overall feel for the rhythmic stresses:

In her room / at the prow / of the house

This first line is unusual because it has three anapaestic feet...dadaDUM dadaDUM dadaDUM ...which could be an echo of the rhythmic taps of the typewriter. It is a rising beat..perhaps the speaker is going up the stairs?

Naturally this anapaestic rhythm cannot carry on throughout the poem or it would turn into a farce, so there are metric variations. This helps change the pace, emphasis and rhythms, and alters the flow as the reader moves from line to line.

This is all wrapped up in the word syntax, the way grammar and clauses work together to either simplify the journey through the poem or make more complex.

Young as / she is, / the stuff

Of her life / is a / great cargo, / and some / of it / heavy:

This is the start of the third stanza. A trochee opens - DUMda - stress on the first word to give more emphasis. Two iambic feet follow.

The enjambment runs on into the next line which is a hexameter fourteen syllables long which is sufficient for the load. So there's an anapaest, a pyrrhic, a spondee (DUMDUM) an iamb, another pyrrhic and a final trochee. This is a real mix, the great cargo relating to the burden the daughter carries if she wants to be a writer.

What Are The Literary Devices Used in The Writer?

Alliteration

When two or more words are close together in a line and start with the same consonant they are said to be alliterative. This brings added interest to the soundscape:

helpless hour

We watched the sleek, wild

Batter against the brilliance

I wish/What I wished

Assonance

When two or more close words in a line have similar sounding vowels:

prow of the house

windows are tossed with linden

stillness greatens, in which

trapped in that

Caesura

This is a break or pause in a line, often or near midway, through punctuation. Here are two different examples:

Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,

For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits

Enjambment

When a line runs on into the next line or stanza without punctuation, maintaining the sense. For example:

In her room at the prow of the house

Where light breaks,


A stillness greatens, in which


The whole house seems to be thinking,

Metaphor

The extended metaphor - the house as a boat sailing through life - is used.

Simile

Comparison of one thing with another often using the words like or as. For example:

drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or desk-top,

Sources

Richard Wilbur, Collected Poems, Waywiser, 2004

100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

www.poetryfoundation.org

www.jstor.org

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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