A characteristically humane and accomplished piece by the American poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017), with a slight sting in the tale as it reminds us by its own example that good poems don’t have to be, like Sylvia Plath’s, ‘helpless and unjust’ – they can also be helpless and just.
Cottage Street, 1953
Framed in her phoenix fire-screen, Edna Ward
Bends to the tray of Canton, pouring tea
For frightened Mrs Plath; then, turning toward
The pale, slumped daughter, and my wife, and me,
Asks if we would prefer it weak or strong.
Will we have milk or sugar, she enquires?
The visit seems already strained and long.
Each in his turn, we tell her our desires.
It is my office to exemplify
The published poet in his happiness,
Thus cheering Sylvia, who has wished to die;
But half-ashamed, and impotent to bless,
I am a stupid life-guard who has found,
Swept to his shallows by the tide, a girl
Who, far from shore, has been immensely drowned,
And stares through water now with eyes of pearl.
How large is her refusal; and how slight
The genteel chat whereby we recommend
Life, of a summer afternoon, despite
The brewing dusk which hints that it may end.
And Edna Ward shall die in fifteen years,
After her eight-and-eighty summers of
Such grace and courage as permit no tears,
The thin hand reaching out, the last word love,
Outliving Sylvia, who, condemned to live,
Shall study for a decade, as she must,
To state at last her brilliant negative
In poems free and helpless and unjust.