A Black Birch in Winter
Published in The Atlantic in 1974
Not everyone appreciated Richard Wilbur. The second poet laureate of the United States, he was the recipient of multiple Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award. Still, plenty of readers thought he was … a little meh. One New York Times reviewer said that reading Wilbur’s collection The Mind-Reader was like conversing with “an old friend whose talk is genial but familiar—and occasionally dull.” Another critic argued that Wilbur “never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.” He often wrote of the natural world with earnest appreciation—a style that became particularly unchic in the ’60s, when the dark, personal “confessional poetry” of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton was peaking.
Wilbur conceded that yes, he tended to see the world with a positive glow. He once said he believed “that the ultimate character of things is comely and good. I am perfectly aware that I say this in the teeth of all sorts of contrary evidence, and that I must be basing it partly on temperament and partly on faith, but that’s my attitude.” And yet, his optimism wasn’t hollow of intellect. “A Black Birch in Winter” exemplifies this: The Times reviewer referenced the poem to say that Wilbur, at best, is “a fine amateur natural historian,” able to paint pretty portraits of birches and other fauna. But the work isn’t really about trees at all. It’s about the ways in which our passing years can give us new perspectives, like fresh wood on an ancient trunk—and how time, in that sense, can make us open and wide-eyed rather than “finished” and deadened.
Wilbur is also clearly gesturing to his mentor Robert Frost’s poem “Birches.” In it, Frost imagines a young boy climbing a birch tree, scrambling up toward the sky. How tempting to keep going forever, he implies, to transcend everyday life altogether. But eventually, one needs to come back down. “Earth’s the right place for love,” Frost writes. You could see “A Black Birch,” then, as a response to those who felt that Wilbur’s work was unambitious. Certainly, reaching for big ideas—questions of life, death, human limitation—is essential to poetry. But Wilbur seemed to think you could do that from Earth, looking up.
As we approach 2023, the old birch really does feel like a good metaphor. This year’s been tough; I feel haggard, “roughened” like the bark that used to be “smooth, and glossy-dark.” But I’ll be thinking of New Year’s as an “annual rebirth,” and attempting to mimic what the birch has mastered: “To grow, stretch, crack, and not yet come apart.”
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