The Writer by Richard Wilbur
“The Writer” was published in Richard Wilbur’s collection of poetry, The Mind-Reader, in 1976. The poem is about the creative process of a writer and the obstacles that writers face while expressing their thoughts. It also conveys hopes and apprehensions of a parent about their children as they embark upon the journey of self-exploration and independence. This poem also appears in Wilbur’s 1988 collection New and Collected Poems. Wilbur was awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice, first in 1957 for his collection Things of This World and then in 1989 for New and Collected Poems.
- Listen to Richard Wilbur reading the poem or read the full text of “The Writer“:
“The Writer” is an account of a father contemplating his daughter’s creative energy and the struggles of a writer. The speaker is overcome with different emotions as he listens to his daughter writing a story on a typewriter in her room. He has an epiphany that his daughter has come of age. She is on a journey to establish her individuality.
The daughter is challenged with difficulties in the process of writing. Wilbur uses the metaphor of “cargo” to describe the daughter’s journey through the seas of life. He also compares his daughter’s situation to an accidentally entrapped “starling” and its struggle to escape. The speaker is empathetic towards his daughter and wishes her all the luck; however, he does not intervene. He lets her face the difficulties alone. She must pave her own way.
Wilbur talks about her daughter and addresses her as “the” writer in this poem. She is the one in his life on whom he counts on. He rests his hopes and aspirations on his daughter. This piece records how the speaker silently admires her daughter’s work. When her flow breaks, it breaks the speaker’s heart as well. Wilbur tries to remind his daughter not to stop trying through this piece. He evokes a memory of a starling that once got trapped in the same room where the daughter writes. It kept on trying and finally managed to free itself. She has to carry on her writing without being bogged down by the tricky writer’s block like the bird.
Structure and Form
“The Writer” is written in free-verse without any regular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The poem consists of 33 lines split into 11 tercets, stanzas with 3 lines each. Wilbur writes this piece using the narrative form. He tells the story from the first-person point of view. It associates a lyrical quality to the poem. Though there is no regular rhyming, this poem does not sound monotonous at all. It is because of the usage of internal rhymings. Wilbur repeats similar sounds in order to create rhyming within the lines. Regarding the meter, the poem is composed of the anapestic-iambic meter.
Literary Devices & Figurative Language
Wilbur uses the following literary devices in his poem “The Writer.” His usage of figurative language makes it a thought-provoking piece of art.
Wilbur very skilfully employs extended metaphor in this poem. He has used the metaphor of a ship and compares it to his house. The daughter here is a passenger/sailor who is embarked upon her journey of being an independent writer. For instance, the line “Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy” brings to mind the image of a loaded ship.
In a similar manner, the daughter is full of great thoughts that she wants to offer. It could also mean the emotional baggage she carries within her. The poet also compares the confinement of his daughter’s thoughts to a bird accidentally entrapped in their room. He skillfully corresponds the actions of birds with that of his daughter struggling to bring her thoughts into her writing.
Let’s have a look at some other devices used in the poem below:
- Caesura: The speaker pauses in between lines to imitate the pause his daughter takes between typing as she stutters through the process of writing. It occurs in the following lines: “Young as she is, the stuff/ Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy.”
- Enjambment: Each stanza in the poem is often left incomplete or without punctuation, and the idea is continued in the next stanza. This is to maintain a continuous flow in the text. For instance, “A stillness greatens, in which/ The whole house seems to be thinking,” “How we stole in, lifted a sash/ And retreated, not to affright it,” etc.
- Alliteration: The poet uses alliteration to create internal rhyming. It occurs in “helpless hour,” “We watched,” “suddenly sure,” etc.
- Personification: The poet personifies the “house” to convey his feelings; “The whole house seems to be thinking,” here, the house is given the human quality of thinking to describe the stillness he feels as his daughter pauses while writing.
- Metaphor: The phrase “commotion of typewriter-keys” contains an implicit comparison between the commotion of crowds and the sound of a typewriter. It also occurs in “a bunched clamor/ Of strokes.”
- Simile: It occurs in “Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.” Here, the sound of hauling of chains over a gunwale is compared to the sound of typing on a typewriter-keys.
- Anaphora: It occurs in the first two lines of the seventh stanza. These lines begin with the same conjunction, “and.”
Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation
In her room at the prow …
… writing a story.
Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Writer” begins with a description of a room where the poet’s daughter writes a story behind closed doors. His intricate description of the room shows his familiarity with his daughter’s room.
The mention of the word “prow,” which means the pointed front part of the ship, establishes a metaphor that extends throughout the poem. Wilbur compares his house to a ship and its passenger; his daughter is embarked on a long journey of being a writer.
The “light” indicates his hope for his daughter’s bright future. However, the speaker says linden, a species of tree, outside her window obstructs the sunlight, referring to obstructions that she will face in her life. He is aware that his daughter is in the process of writing a story. The tone in which he conveys this is indicative of his pride in his daughter, who tries to establish her individuality. She has grown independent of him.
I pause in the stairwell, …
… hauled over a gunwale.
The speaker listens to his daughter working on her typewriter in the second tercet. He takes a moment between his activities to contemplate his daughter’s work. The word “commotion” signifies his daughter’s struggle with writing. She is restless as she faces a creative slowdown.
The metaphor of the ship continues here. Using a simile, Wilbur compares the sound of a “chain hauled over a gunwale” to the “commotion of typewriter-keys.” This image of hauling the chains back signifies that the budding writer is about to embark on her journey.
Young as she is, …
… a lucky passage.
In this section, the “great cargo” conjures an image of a fully-loaded ship. Similarly, the poet’s daughter brims with creative energy. She has a lot to offer. However, the “heavy” cargo refers to the emotional baggage of her past experiences that she carries with her—the speaker wishes for his daughter to have a lucky and prosperous journey through her career and life.
But now it is …
… greatens, in which
As the poet’s daughter pauses to think, he is overcome with apprehensions. Her stillness is making him anxious. It “greatens” in his mind as an expanding void. The last line of this section is enjambed with the first line of the following section. It makes readers go through these lines altogether.
The whole house …
… and again is silent.
When children face difficulties, they also grapple with their parents alike. Here, the daughter’s creative halt makes the poet worried for her. He gets relief as his daughter resumes typing, although she comes to a halt again. Besides, Wilbur uses a metaphor in the phrase “a bunched clamor/ Of strokes” in order to compare the strokes at typewriter keys to the clamor of a bunch of keys.
I remember …
… lifted a sash
In the sixth tercet of “The Writer,” the speaker recalls an incident that happened two years ago. A starling accidentally entered the room and got trapped. Here, the poet compares the entrapped bird to his daughter’s current situation. The daughter is in the confinement of her thoughts, trying to escape the challenge she faced while writing. She must embrace the freedom that awaits her like the starling.
And retreated, …
… the sleek, wild, dark
Instead of catching the bird, they let it out of the window. They drew back so as not to startle or frighten the poor bird. They stealthily went into the room and lifted the sash in order to help it find the way for itself. In the meantime, they watched over the bird, repeatedly trying to escape for an hour.
Similarly, the father does not interfere in his daughter’s block. He lets her find her way when faced with difficulties. The terms “wild” and “dark” refer to the unknown nature of the obstacles that his daughter is yet to face in her life. This line projects a father’s apprehensions while watching her daughter grow up.
And iridescent creature
… or the desk-top,
The bird with iridescent plumage made a lot of effort to escape. However, it turned out to be futile as the bird dropped on the floor each time. Each attempt battered the creature right to the floor. Wilbur compares the sound of its falling to the sound of a glove dropped on the floor. The daughter’s mind is also exhausted, like the trapped starling.
And wait then, …
… suddenly sure,
Slowly, the bird gathered its spirit and lifted itself like a gallant, wounded soldier. Likewise, the poet imagines his daughter lifting herself up when struck by new ideas. Then she straightens herself on her chair. She lets her emotions flow and translate into words. This time it comes smoothly, without any stutter.
In the bird’s case, it waited to recover its energy. Finally, it managed to escape. The scene inspired the speaker and his daughter.
It lifted off …
… the sill of the world.
In these lines, Wilbur depicts how the starling flew off the room. At first, it lifted off from the back of a chair. Then it beat its wings and had a smooth course right through the window. The last line indicates that both the bird and the poet’s daughter are free to fly. Besides, the “right window” refers to the right path in life.
It is always a matter, …
… you before, but harder.
In the last stanza, the father affectionately addresses his daughter as his “darling,” reflecting the love he has for his daughter. According to him, “life” is a symbol of trying and going on, no matter what impediments may come. In comparison, “death” signals stagnation and giving up. In the final lines of “The Writer,” he wishes his daughter good luck on her journey to freedom, independence, and self-exploration.
The Writer’s Block
The speaker of “The Writer,” who is a poet himself, is aware of the process of writing and the challenges they face while translating their thoughts into words. He speaks from his experience and is aware of writer’s block. Now that the poet’s daughter is undertaking the task of writing, he is overcome with several emotions.
He is apprehensive when his daughter comes to a halt in between typing. The process is exhaustive as the daughter leans against the desk after reaching writer’s block. However, she gets back up when struck by creative thoughts and resumes her writing.
The speaker is familiar with the situation as all writers reach a point of creative stillness but can rise back up with their intellectual prowess.
“The Writer” captures the beautiful relationship between father and daughter. The caring father is proud as he listens to his daughter working on a story on her typewriter to express herself. He has come to a realization that his daughter has matured enough to pave the way for herself and embark on the journey of life independently.
Although he wants his daughter to come out of the conflict she is faced with, he, as a responsible and caring father, does not intervene and lets his daughter find a way herself. She eventually succeeds. This shows the trust he has in his daughter, and he believes she has a lot to offer to the world. Every father wishes the same for their daughters.
Tone & Mood
The tone of “The Writer” is sentimental. The speaker goes through a range of emotions as he meditates upon his daughter’s writing. He is also empathetic and hopeful. As a writer himself, he can understand the situation of his daughter. He is optimistic about his daughter doing well in her life. Besides, the mood of the text changes according to the subject matter. For instance, in the first tercet, the speaker’s mood is filled with pride and hope as he watches his daughter writing a story. In the fourth stanza, the tone and mood change into reflective and anxious. Here, the sudden halt in the daughter’s writing makes the father’s heart leap up in apprehension.
In “The Writer,” Wilbur uses a number of symbols. These are included and exemplified below:
- Typewriter: The “typewriter” symbolizes creativity and art in the second stanza. Using this instrument, writers put their thoughts into words. In another sense, it is an instrument that helps in giving a manifestation to creative thoughts.
- Cargo/Ship: The “great cargo” symbolizes aspiration and hope. Wilbur uses this term to compare it to his daughter metaphorically.
- Starling: The “dazed starling” is an embodiment of a temporary failure. It symbolically hints at the writer’s block as well.
- Life and Death: In the last stanza, the poet refers to these contrasting ideas in order to evoke the ideas of determination and giving up, respectively.
Wilbur makes use of the following types of imagery in this poem.
- Visual Imagery: Throughout this piece, Wilbur uses vivid visual images to depict the story. The poem begins with this type of imagery: “Where light breaks, the windows are tossed with linden.” It also occurs in “iridescent creature/ Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove.”
- Auditory Imagery: It is used in the lines, “a commotion of typewriter-keys/ Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.” Here, the sound of typing on a typewriter is conveyed. It is again used in “a bunched clamor/ Of strokes.”
- Kinesthetic Imagery: This type of imagery is used in order to depict the starling’s attempts to fly out. For instance, the quick movement of the bird conveyed through these lines, “It lifted off from a chair-back,/ Beating a smooth course for the right window/ And clearing the sill of the world.”
- Organic Imagery: Wilbur uses organic imagery to express his internal emotions in the poem. For example, the lines, “A stillness greatens, in which/ The whole house seems to be thinking,” hint at the father’s fear concerning his daughter. It is used to describe the speaker’s cheered-up mood in these lines, “how our spirits/ Rose when, suddenly sure,/ It lifted off from a chair-back.”
Richard Wilbur was born on 1st March 1921 in New York, USA. He was a remarkable poet associated with the New Formalist movement. Wilbur was one of the most renowned American poets of the 20th-century. Although he wrote primarily in traditional verse, his poems are loaded with clever use of poetic expressions and techniques and are imbued with elegance. His poems are reflective of everyday life and experience. Through his poetry, Wilbur renders several philosophical ideas.
Wilbur had a long and extensive career, not only as a poet but also as a literary translator. He translated numerous plays, specifically that of 17th-century French playwrights like Molière and Jean Racine. Besides, Wilbur was appointed as the second Poet Laureate Consultant by Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin in 1987. “He is a poet for us all, whose elegant words brim with wit and paradox,” noted Boorstin. He also served in the US Army during World War II.
Questions and Answers
Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Writer” is about the challenges that writers face. It is also about the hope, and apprehensions parents have for their children.
Wilbur uses the “cargo” and “starling” as symbols. The “ship” symbolizes a writer embarked upon her creative voyage. Alongside that, the “starling” symbolizes freedom, courage, will, and independence.
The poet uses numerous poetic devices in the poem. Some of them are an extended metaphor, caesura, personification, alliteration, and enjambment.
The tone of the poem is empathetic, sentimental, and hopeful.
The poem is written in free-verse. It does not follow any regular rhyme scheme or meter.
The overall meaning of Wilbur’s poem concerns a father’s apprehension regarding his daughter’s future. He hopes for a better future for her and tries to be at her side mentally, not physically.
The speaker is none other than Richard Wilbur himself. He uses the first-person point of view to tell the story to readers.
This piece taps on a number of themes that include the father-daughter relationship, writing, determination, and art. The main idea of the poem concerns staying hopeful in the face of difficulties and keeping on.
The “starling” acts as a symbol of the poet’s daughter. It hints at the ideas of determination, struggle, and will.
The starling’s struggle symbolizes the poet’s daughter, who struggles while writing. Her emotions stored within her heart, waiting for an outlet to pour out, are portrayed through the starling.
In the third stanza, “the stuff/ Of her life is a great cargo” contains the metaphor. Here, the “stuff” represents the writer’s thoughts and emotions. She is so filled with creative energy that she appears as a heavily loaded cargo ship to the speaker. In this way, the poet tries the metaphor to his daughter’s pursuit of writing.
The phrase “dazed starling” hints at the stupefied state of the bird while it was trapped inside the daughter’s room. It was clueless about an escape from the room.
The phrase “lucky passage” signifies a passage or route that proves to be lucky for the person who undertakes the journey on the path. By using this phrase, the speaker wishes his daughter a stable and prosperous future as a writer.
In the phrase “bunched clamor,” Wilbur uses onomatopoeia in order to hint at the metallic sound of a bunch of keys. The sound it makes is associated with the object itself, figuratively.
In the last lines, the speaker wishes his daughter what he wished before: “I wish her a lucky passage.” But, this time, he does it “harder.” It means he is optimistic about his daughter’s writing career.
The sudden pause and interrupted flow of his daughter remind the speaker of the incident of the trapped starling. He resorts to this memory in order to compare the starling to his daughter. Like the bird, his daughter struggles while giving an outlet to her unwritten thoughts and untold emotions.
The main plot of the poem concerns how the speaker’s daughter struggles while writing a story. At the climax, the reference to the starling that flew smoothly through the right window implies that the writer (her daughter) successfully completes the story.
The speaker is a father who listens to his daughter writing a story on a typewriter. His attitude towards her is filled with affection and care. He remains hopeful throughout the piece, irrespective of the subtle moments of anxiety.
Similar Poems about the Parent-Children Relationship
- “The Toys” by Coventry Patmore — This bittersweet piece is centered upon a father who rebukes his son for disobeying him.
- “The Gift” by Li-Young Lee — This poem is about how the poet’s father taught him the art of staying calm in the face of danger.
- “Casabianca” by Felicia Hemans — This classic poem describes how naive Casabianca died to keep his father’s promise.
- “The First Snowfall” by James Russell Lowell — In this poem, Lowell laments the death of his eldest daughter.
- Background of “The Writer” — This poem is about Wilbur’s eldest daughter Ellen D. Wilbur, a great short story writer. Listen to the poet giving an introduction to the poem.
- A Tribute to Richard Wilbur — Read this tribute to the poet on his death (October 14, 2017) published on The Pulitzer Prizes website.
- About Richard Wilbur — Read about the poet’s life and poetic works.
- Poems of Richard Wilbur – Explore some of Wilbur’s best-known poems.