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In Service of a Single Word

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In Service of a Single Word

William Coleman

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In the winter of 1959, Richard Wilbur was told that a word in a poem he'd submitted to The New Yorker had to be changed. It possessed the "wrong connotation" for the magazine, the interim poetry editor wrote, relaying the wishes of editors higher up on the masthead, including, presumably, William Shawn himself.

Well into the new year, an even dozen letters and postcards were exchanged between the magazine and the poet, a correspondence in service of a single word.

Even fifty-seven years later, the word at issue still delivers a kind of shock.

October Maples, Portland

The leaves, though little time they have to live, Were never so unfallen as today, And seem to yield us through a rustled sieve The very light from which time fell away.

A showered fire we thought forever lost Redeems the air. Where friends in passing meet, They parley in the tongues of Pentecost. Gold ranks of temples flank the dazzled street.

It is light of maples, and will go; But not before it washes eye and brain With such a tincture, such a sanguine glow As cannot fail to leave a lasting stain.

So Mary’s laundered mantle (in the tale Which, like all pretty tales, may still be true), Spread on the rosemary-bush, so drenched the pale Slight blooms in its irradiated hue.

They could not choose but to return in blue.

"According to the OED, 'irradiated' can mean 'illuminated,' 'made bright or brilliant,' 'shone-upon,'" Wilbur wrote on December 15, the very day he received the first letter from the magazine. "That's what I mean. Mary's mantle, spread on the rosemary to dry, is illuminated by the sun, and its hue transferred to the flowers."

"Has the word been taken over by the advertising-men?" he added. "Is there an irradiated bread? Are there irradiated sheets? If so, poetry should reclaim the word and treat it properly, not shy away and let the ad-men have it."

The New Yorker held fast. It was the "official" feeling, the interim editor wrote, that the word must be switched for another.

Wilbur replied within the week: "Not to be embarrassing, but I do think that Mallarme is right, & that one of the poet's functions is to purify the words of the tribe. Now, how can you purify the words of the tribe if you don't use them?"

In a book on Philip Larkin, Tijana Stojkovic speaks of Mallarme's maxim this way: "purification of language means stripping away its means of suppressing ambiguity."

The word in Wilbur's poem describes the way the pure material of Mary's laundered mantle is imbued and warmed by immaterial, living light, and how the product of that union cannot help but alter essentially the world it's been given to, in a state of grace. The word retroactively suggests that light falling of fire—those reddened leaves—need not rain destruction. The word enables a recognition that our passage through a poem's intricate material can leave our nature changed. For the time the poem endures, "irradiated" is redeemed.

Wilbur trusts we can hold such thoughts even as we do not and cannot forget the bomb that fell from the same sky, casting its mantle of darkness upon the world and then upon a word we use to try to live within it.

The poem, in fact, demands that we hold both visions of reality in our field of sight. Its radiant energy is released only if we enter those two fields of connotation and find them grounds for comparison.

"P.S. Ask Mr. Shawn if he thinks we should substitute 'tired' for 'knocked up' throughout Jane Austen," Wilbur wrote on January 2, 1960.

Four days later, the interim poetry editor was writing back to Wilbur. A certain "major personage" at the magazine had said, "An intelligent poet is always to be listened to on the subject of language."

The poem appeared in print that fall, every word in its original place.