‘The Writer’ first appeared in Richard Wilbur’s 1976 collection, The Mind-Reader, and is a wonderful example of one of the poet’s more narrative pieces. Throughout, readers can enjoy the speaker’s vision of his daughter as a sailor and consider the importance of the starling metaphor regarding creative struggle.
Explore The Writer
‘The Writer’ by Richard Wilbur is a moving poem in which the poet describes watching his daughter create her first story.
The speaker describes his daughter sitting in her room typing her first short story on a typewriter in the first lines. Utilizing several examples of literary devices, the poet alludes to the struggles that a new writer, and an experienced writer, will go through as they attempt to put their thoughts into successful writing. As the poem progresses, the poet utilizes two different extended metaphors, one concerned with a ship and one with a trapped starling, to depict his daughter’s first steps on the journey to becoming a writer.
You can read the full poem here.
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.
In the first lines of this poem, Wilbur’s speaker begins by describing his “daughter…writing a story.” This first tercet, or three-line stanza, depicts her room, the windows, and the light “breaking” through them. They initiate the extended metaphor that carries through most of the poem. The poet compares the house to a ship and his daughter to a sailor on a journey of self-discovery as a writer.
She’s inside her room (which Wilbur compares to the “prow” of the ship), writing with light (symbolizing hope and optimism) coming in through the window. It is immediately clear that the speaker is proud of and concerned for his daughter. The speaker, who is commonly considered to be the poet himself, is well aware of writing’s taxing nature.
I pause in the stairwell, hearing
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.
The extended metaphor continues into the second stanza. Here, the poet uses a very clear simile. He compares the sound of the typewriter keys, something he calls “commotion,” to the “chain hauled over a gunwale” of a ship. The gunwale is the side of a ship, and even if readers have never heard this specific noise, they should be able to imagine the loud, jolting sound the chain would make.
This suggests that writing is not an easy or peaceful process. It involves a great deal of labor (consider the effort it would take to pull a large chain up and over the side of a ship). The speaker also clarifies that he is not revealing himself to his young daughter. He pauses in the stairwell outside her room, observing her without her knowledge.
Stanzas Three and Four
Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which
The extended metaphor continues into the third stanza, in which the speaker compares his daughter’s life to “great cargo” despite the fact that she is young. Some of her cargo is heavy, meaning that it will be useful for her progression as a writer and difficult to deal with. In this moment of pride and concern, the speaker wishes his daughter a “lucky passage” on her journey to engage with her life’s history and put it, in some way or form, into writing.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker turns to describe his daughter. She pauses as if broken from the initial ease of the writing process. There is a great stillness in the room that indicates the future struggles and emotions his daughter will engage with if she continues on this path.
There is a great example of enjambment in the transition from the fourth stanza to the fifth. Readers are required to move down to the fifth stanza in order to conclude the final line of the fourth stanza.
The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.
As his young daughter pauses, it feels as if the house itself is thinking. This example of personification effectively conveys how important and emotional the writing process can be. After the pause, his daughter is “at it again” with a clamor of the typewriter keys.
This is another way, like the chain on the gunwale, that the poet describes the sound of typewriter keys. Also, like the previous comparison, the speaker indicates that writing is not as easy as pressing the corresponding keys on the typewriter. It is a difficult, laborious, and sometimes distressing process.
The transition between the sound and the silence, which again falls in the third line, is an example of juxtaposition. As the other examples were, it is indicative of the ups and downs of the writing process.
I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash
There is a clear transition or turn between the fifth and sixth stanzas. Here, the poet moves into another extended metaphor, one concerned with a trapped and dazed starling that became trapped in his daughter’s room two years ago.
The bird becomes a metaphor for a writer’s life, specifically the life he feels his daughter is walking into as a writer (something he knows from experience). The starling was trapped in the room in the same way that his daughter, a symbol at this moment for all writers, becomes trapped in her own mind as she attempts to reconcile what she wants to write with what she has written.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,
Just as the speaker is outside his daughter’s room looking in, two years ago, the family members also retreated from the daughter’s room to watch the dazed and terrified starling try to find its way out of its confinement. For an hour, they watched as the bird battered itself against the hard floor, the desktop, and failed to find the open window.
The abuse the starling endured is a metaphor for the struggle a writer is sure to contend with throughout their career. The poet uses words like “iridescent creature” and “brilliance” as examples of juxtaposition. There is beauty in the writing process as well as danger and struggle.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.
Finally, the starling escaped the room after becoming “humped and bloody.” The use of the word “humped” is a curious one. It could evoke the image of a writer leaning over their desk, struggling to put to paper their thoughts.
The speaker also describes how elevated, and optimistic the family became as the starling rose from the ground again and attempted once more to escape its confinement. The same series of emotions played out as the speaker watched his daughter struggle with the writing process.
It is always a matter, my darling,
What I wished you before, but harder.
In the final tercet, the poet addresses his daughter. He refers to her as “my darling,” an example of an apostrophe (or an address to someone who cannot hear and/or respond). He tells her that “it,” a reference to the writing process, is always a “matter “of life or death (an example of hyperbole). It’s something that he had forgotten since his youth and that he was reminded of watching his daughter struggle with what is likely one of her first attempts at completing a piece of writing.
Now, as he considers her future and all that he hopes she will achieve, he finds himself wishing again, “but harder,” that she finds happiness and is content with her chosen life. He knows the burden of a writing career, and it is with pride and concern that he silently wishes his daughter well on her own journey.
Within ‘The Writer,’ Richard Wilbur engages with several themes. These include:
- Father/Daughter Relationships. Within this moving poem, Richard Wilbur discusses his speaker’s relationship with his daughter, who he is watching compose her first story. He is inspired to remember the struggles he went through as a young writer and throughout the rest of his career and expresses the hope that his daughter will have a smooth journey through her initial experimentation with creative writing.
- Writing. The writing process’s struggles for new and experienced writers are at the heart of this poem. The poet crafts two different extended metaphors that depict his daughter, first, as a sailor aboard a ship and second, as a dazed starling trapped and struggling as it attempts to escape a room. Writing is not easy, the poem suggests, and anyone starting on the path of a writing career will face a lot of ups and downs. This is seen, for example, through the comparison between chains on a gunwale and typewriter keys.
Structure and Form
‘The Writer’ by Richard Wilbur is an eleven stanza poem divided into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These tercets are written in free verse. This means that the poet does not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, the poet does use internal rhymes within the text, helping to create flowing lines. This is furthered through the poet’s use of figurative language.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Extended Metaphor: a comparison that doesn’t use “like” or “as” and extends beyond one or two lines. Wilbur compares his daughter to a sailor on a journey to become a writer and the house as a ship taking her there.
- Simile: a comparison created by using either “like” or “as.” For example, in “Like a chain hauled over a gunwale,” in which the poet compares the sound of chains on a gunwale (the side of a boat or ship) to the sound of typewriter keys.
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “And,” which begins lines one and two of the seventh stanza.
- Personification: can be seen when the writer imbues a nonhuman element of their text with human characteristics. For example, the line “The whole house seems to be thinking.”
- Caesura: occurs when the writer inserts a pause in the middle of a line. This can be accomplished through the use of punctuation or through a natural pause in the meter. For example, “And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door.”
The purpose is to explore a father’s feelings about the writing process and how it affects his daughter. As a writer himself, the father is reminded of how hard wading through drafts, emotions, and disappointment can be as he watches his young daughter contend with these struggles for the first time.
The meaning is that writing is a journey and not an easy one. The speaker is both proud of and concerned for his young daughter, who appears to be following in his footsteps.
The main subject of the poem is the struggle that comes along with writing and the love a father has for his daughter. The poet expresses his understanding of the hardships that writing brings and wishes his daughter a smooth journey as she experiments with writing.
The tone is empathetic and generally hopeful. Throughout, the poet is reminded of his own experiences as a writer as he watches his daughter and considers her future. He’s hopeful that her journey will be smooth as she discovers her writing ability and contends with the writing process.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Richard Wilbur poems. For example:
- ‘A Late Aubade’ – deals with the theme of an aubade and emphasizes a speaker’s desire to be with his beloved.
- ‘A Simile for Her Smile’ – contains the speaker’s description of his admiration for his lover’s smile by comparing it to the “idling motors” near highway bridge gates.
- ‘Marginalia’ – is about the parts of life that exist at the edge of our consciousness and how human beings are affected by the thoughts of their past.