Guest Poetry Blog Series # 26 – Part Two – Thanks To My Literary Saints – John Terpstra celebrates John Steinbeck, Richard Wilbur, Christopher Fry and John McPhee

American poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2016)

Love Calls Us To the Things Of This World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
              Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

  Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks; but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

  Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
                             The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
          “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

  Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises, 

  “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
               keeping their difficult balance.

Richard Wilbur from Collected Poems 1943 – 2004, Houghton Mifflin, 2004

American novelist John Steinbeck (1902-1968)

Before I ever wrote a single poem (which was in Grade 10), a girl in the grade above me handed me a copy of The Red Pony one day as we were standing together in the school library. “Here,” she said, “you should read this.” She was a friend and I trusted her, and so I took the book home and read it. And was hooked, and went on to read as much John Steinbeck as I could get my hands on. He became my first author, especially with the shorter works like Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. Years later, I wondered how he did that to me, and so I reread those two novels.

Steinbeck is a poet. Cannery Row is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. He also writes from the side of utter compassion, of loving your neighbour as you love yourself, with all of the neighbour’s (and your own) very obvious flaws and frailties. These two qualities together won me over.

The first poet to sink his literary claws into my soul was Richard Wilbur. I more or less stumbled upon his writing, courtesy of a book that my college girlfriend had taken to the Atlantic shore with us. I spent the day watching the waves and reading poems like Love Calls Us To The
Things of This World. Seriously? You can write that? I was bulldozed by how everyday life was exalted in his poems. This was serious

British poet and playwright Christopher Fry (1907-2005). Photo Credit: Angus McBean, bromide print, 1950

stuff, but not the high seriousness of modernism. He wrote to make meaning from raw and often chaotic experience. As if meaning existed. He seemed to claim that it did, at a time when lots of writers were seriously positing the polar opposite.

These two writers struck earliest and deepest. My girlfriend, who by then was my fiancée, then took a class in which the British playwright, Christopher Fry, was taught. No one reads Fry any longer, and his plays are rarely produced. He followed in the footsteps of T.S. Eliot in writing verse drama, which was extremely popular until the advent of the kitchen-sink dramas of the mid 1950s, at which point Fry dropped off the face of the planet and became largely unreadable. When I was reading him in the mid-1970s, his humour and wit in the service of spiritual dilemma, in iambic pentameter, pulled me in completely. My own poetry is often a kind of dramatic monologue. Maybe that was part of the appeal.

These three became my trio of influence: a novelist, a poet, and a playwright. Wilbur and Fry were the two I most wanted to emulate, if not

American writer John McPhee (1931 -)

imitate. The trio then became a quartet, during the year that I and my fiancée, who was now my wife, spent living with her family in New Jersey, where I happened to read the serialization in The New Yorker of a new book called Coming Into the Country, by the non-fiction writer, John McPhee. His work was environmentally inspired and deeply personal, but unobtrusively so. He was the antithesis of the very popular, hyper-personal New Journalism that made Tom Wolfe famous. He wrote in the service of his subject.

The writers that affect you most when you’re young touch something that is already within you. They give you a glimpse into what is possible, even though the reach is too high and seems anything but. They give you permission to become who you already are in seed form. If you dare.

By John Terpstra, February 2023


  1. Cynthia WK
    Posted February 21, 2024 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this!

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted February 26, 2024 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Thank you Cynthia! Grateful!

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *