The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like many other poems in English, some of them quite famous, Richard Wilbur’s “Still, Citizen Sparrow” takes as its subject, at least partially, a bird—in this case, a vulture. It does so, however, by addressing itself to another bird, a sparrow.

The use of the opening word, “Still,” suggests that the reader is entering the poem at a point where the speaker has already been talking to the sparrow, in a way presumably sympathetic to that bird’s belief that the vulture is an “unnatural” creature. This negative characterization is undoubtedly based, for the most part, on the vulture’s habit of feeding on dead flesh, “carrion.” The use of “Still,” however, indicates that the speaker now wishes to qualify whatever he has conceded before the start of the poem proper. In fact, the poem will make a case for the vulture and his mode of existence. This view needs to be argued, not simply because the sparrow thinks otherwise, but also because many human beings share the sparrow’s view, responding to this scavenger bird with revulsion, both because of its appearance (its bald head is registered here by the term “naked-headed”) and the nature of its diet.

The vulture is presented as rising into the air, bearing the dead flesh he has seized. The initial part of his flight is seen as clumsy (he “lumbers”), but very quickly Wilbur creates an effect of contrast. Once the vulture has ascended to a very high point (“the...

(The entire section is 588 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

An “apostrophe” is a device often found in poetry. It is an address, usually of an elevated nature, to someone or something not literally present or, if present, not literally capable of hearing or understanding. Yet its use presumes, for the purposes of the poet, that the being or object addressed will hear and comprehend. The apostrophe constitutes a kind of theoretical communication with the reader of the poem; the ultimate audience of the apostrophe, the reader, overhears, so to speak, the words being uttered. “Still, Citizen Sparrow” falls into the category of apostrophe. What makes the employment of this device unusual here is that the apostrophe is not addressed to its initial central subject, the vulture, but is directed instead to another sort of bird, one of the most commonly seen, the sparrow. As such, Wilbur’s poem contrasts with two famous works where the bird-subject is directly addressed: John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark.” In neither of these cases is the poet confronted with having to defend a bird commonly regarded with revulsion, as Wilbur is.

The sparrow is startlingly addressed as “citizen.” This is one of several instances in the poem of a notable or unusual diction. Another example is the term “watch-fuller,” which is an invention, or coinage, on Wilbur’s part, one that would seem to violate convention. He uses it instead of the “correct” form—“more...

(The entire section is 590 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bixler, Frances. Richard Wilbur: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.

Hougen, John B. Ecstasy Within Discipline: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.

Michelson, Bruce. Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

Reibetang, John. “What Love Sees: Poetry and Vision in Richard Wilbur.” Modern Poetry Studies 11 (1982): 60-85.

Salinger, Wendy, ed. Richard Wilbur’s Creation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Stitt, Peter. The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.