Richard Wilbur’s “Advice To a Prophet” And Our Current Social Distancing Regulations

On a recent trip to the grocery store, I was shocked by the number of people who disregarded the social distancing protocol which are supposed to keep us safe and slow the spread of the coronavirus. While it was no where near a majority (the majority was wearing masks, keeping their distance, etc), but it was a significant enough portion of the shoppers were not so as to be more than noticeable. People were crowding each other in the aisles, touching the produce with ungloved hands, and smiling at each other with unmasked faces. In a parking lot with about 50 spaces, the 15 or so cars in the lot were largely huddled in the 20 spots closest to the entrance.

I left the store angry, ranting about people’s lack of care for other people. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about advice, how we give it, and how we can make it more likely that people will follow it.

This led me to Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Advice To A Prophet.” I had been thinking about the poem anyway, as I had been planning on using it as an example in a blog post about figurative language to follow up on the one I posted a few weeks ago, but re-reading the poem, I was drawn not only to the technical way that he selects his figures, which I still intend to write about in the future, but also to the way he advises the prophet to give—and not give—his advice.

[Note: The poem is still under copyright, so I have linked to it, but not copied and pasted the whole thing. If you are not familiar with the poem, please click through to the link, which I have set up to open in a separate tab so that you can switch back and forth easily.]

In the second and third verse of the poem, the speaker warns the prophet not to speak of danger to the people themselves. “Spare us all the words of weapons” he says, “the long numbers that rocket the mind” for we are “unable to fear what is too strange.” People are unable to imagine the “death of the race,” unable to imagine a world without themselves. “How should we dream of a world without us?”

Tell us, instead, Wilbur writes of nature’s destruction: of the “world’s own change” of how “the white tailed deer will slip/into perfect shade” how “bronze annals of the oak tree close.” We can understand the loss of that which we see around us, that which, like “the rose of our love” we use to define ourselves and our feelings, that which we use to define “all we mean or wish to mean.” While we cannot conceive of our own demise, perhaps, through looking at things that we will lose, and through imagining our lives without them, we will be able to understand the gravity of the situation. Perhaps, even if we cannot comprehend the danger to ourselves, we could understand enough of it through the threat to that which we care about and which gives our lives meaning.

For a long time, I thought this was excellent advice. Though the potential apocalypse which inspired Wilbur to write this poem is not exactly the same, I used to teach this poem on Earth Day every year. The environmental “prophets” among my students often left the class with a different idea of how to persuade others to join their cause.

Now, however, I’m not so sure. While Wilbur’s initial point seems valid: It is difficult for people to imagine a world in which they don’t exist, the response to the expert’s advice about social distancing and isolation does not seem to fully bear out the course of action suggested by his advice. As I write this, the TV is on in the background. About half of the commercials are public service announcements encouraging people to distance, to wear masks, etc., yet as mentioned above, too great a segment of the population is not following the doctors’ advice. These commercials, at least in part follow Wilbur’s advice: They remind people that the guidelines are not only about protecting themselves (which Wilbur’s speaker points out is a difficult argument to make), but also about protecting the weak, the sick, and, especially, the old. While it may be difficult to imagine a world where you contract a potentially fatal disease, it is easier to imagine one where your grandparents, friends, and neighbors might become infected.

Perhaps people will only come around when those they know personally contract the virus. Perhaps only then, will it become real to them, but, for now, even the Wilbur-esque argument seem to fall short.

Still, I do see some evidence of what the poem suggests. People seem to be really affected by certain images associated with the pandemic. The shortage of food and toilet paper seems to be an enduring symbol of this time, and the fact that a tiger in the Bronx Zoo contracted coronavirus seems to affect some people more than the deaths of human strangers. While t first that might seem illogical, it fits with Wilbur’s observation of human behavior.

Is it possible to turn these images of empty shelves and sick animals into metaphors that will call people to action? Personally, I am at a loss. We need a Wilbur for this hour. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

Stay safe and healthy, and please follow the recommended social distancing guidelines.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.

Join Me For The Comic Book School 8 Page Challenge

One thing that I’m hearing a lot recently, is that we, as artists and creators, should spend our time in “social isolation” working on our craft, and producing art. Writers, take this time to write: artists to draw or paint, etc. Another thing that I hear a lot is that people are feeling very alone and disconnected at the present moment. We are, by and large, social animals, and being apart from our creative communities can be trying, even if it’s for the greater good.

One way that I’m dealing with all of this is by joining the Comic Book School, 8 Page Challenge. For this challenge, comics creators of all types–writers, artists, inkers, letterers–are challenged to create (or to collaborate to create) an 8 page comics short story. Those who complete the challenge will not only have their work published in an anthology by Comic Book School, but also present their work at a panel at New York Comic Con in October, which is pretty damn cool.

Participants will receive feedback and guidance from professional comics creators such as Buddy Scalera (Comic Book School, Deadpool) and Mike Mats (Editor In Chief, AfterShock Comics). Additionally, since the contest is being hosted on the new forums, creators will also be joining a community of like-minded artists and writers. The forums will help replicate some of the networking and community aspects of the comic cons that have been canceled.

Best yet, the challenge and forums are completely free. There is no charge to sign up or participate.

“Every year, aspiring creators leave our educational panels with so much enthusiasm,” Scalera said. “We wanted to create something that not only allows them to sustain that enthusiasm, but also to build on it and sustain their momentum throughout the year. The 8-Page Challenge helps our community members do this and to achieve their goals to create and publish comics.”

“I’ve been participating in Comic Book School panels for many years and I am proud to be the first professional advisor for this innovative educational program for the next wave of creators,” added Marts. “At AfterShock, we’re always looking for new talent, and this gives me the opportunity to see how these creators work together.”

I, personally, and very excited about this challenge, which kicks off this week. I hope you join me by signing up for the challenge on the forums at

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.

Free Stories You Can Read While Socially Distancing

With everyone home on quarantine or practicing “social distancing,” now is a great time to get some reading done. As such, I decided to share some of my stories that are available for free at online. I’ve written a short description with the each link to help you pick which you’d like to read. Enjoy, and please stay safe out–or in–there:

Here is the story I shared in my last week’s blog. It is in the mode of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. If you haven’t read it yet, please check it out: Darkness My Old Friend.

I have a short flash piece in the current issue of Mythic Picnic Tweet Story. It features the unlikely combination of Lovecraftian monsters and humor: The Kale of Cthulhu.

You can read an older comedic fantasy style story of mine, featuring a sphinx complaining about dragons in Pif magazine: The Sphinx’s Lament.

If you are in the mood for something more traditionally literary, more touching and emotional, check out this piece I wrote for The Hopper Review: In Good Hands.

If poetry is more your speed, Local Gems Press has made eight Ebooks free to read during this period of quarantine. One of them, Rhyme and PUNishment, features my poem, “In Good Hands.” My poem is on page 50.

Last year, I had 6 micro-flash pieces in issue 4 of Drabblez magazine. “The Kale of Cthulhu” was first published there, but check out the other 5 pieces as well. My stories start on page 30.

If you are missing sports, here is a story I wrote about a playground basketball player in New York City. I originally wrote it in college for an assignment to write in the voice of a character who is very different from you (a great writing exercise, which I will cover in a future blog). The story was published in Scriveners Pen, which no longer exists, but I’ve posted it on my deviant art page. While your there, check out the comics samples I’ve posted there and some other short stories as well: Sweetness.

I hope you enjoy these stories. I hope you enjoy them. Depending on how long this situation lasts, I may post more in the coming weeks.

Stay safe.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.