In their words: Writers and professors share impressions of Richard Wilbur

  • Richard Wilbur spent winters in Key West. Courtesy of Robert and Mary Bagg

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

David Sofield, Samuel Williston Professor of English at Amherst College: “With his marvelous wife, Charlee, Dick Wilbur lived in the Valley for years, in Cummington… It was for him, and for them, the right place to be: rural, unpretentious, neighborly, and, to use the first and last word that comes to mind, beautiful: a view of fields and hills, an active dairy farm right across the road, cows in the distance, a swimming pool, and a produce garden that Dick took pride in, one that produced a few exotic vegetables (endive! — well before its recent apotheosis in the markets).

He and Charlee were happy there, he writing some of the finest poems anyone wrote in the late 20th century, translating the great 17th-century French dramatists, playing moderately vigorous tennis doubles with local and imported enthusiasts. He was the last poet standing of the notably talented cohort that came of age after the Second World War. 

Dick was more versatile than any of them: the principal lyricist of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Candide,’ the foremost translator of French poetry and plays, the author of a number of particularly amusing books for children and, as he put it, for others, and a writer of superbly judged critical essays on poetry. He won all the prizes there are, he taught at Harvard, Wesleyan, Smith and Amherst, he was the long-serving chair of the American Academy of Arts and Letters… And he was profoundly generous to all who came his way.”

Tracy Kidder, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Williamsburg resident: “The guy was writing beautiful poems in his 90s… He published one of the most beautiful in The New Yorker called ‘The House.’ He clearly believed in clarity, and I really do prefer that to opacity… I’ve memorized several of his poems, including ‘The Mind Reader,’ which is astonishing.”

Michael Thurston, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English Language & Literature at Smith College: “I came to Wilbur negatively. That is to say, he was a pretty standard whipping boy for some poets and critics I admired. Wilbur epitomized the ‘cooked,’ say, against which the ‘raw’ work of poets ranging from Olson to Ginsberg to O’Hara could be read.

But when I sat down to read Wilbur’s work for itself and not as evidence of the bankruptcy of mainstream, formal verse of the period, I was struck by what seemed to me to roil beneath the polished surfaces of the poems. This is certainly true of the poems that look back to Wilbur’s wartime experience, poems like ‘First Snow in Alsace.’ Like the frost (and like Frost?), Wilbur’s poem ‘makes marvelous designs,’ but it is aware at every step of the risk it runs of betraying truths. Once you see this in Wilbur (and how can you not?), then his poems are rich sites of vision and revision, spell-casting and skepticism.” 

Michael Gorra, Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English Language & Literature at Smith College: “I met him only a couple of times, and back in the days before email; after he gave a reading here for Parents Weekend, we exchanged a few brief notes. I do have a sense of him from those meetings as warm and generous and curious, interested in and alert to new things — not somebody stuck in the past, for all that his work has a sense of respect for poetic tradition. As for the work, I value the sense of equipoise as a way to keep his balance in a complicated and difficult world.”

Lesléa Newman, Holyoke-based author of numerous books for children and adults: “When I was poet laureate of Northampton, I helped produce an event called ‘Page and Stage,’ which was held at the Academy of Music. The readers were a mix of traditional poets and slam poets. It was a packed house, and as the emcee of the event, I had the honor of introducing Richard Wilbur.

In my introduction, I mentioned his poem ‘The Writer’ and how much it meant to me when I was a high-school student dreaming of being a poet. Though he did not plan to, he read that poem, and I stood in the wings with tears streaming down my face, knowing he was reading the poem as a gift to me. He was a gentleman and a scholar, and participating in a reading with him was and always will be one of the highlights of my literary life.”

Corinne Demas, Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College: “Richard Wilbur was a guest writer in 1981 in the English Department series I organized at Mount Holyoke College. He shared some of his published poems, some new poems, and selections from his recent translations of Molière. In the discussion following the reading, I asked him about his choice to work within the confines of rhyme, and he described how instead of rhyme limiting word choice, it in fact opened up possibilities. It was a new way of looking at the art of writing verse — not just for my students, but for me. The hand-edited, typewritten copy of a poem he read that afternoon is framed on my office wall.”  

Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College: “Over the years, I had extraordinary conversations with Richard Wilbur about poetry and translation... Knowing that English is said to have more words in its reservoir than any other standardized language, we once discussed if this discrepancy gives the English-language poet more tools. His view was uncompromising: It isn’t the number of words that matters but what the poet does with them.” 

Richard Michelson, poet and owner of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton: “He used to bring paintings and drawings into the gallery for framing, and because his father was a painter, and Richard knowledgeable about the art world, we would discuss art. This was our relationship for many years. I never mentioned I was also a poet, because… well, I was enjoying our conversations too much, and it never seemed the right time. Plus, I was in awe of his work and insecure about my own.

When the University of Illinois Press offered to publish [my book of poems] ‘Battles and Lullabies’ in 2006, I finally confessed to Richard and asked if he might offer a blurb. He politely declined, saying he had sworn off blurbing years before, but he asked to see the manuscript for ‘his own pleasure.’ Two days later, I received a letter which summarized, as no one else had, exactly what I was trying to accomplish with my words. I told him I might just chisel that blurb on my gravestone.

Richard also wrote for children, without dumbing down the content, wordplay or rhyme schemes; and because I too have a foot in each field, he was a role model. Poets in this society are often overlooked or dismissed. Perhaps the only ‘job’ with less status than ‘poet’ is ‘children’s poet.’ Yet Richard explained to me how all serious art must begin with a sense of play and fun. It is an idea I keep inside me... His poetry lives within so many of us.”