Studying with Richard Wilbur


For the Bulletin
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

I was one of the lucky students to take a class with Richard Wilbur. It was during the Fall of 2014 at Amherst College, and Wilbur was co-teaching with Professor David Sofield a course called: “Poetry 1914-2014: The American Century.” The class met twice a week, right after lunch, on Mondays and Wednesdays. The arrangement was such that Wilbur would only come to class on Mondays since he didn’t have the energy to make it to campus twice a week. 

He always walked into class with a Coca-Cola can. His gait had the ponderous weight of a Michelangelo statue. All eyes would immediately settle on him as he made his way to his chair. Sometimes he didn’t talk all that much and apologized in advance for feeling exhausted. But when he talked, you didn’t want to miss a single word. Our syllabus included a handful of poets: Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, and Richard Wilbur himself. He had something to say about each of them. He told us about his fond memories of Merrill and Bishop. And most importantly, he always, always read for us. Wilbur is the best reader of poetry I have ever known. The contemplative rigor of his delivery and his dedication to recognize the distinct individuality of each word often reminded me of Seamus Heaney.   

He preferred to sit back when we, the students, got carried away with self-serving theoretical explications. It wasn’t that he didn’t have a taste for it. To the contrary, he listened to our comments with genuine curiosity. But clearly that’s not where his interest as a poet lay. And in all honesty, none of the theoretical babble stayed with me after taking the course, though I do still find myself returning to the notes I made while listening to him reading the poems; all of them a record now of the rise and fall of his voice in that little classroom at Amherst.

Wilbur taught me that the mere act of reading of poetry can be equally if not more powerful than any theoretical game we may choose to play with a poem. There was never a doubt that he had prepared for every poem on the syllabus with painstaking precision. (“It is always a matter, my darling, / Of life or death, as I had forgotten.”) On the rare occasion that Prof. Sofield asked him to read a poem that was not assigned for the day, Wilbur would read it with a slight discontent: “I apologize for any errors I might make while reading the poem. I simply did not prepare for this one.”

If I can think of one word to describe the intensity of the feeling in the room while Wilbur read, it would be fragile. His was the kind of precision that made you preemptively worry about the possibility of an interruption, about sounds that could potentially disturb this sublime moment: Gosh, please no coughs, no squeaks! His reading granted poems a permanent vitality. The entire room vibrated with indecision as the individual rhythms of each student, furniture and object yielded to the more pressing and convincing conception of existence captured in his cadence. Wilbur records the thermodynamics of such attention in “The Writer”: “A stillness greatens, in which / The whole house seems to be thinking.” 

 My favorite poem by Wilbur is “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” which starts like this:

The eyes open to a cry of

And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul

Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple

As false dawn.

If you listen to Wilbur’s reading of the poem, you might feel the tension between the experience of lightness described in these lines and the firm situated-ness he awarded to every word. This was one of the things that fascinated Wilbur the most. On the one hand, he wants us to notice the lightness of perception, relationships and meaning, and on the other, he knew very well that careful attention is everything, that without rooted contemplation we could not genuinely appreciate beauty. Notice how the images Wilbur uses in the stanza above play with this tension between lightness and weight: There is the uncontrollable movement and unorthodox relationality that is available to the waking eyes, but notice also how the images (pulleys) and the general movement evoke weight and downward pull. In fact, the entire poem will turn out to be about the irresistible and metaphorical lightness of hanging laundry and its equally forceful life-affirming earthiness. 

We find an analogous tension in “Attention Makes Infinity”: “Contagions of the solid make this day / An infiniteness any eye may prove.” Similarly, in “Winter Spring,” Wilbur describes the “too-soon spring” that brings a welcome pause to the mind’s never-ending tendency to calibrate during the winter: “And doubtless it is dangerous to love / This somersault of seasons; / But I am weary of / The winter way of loving things for reasons.”

This somersault of seasons. The precision is incredible. The beauty of this passing moment, the acrobatic lightness of time is captured in this heavyweight of a word: somersault. We are liberated and transfixed at the same time.

“Thing” must have been one of Wilbur’s favorite words. It perfectly captures the gaseous absence of a name for what we are seeing or experiencing, while preserving a sense of its physical reality. In another masterful poem, “Advice to a Prophet,” Wilbur writes:

Speak of the world’s own change. Though we cannot conceive

Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost

How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,

How the view alters.

How the dreamt cloud crumbles. The monosyllables insist that we give the line what it deserves, that we feel the punch of every single word. Dreams thicken our sense of being. The absent thing maneuvers us into perspective. 

Looking back to my classes with Richard Wilbur, I remember the urgency he was able to infuse into every single word. There is no other way to become a poet. Or to read a poem, for that matter. Wilbur’s passing also fills me with nostalgia, for I find myself wondering whether this kind of patient, dutiful and humble appreciation of art is still possible today. This way of teaching where a virtuoso models for the student a heightened experience with a work of art seems to be on its way out. It’s unfortunate. Without this mode of aesthetic engagement with art, no political or theoretical reading can convince us of its necessity.

Melih Levi is a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University.