Richard Wilbur '42, here in his book-lined study, is as creative as ever, using pencil and paper and the old Smith typewriter in the foreground to produce some of the strongest poems of
A Poet Still: Richard Wilbur at 85
“When I first had the opportunity to spend a little time with Richard Wilbur,” President Anthony W. Marx said during an April event honoring the poet and the publication of his Collected Poems 1943-2004, “we were walking across the quad, and he recalled being in the chapel as a student, looking out the window during the hurricane of 1938—the hurricane that devastated the quad. He described looking out the window during this hurricane and ‘watching the trees lie down.’ I remember for days after this event thinking, ‘What is it? Is it that poetic things happen to this man? Or is it that he sees poetry in things that we all see?’”
Reading over Wilbur’s 60 years of poems, one is tempted to endorse Marx’s second idea: Ping-pong balls “scatter their hollow knocks / Like crazy clocks” at a seaside hotel on a rainy day; a headland “Lunges into the rumpling / Capework of the wind” during a sleepless night; and wild blackberry flowers are “As random-clustered and as loosely strewn / As the far stars.” Seeing the profound in the prosaic is one of Wilbur’s hallmarks, and one of the reasons he was named the nation’s second Poet Laureate in 1987-88. In addition to that honor, he’s won dozens of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize twice (the only living poet so honored), the National Book Award and the Wallace Stevens Prize.
A big man with a full head of slightly shaggy brown hair, Wilbur is dignified and unfailingly courteous, and he speaks as he writes: with deep economy. But there is a twinkle in his eye and a wryness in his rejoinders that suggest an underlying mischievousness. And for all his dignity and prestige, he is notably unpretentious. When I visited his home in the Berkshires on a warm day, he was wearing shorts and a plaid shirt and offered me a ham sandwich on white.
Wilbur looks at least a decade younger than his 84 years. He still “hobbles around the court” playing doubles tennis with partner and poet David Sofield, the Samuel Williston Professor of English, and he still digs up the herb garden on the 80-acre property in Cummington, Mass., where he lives with his wife, Mary Charlotte (“Charlee”). Physical activity, Wilbur says, gives a “radical sense of rhythm” that is crucial for a writer. One of the few signs of age he displayed when I visited him was a slight hesitation as he carefully negotiated the steps to his study (his artificial right hip, installed more than 10 years ago, is starting to wear out and hurts a bit). The study was built in 1995; the original study, a converted silo, was destroyed by a tornado that fortunately missed the main house. Besides thousands of books, the two rooms contain photos of poet friends like Howard Nemerov and “Mister Frost” and a bust of Moliere.
Wilbur is renowned as a translator of Moliere—a profitable niche, as his Moliere versions are staged regularly. He also has translated the playwright Jean Racine and poets from Baudelaire to Brodsky. He has written Broadway show lyrics, most notably Candide, a collaboration with Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein; his new book samples three show lyrics. He’s also published two collections of critical essays, exactly one short story and, perhaps surprisingly, a number of children’s books. Five of the children’s books are collected in the new anthology, including three that feature Wilbur’s own simple, comical line drawings. In addition to his writing and translating, he taught for 40 years at Harvard, Wellesley, Wesleyan and Smith before retiring in the late 1980s.
Before the distinguished career and the poems that have earned a permanent place in American literature, Wilbur was just another undergrad at Amherst, which he attended at the suggestion of a family friend. The presence of Robert Frost on the faculty was a powerful inducement to attend, but when Wilbur arrived as a gaunt 17-year-old first-year student in 1938, the English department was Frost-free. The great man had left because of an administrative disagreement, and didn’t return until after Wilbur had graduated. (Wilbur got to know Frost well at Harvard in the ’50s.)
At Amherst, Wilbur edited The Amherst Student, aiming at a career in journalism. He also wrote poetry casually, “not fancying it would be my major business. What most excited me at Amherst,” he says, “was not my own potentiality as a poet but the new critical disciplines of close attention and analysis, which some of my English teachers espoused.”
He fondly recalls professors Theodore Baird, Armour Craig ’37, George Whicher ’10 and George Roy Elliot. “I had the feeling teachers were very devoted and putting their best into brightening you up a little,” he says. “I’m grateful for the tolerance of professors for someone who was socially immature and in various ways disorganized. I drank a lot of beer and was much concerned with my own writing.” Wilbur’s teachers also showed him that becoming a literary scholar could be a respectable career.
“I’m always glad to have been steered in the direction of Amherst,” he says. “I had had a somewhat solitary country upbringing and needed to be immersed in people in a way only a small college could do.”
Meanwhile, he was discovering poets like Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore—who all wrote nontraditional verse that Wilbur admired for its venturesomeness. Wilbur began writing poetry seriously in Army boot camp, shortly after graduation. He wrote poems on the troopship, ignoring the jostling, and kept at it throughout the war, despite artillery barrages and other distractions. “Under Army circumstances, writing poetry is one of the few things you can do,” he says. “Poetry is a good therapy if your inner and outer worlds have become disordered and confusing.” He stuffed the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins and others into his musette bag, using space, he says, that should have been reserved for a gas mask. On the front lines in Italy, Wilbur saw death and destruction but also experienced camaraderie and adventure. His division liberated Rome: “It was a great thing to ride in triumph down the main drag.” After the war, the GI Bill paid for Wilbur’s studies at Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree in 1947, the year his first book appeared.
Wilbur says he’s never kept regular hours or treated writing poetry “like a job.” In his younger days, he’d write anywhere, but today he retreats to his study for inspiration.
“Mostly, I sit in a chair in that building looking catatonic and let some unformulated material see if it wants to come out. When a few interesting words have occurred to me, words to begin with, it happens because there’s been a lot of unformulated interest in what will turn out to be the subject, and these initial words will draw the subject out of me. It’s a lot like meditation. The meditation I do when writing a poem is quite as serious as might be accomplished under New Age rules,” he says, chuckling.
He says he doesn’t let himself get away with any opening words he doesn’t find truly interesting. Once he’s got going, he knows “in a hazy way what the poem is going to be about,” and roughly how long it will be. “I let the words find what rhythm they like, take what line length they like, start rhyming if they want to,” he says. He avoids too much planning: “You do want there to be some discoveries, some surprises for you as you go along. I think the poem writes you; you find out what it wants to say—as you progress the right word is the word that reveals to you what your direction is.”
Wilbur slowly writes his drafts in pencil, honing each word and line until it’s right. “I can spend a whole day writing one line, and I can spend months, on and off, writing a poem of middle size,” Wilbur says. “I sometimes annoy myself by being so picky, so insistent on every step seeming a good one to me.”
Despite that slow process, Wilbur’s poems often have an immediacy that gives the reader the feeling that he or she is there with the poet, witnessing an April snowfall or walking among fern beds. “The big danger in writing slowly is that you will lose that sense of suddenness with which such things come to you,” he says. He continually reminds himself to keep his words fresh, and his experience writing for the stage helps him keep the “flavor of speech” in his verse.
It isn’t meter and rhyme that make the writing so laborious. Much harder, he says, is “finding the next interesting word or next pertinent word” and using the formal elements to put the emphases in the right places. “I think the use of rhyme and meter is all about aiming at a maximum precision of meaning and feeling,” he adds. “The sort of thing that would force a free-verse poet to use an exclamation point is accomplished ideally by the formal poet by getting the flow of his words in the right relation to the meters and rhymes that will emphasize it.” His goal is to use formal devices to achieve “greatest possible precision and the greatest possible power or emotional force. I want there to be detectable and strong feeling.”
Wilbur may deliberate over each word in a poem, but he never reconsiders the poem as a whole once he’s reached the end. “I’m absolutely incapable of revision,” he confesses. “For me, either a thing works, or it does not. I think the reason I’m averse is because I’m so damned slow. If I’ve taken a long time spoiling a poem, I don’t have the heart or patience to go back and give that another week, another month.” He occasionally discards a finished poem, but aborts most failed poems mid-way. “I always regret throwing something away that has some good licks in it,” he says, but nevertheless, into the trashcan it goes. When he has a keeper in pencil-written form, he bangs it out on his ancient L. C. Smith typewriter.
Lately, that typewriter has been especially busy: Wilbur’s recent poems are among his best. “The poems keep insisting on being written,” he says. “Things just keep coming to me.” Wilbur says his poetry has become more personal of late, more concerned with emotionally urgent matters. “Growing old and noticing that your friends are dying, and that you’re going to, can affect your attitude toward everything, including the poems that you write,” he says. “I’ve written more poetry about mortality or about my efforts to recapture the past in recent years.”
Wilbur also continues to work on translations. He’s currently working on an early Moliere play, Lovers’ Quarrels, which he believes hasn’t been translated before. His earlier translation work, too, is enjoying a resurgence. The Arion Press published a deluxe limited edition of Moliere’s Tartuffe in 2004, and Wilbur hopes to persuade his editor at Harcourt to publish a two-volume edition of his collected Moliere translations. Though translation takes emotional involvement, it “doesn’t seem as dangerous as writing your own poems,” he says. Indeed, he says this work improves his poetry. “If you translate from an author who is rather unlike you and find the right English words for what his main character has to say, it will affect what you feel able to write in your own person. It will enlarge your voice somewhat and also make you capable of impersonating a broader range of persons in your own poetry.”
Wilbur can’t explain the secret of poetic productivity in old age, but he’s grateful that, like an aging pitcher, he still has his fastball. “Frankly, I agree that some of my late poems are amongst my best,” he says. “I’m very glad that in spite of whatever difficulties accompany being 84 and a poet, I’m still able to write the occasional strong poem. I was pleased that I could have a self-respecting new section in my Collected Poems. It is hard to keep thinking day and night about an evolving poem, keep working on it all the time as one did when one was young. But I still seem to remember most of the words I used to know, and I think my taste in regard to my own work is still fairly trustworthy.”
Because of his long career, Wilbur offers a particularly valuable perspective on changes in the U.S. poetry scene over the past 60 years. In the 1940s and ’50s, poets struggled to get published in a handful of magazines like Poetry and The New Yorker. Readings were rare, and only Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay and eventually Marianne Moore drew crowds. Wilbur recalls a 1952 Stevens reading at Harvard that was “stormed” and had to be moved twice to larger rooms. No one had expected more than a handful to show up. (Stevens glanced at the crowd and crowed, “If only the boys at the office could see me now!”)
These days, readings have exploded, and they’ve “greatly increased the genuinely interested audience for poetry,” Wilbur says. “All that is good.” However, many subsidized little magazines have sprung up, and much more mediocre work is getting published, he says. “Since the 1960s,” he says, “there has been an unfortunate full establishment of an unambitious and lax style—the sort of thing that is written by the average member of a creative writing class and is tolerated by the kind teacher. Almost anything can get into print nowadays. If publication is what you want, you can get it.”
Much of today’s free verse, he says, evinces “a complete lack of formal ambition,” and employs just one formal device: the line break. While Wilbur admires the best free verse (he says “there are at least 30 or 40 poets—of all kinds—in America who are honoring the art by what they do”), attaining excellence in that form is extremely hard, and he says that most people don’t manage it. For those reasons, he doesn’t read contemporary poetry extensively, finding much of it excessively personal and flat. The language, he says dismissively, is often no more interesting than that of “the fellow on the next barstool. If poetry is to have any of that power that anciently it has had,” he says, “it needs to have a variation of diction and no stern rules in favor of simplicity.”
Wilbur’s emphasis on elevated language and sophisticated form has led some critics to claim that his poetry, though accomplished, is merely decorative and doesn’t plumb the depths of human experience. He thinks such critics believe “that any poem that isn’t artlessly free verse and insistently sincere is just showing off and doesn’t have sufficient emotional content.” Critic and poet Adam Kirsch, author of The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets, says that people who complain about the decorativeness of Wilbur’s poetry are missing the point. “Wilbur continues the great American tradition of transcendentalism,” Kirsch says. “He sees God in nature in a way that most writers no longer can. The beauty and gracefulness of his verse are not just decorative, but a genuine reflection of the universe that Wilbur perceives. This makes him one of the most convincing formal poets in a period where formal verse is generally a neglected art.”
Other critics seem to resent Wilbur for having too sunny a temperament; in their canon, writing that doesn’t dwell on despair and darkness cannot be great. (Unlike that of many troubled artists, Wilbur’s life doesn’t make for sensational copy: He’s been married to same woman for 63 years and hasn’t attempted suicide or been addicted to drugs or alcohol.) However, as Wilbur points out, it can be harder to write about the bright side than to “record what is glum and negative.” He says he isn’t “a booster” but strives to “report human feeling with fullness and variety.”
What accounts for his upbeat view of the world? “A bit of maverick religion and innate optimism,” he says. While Wilbur has been a lifelong churchgoer, he’s less interested in doctrine than the “sense that there is indeed a transcendent world interested in our world down to the nuts and bolts. I have a primitive feeling that order and comeliness in the world, wherever one finds those things, reflect the nature of the creator.” His positive perspective is also informed by a close relationship with his four children and three grandchildren and his enduring partnership with his wife.
But the Wilburs’ peaceful world was upended in early 2004, when Charlee had a life-threatening embolism after knee replacement surgery. She had to be hospitalized for three months, followed by three more months in a rehabilitation center. Now she’s back at home, and Wilbur has become a caregiver. Charlee enjoys reading Larry McMurtry novels—also among Wilbur’s favorites—and when she tires of that,
he reads Chekhov stories to her. “Now that she’s home, everything seems all right to me,” he says. “She’s steadily doing better.”
Wilbur says he isn’t concerned about his place in literary history, but hopes some of his poems will be remembered and remain “emotionally useful” to people. “I would like a few of my best poems to linger in people’s pockets, on people’s shelves and in their memories for a while,” he says. “There’s nothing so pleasing to a poet as to find that some of his poems have really gotten into people’s lives.”
—Henry Stimpson is a writer in Wayland, Mass.
Photo: Frank Ward