November 1, 2017KR OnlineSpecial Collections

In Memoriam: Richard Wilbur

Richard WilburRichard Wilbur died last month at the age of ninety-six, still another wonderful American poet—including Derek Walcott, John Ashberry, Nancy Willard, Michael Harper, C.K. Williams, C.D. Wright, and Conrad Hilberry—whose recent loss has diminished our national poetic landscape.

In the legendary (and often cartoonish) battles between so-called academic poets and beat poets that raged into the sixties, Wilbur was often cited as an example of the academic mode, which in the grand oversimplification of the time favored the intellect over emotion, received form over spontaneity, and stuffy convention over explosive creativity.

However misleading those binary oppositions may seem from our current vantage point, their historical importance for how one read, wrote, taught, and wrote about poetry is undeniable. I suspect my own experience may not be untypical.

In 1964, when I was a sophomore at Kalamazoo College who had only recently become interested in poetry and the arts, it was Allen Ginsberg who embodied my understanding of what a poet was. Ironically, the other poet who was my model for the very conception of a poet was Dylan Thomas—not the Dylan Thomas who wrote in traditional poetic form and was a master of meter—but Dylan Thomas the raging drunken poet swinging from chandeliers at parties after poetry readings, defying polite conventions by openly displaying the same passions and tempestuous emotions that were at the heart of his poetry. When Richard Wilbur came to Kalamazoo College in the autumn of 1964 to give a poetry reading, he was already a poet of considerable repute (having won both the National Book Award and the first of his two Pulitzers seven years earlier). Before his reading even started, my cognitive dissonance had made me squirm in my seat. Here was a poet coming to give a reading in the mid-60s to American college students and he was dressed in a three-piece navy blue suit. Those of us interested in such things at the time had already been having the arguments that resurfaced fifty years later when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Poetry: was he a song writer or a poet? Even back then we saw Dylan as a poet, and mainly on the Wordsworthian grounds that poets are people who express the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. As Wilbur began reading his poems, I was consumed by nothing so much as his feet—encased, in accord with his suit, in wingtip shoes—tapping out the rhythms of his poems’ iambic pentameters.

The problem was that I loved what I was hearing. I’d never read his poems before and my naïve presuppositions about poets and poetry surely should have made me respond with outrage and contempt. But I loved it. And when Wilbur, after reading a selection of his own poems, moved on to reading excerpts from the amazing translations of Molière that he had recently completed, I loved it even more.

It took me years to make sense of this quandary, and in many ways I consider the sense I did finally make of it to be at the center of my literary education. I still love Dylan—both Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan—and I still love Richard Wilbur.

About twenty-five years ago the literary critic Nathan Scott sent me a few chapters from a book he was writing, and later published, about contemporary American poetry. One of the chapters was about Wilbur, a poet we had both admired and spoken about frequently over the years. In my enthusiastic response to the chapter on Wilbur I told Nathan a version of the story I told above about seeing Wilbur while I was in college and, despite being befuddled by the combination of his formal attire and tapping wingtip, how taken I was with his poetry. A few weeks later a lovely note arrived in my mail from Richard Wilbur, to whom–unbeknownst to me—Nathan had taken the liberty of passing along my story. I think the note began with the words, “Was I really wearing wingtips too?”

I had also mentioned in my earlier letter to Nathan that one summer day in my early twenties I spent a whole afternoon reading Wilbur’s first few volumes of poetry from beginning to end in one intense sitting. I then fell asleep on the sofa where I was reading and had one of the most powerful dreams of my life. There was no narrative sequence in the dream; it was, instead, an almost muscular reenactment of the rhythms of the poems, a kind of abstract painting of what I later took to be the essence of Wilbur’s poetry, but a painting that had a visceral and palpable, almost muscular kinetic form and movement. As I told Nathan in that letter, I have never had a dream like it, or one in which I felt so powerfully the absolute authenticity of an experience that to this day I cannot explain.

Apparently Nathan had sent Wilbur my whole letter, which included some version of this account of the dream. So after joking about the wingtips, Wilbur went on to tell me that he too had once had such a dream, in his case after reading a story by Borges. He knew exactly what I meant, he said.

I never met Richard Wilbur but his poetry has played a huge role in my life, as I know it has for countless other readers.

Read Richard Wilbur’s “A Voice from Under the Table,” first published in the Winter 1954 issue of the Kenyon Review.

Ronald A. Sharp is Professor Emeritus of English at Vassar College, where he was also Dean of the Faculty from 2003 to 2008. Before coming to Vassar he was John Crowe Ransom Professor of English at Kenyon College, where he also served as Provost, Acting President, and Editor of the Kenyon Review. His six books focus on poetry, Romanticism, Keats, and friendship.