Catching Up With Poet Richard Wilbur
By Henry Stimpson
In 1957 poet Richard Wilbur’s third book, Things of This World, received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Wilbur was one among a coterie of poets publishing at the time that included Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Robert Penn Warren. Almost 50 years—and another Pulitzer Prize, among many other accolades—later, Wilbur is still writing. In December Harcourt published Collected Poems 1943-2004, which includes thirteen new poems since his collection, Mayflies (Harcourt), was published in 2000, and Wilbur is still adding to his oeuvre.
“The poems keep insisting on being written. Things just keep coming to me,” says Wilbur, who looks about a decade younger than his 83 years. One of the few signs of age is a slight hesitation as he carefully negotiates the steps to his study, built shortly after a May 1995 tornado destroyed his original study, a converted silo, but missed the home he shares with his wife Mary Charlotte (who goes by Charlee) in Cummington, Massachusetts, on 80 acres in the Berkshire hills. His artificial right hip, installed more than 10 years ago, is starting to wear out and hurts a bit. A lifelong tennis player, he still “hobbles around the court” and tends to his herb garden; physical activity that gives a “radical sense of rhythm,” he says, is crucial for a writer.
Widely regarded as America ’s greatest living traditional poet—a master of meter, rhyme and stanza form—Wilbur has retained in his new poetry the wit and formal precision that’s been his hallmark throughout his career. But his new work is more personal, 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.”
Since his first book of poetry, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1947), Wilbur has published eight collections and won dozens of awards, including the $150,000 Wallace Stevens Prize in 2003. He is the only living poet to have received the Pulitzer Prize twice—the second time was for his New and Collected Poems (Harcourt, 1988)—and he served as the nation’s second Poet Laureate from 1987 to 1988. Wilbur is also renowned as a translator of poets from Baudelaire to Brodsky and of the French playwrights Moli P re and Racine—a profitable niche, as his Moli P re versions are staged regularly. He has written Broadway show lyrics as well, most notably Candide (1956), a collaboration with Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein.
As one might imagine, Wilbur has witnessed enormous change in the U.S. poetry scene over the 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. He 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.
These days readings have exploded, and they’ve “greatly increased the genuinely interested audience for poetry,” Wilbur says. “All that is good.” What’s not so good, he says, is the amount of mediocre work getting published in the many small subsidized magazines that have sprung up. “Almost anything can get into print nowadays. If publication is what you want, you can get it,” he says.
His biggest complaint about contemporary poetry is the dominance of free verse, much of which, he says, evinces “a complete lack of formal ambition,” and employs just one formal device: the line break. While Wilbur admires what he considers to be the best free verse, he asserts attaining excellence in it “is extremely hard, and most people don’t manage it.” He admits he doesn’t read contemporary poetry extensively, finding much of it excessively personal and flat, the language no more interesting than that of “the fellow on the next barstool.”
But he also acknowledges that there are many superb poets working in both traditional and free forms and that he admires practitioners from “all of the possible categories,” he says. “ America right now has at least thirty or forty poets in it that one would want to read and who are honoring the art by what they do.”
As a young man, Wilbur would write poems anywhere—including the corridors of the troopship that transported him to battle in World War II. These days he retreats to his study for inspiration. “Mostly, I sit in a chair 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, [they] will draw the subject out of me,” he says. Once he has a vague sense of the poem’s subject and length, he lets language drive the poem. “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.”
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 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 which will emphasize it.”
His poems would seem to be the product of countless drafts, but astonishingly, they’re not. “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, he bangs it out on his ancient L. C. Smith typewriter.
Besides his own poetry, Wilbur continues to work on translations. He’s currently translating an early Moli P re play, Lovers’ Quarrels, he believes hasn’t been translated before. Arion Press published a deluxe limited edition of his translation of Moli P re’s Tartuffe last summer, and Wilbur hopes to persuade his editor at Harcourt to publish a two-volume edition of his collected Moli P re translations.
Though translation takes emotional involvement, it “doesn’t seem as dangerous as writing your own poems,” he says. Besides offering a break from the more unpredictable business of original poetry, translation offers other benefits. “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’s personal and family life has served as his foundation for his long and continuing productivity as a writer. Besides enjoying good health, he has a close relationship with his four children and three grandchildren, who range in age from 13 to 30, and has been happily married to Charlee since 1942.
But the Wilburs have recently faced some trials. In early 2004 Charlee had a life-threatening embolism after knee-replacement surgery. She had to be hospitalized three months, followed by three more months in a rehabilitation center. She’s back at home, but still has difficulties with her balance and with walking. She spends some of her time reading Larry McMurtry novels—also one of Wilbur’s favorites—and when she tires of that, Wilbur reads Chekhov stories to her. “Now that she’s home, everything seems all right to me,” he says.
“In spite of whatever difficulties that accompany being 83 and a poet, I’m still able to write the occasional strong poem,” says Wilbur. “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.”
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. He recently received a letter from a woman who wrote that her late friend kept Wilbur’s poem, “A Late Aubade,” in his wallet for decades in remembrance of his wife. “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. It gives you a feeling of usefulness and of being involved with people at important moments.”
Henry Stimpson is president of Stimpson Communications in Wayland, Mass., a public relations firm specializing in professional services. Contact him at 508-647-0705 or Henry [at] StimpsonCommunications.com