Remembering Richard Wilbur


Thank you all for
coming out today. It’s really wonderful to
see so many people here to celebrate Richard Wilbur’s
poetry and his life at Amherst. He was a poet beloved here at
Amherst over many, many years– many decades. And he really loved the college. He really is a
part of who we are. And as a celebrated
poet, an amazing poet and community member, I’m very
happy to have you here at CHI. I want to thank the English
department, in particular, Karen Sanchez-Eppler,
and our ADC, Heather Grimes, and your
person who helped us, Cassandra Hadrill. Thank you, Cassandra–
who have all put in an enormous
amount of effort to bring this day
together, and to put on a beautiful program for you. It’s funny, having just had
the JFK celebration here, I walk in the mornings
and I see that banner that says, where power
corrupts, poetry cleanses. And I walked past that
yesterday, and I thought, I don’t know. Plato would not have agreed. He would have booted the
poets from the republic. And yet, there is something
about this particular moment, I think, that at least has
brought me to poetry again. Maybe it’s the roiling
politics of the day. But it is a place that
generates complicated thought in a way that is not
about external stimulus and provocation
of the sorts that are so irritating and
enervating at the same time. Thinking about poetry,
reading Richard Wilbur made me think about the last
line of WH Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939,”
where he writes, “May I compose
like them of aeros and of dust, beleaguered by
the same negation and despair, show an affirming flame.” And it’s that
affirming flame that I think I feel when I read
poetry, and in particular, Richard Wilbur’s poetry. We live in a place, we work in a
place, we walk where he walked. We sit where he sat. We see what he saw. But as a poet, he transformed
the world we live in, in ways that are wondrous. And I’m really looking
forward to hearing his words and talking about his
life with you today. So thank you very much. And Karen. Would you come on up? I’m Karen Sanchez-Eppler,
chair of the English department at Amherst, and just
so glad to have this full room, and this
sense of hallowdness. We gather here today in that
aura of poetic inheritance– on Nonotuck land
rife with story, in a college
founded in good part by Noah Webster and
the Dickinson family, and a library named in honor of
Robert Frost, who taught here– to honor Richard Wilbur, twice
winner of the Pulitzer Prize, poet laureate of
the United States, and both a student and a
teacher at this college. When Richard Wilbur’s death
on Ocotober 14th of 2017– just last month– the
English department gathered and wondered what
we might do to mark this loss and to celebrate Richard
Wilbur’s life and poetry. We knew it should be simple,
intimate, full of joy– not so much performance,
as gathering. And decided that
there’s never anything better to do than
to read the poems, and to depend on their generous
humane assurance, that pattern and shape– the beautiful, the
splendor of mere being– will steer us through all
kinds of fear and loss. And I think you’ll
hear that over and over again today in the poems that
we’re going to read with you. So that’s what
we’re going to do. We’re going to read poems. People reading poems
may need to say a little bit about their
relationships with Wilbur, or their relations with the
poem that they’re reading. But not too much, because we’re
going to read lots of poems. And afterwards, there
will be food and drink. No yams and succotash,
but other good things. And in the background,
you’ll hear recordings of settings of Wilbur’s poems. The music that will play
during the refreshments, some are sung by the
Amherst College chorus, and some by the Da Camera
singers, music by Eric Sawyer, by Greg Brown– two Amherst names– and by
Hu Bilianf and Jon Corliado, as well as pieces from
Leonard Bernstein’s “Operetta Candid,”
for which, of course, Richard Wilbur wrote the lyrics. But we thought that we
would begin today’s reading by letting Mr. Wilbur
himself read first. Richard Wilbur is a two-time
Pulitzer Prize winning poet, a poet laureate, a translator,
a master of rhyme, rhythm, meter– widely recognized as one of
the country’s great poets. He is also an Amherst
graduate and has, for many years, been
an Amherst teacher. I want to thank him for
agreeing to read today. Poetry is one of those tools,
one of those generative objects of which we make
much too little use. He has chosen to
read “Seed Leaves.” [APPLAUSE] When Buddy invited me
to read a poem here– are you hearing me, by the way? Good. My colleague and tennis
partner, David Sulfield, suggested an early poem of
mine called “Seed Leaves.” And that was a good idea. It’s a good little
poem, and it’s short. [LAUGHING] Way back there, when
I wrote this poem, I dedicated it to Robert Frost
because we shared a delight in the things of this
season, especially in gardens and gardening. But I’m going to re-dedicate
this poem right now. I dedicate it to the
graduating class at Amherst, and wish them every good thing. [APPLAUSE] “Seed Leaves.” Here, something stubborn comes,
dislodging the Earth crumbs and making crusty rubble. It comes up, bending double,
and looks like a green staple. It could be seedling maple,
or artichoke, or bean– that remains to be seen. Forced to make choice of ends,
the stalk in time unbends– shakes off the seed case, haves
aloft, and spreads two leaves– which still display no
sure and special signature. Toothless and fat, they
keep the oval form of sleep. This plant would
like to grow and yet, be embryo, increase
and yet, escape the doom of taking shape– be vaguely vast, and climb
to the tip end of time with all of space to fill,
like boundless Yggdrasill that had the stars for fruit. But something at the root,
more urgent than that urge, bids two true leaves emerge. And now the plant, resigned
to being self-defined before it can commerce
with the great universe, takes aim at all the sky
and starts to ramify. [APPLAUSE] Take that, Plato. [CHUCKLING] Karen has asked me to say a
word about Richard Wilbur, the Amherst College teacher. There is, as always,
a bit of back story. As a student, Richard
Wilbur began his first year at Amherst College
in September, 1938. He returned as a faculty
member exactly 70 years later, in September, 2008– having accepted
Tony Marx’s offer that he become the
Simpson lecturer. Of course, Dick remembered
that Robert Frost had been appointed to this
distinguished position in order to entice him back to
the college in 1948. Frost had resigned his
faculty position shortly after his wife died
10 years earlier. He moved to Cambridge,
where– eight years later– he met Dick Wilbur, a veteran
of the Second World War who had enrolled as a
graduate student at Harvard. They became friends–
poet friends– notwithstanding that Dick
was 47 years Frost’s junior. This brief history
is apropos, because– whereas Frost fulfilled his
duties as Simpson lecturer by coming to the college
a couple of times each academic year to read his
poems before large audiences in Johnson chapel, and to hold
forth to the fraternity lads after dinner– Dick thought that he
should do more than that. So he determined to teach
regular courses each semester. He must have asked Marx if
I might teach with him– the email message I soon got
from the president expressed emphatically– his wish that I agreed
to take this on. No arm twisting was necessary. That fall, Dick and I– we had
become friends more than 20 years earlier– began seven years
of co-teaching, years in which I learned
to know little about how to read a poem
aloud, and then how to talk about it with the very
good students who seemed always to sign up for our courses. I treasure the memories. What was Dick like
in the classroom? As Bob and Mary Bagg tell us in
their indispensable biography of Dick, he thought of
himself as a teacher who– and I quote the
Bagg’s quoting him– said the following– “I always made an anxious
business of teaching, overprepared all my classes
and sought to seem omniscient,” end quote. When it came to poetry– how it is made, what it
is for, to be of use, he invariably said– he, in fact, was as close
to being omniscient as it is given to mortals to be. And at Amherst,
anyway, he did not make an anxious
business of teaching. The Bagg’s judgment–
and again, I quote– is that we “taught
with great ease.” Great may be a
pardonable exaggeration, but the large number
of messages and letters that have come my way
in the last few days testify to how warm and lively
Dick was in the classroom. The only even semi-serious
anxiety I noticed occurred when early in
that first semester, he forgot his key to our office. He put that to rest by wearing
the same gray tweed sport coat for every subsequent
class for seven years. [LAUGHING] He simply left the key
in the right hand pocket. “Accept the fluster
of lost door keys,” Elizabeth Bishop
amusingly says in One Art. “I’d rather not,” Dick replied. Despite Dick’s slightly grumpy
impatience with slant rhyme– which we amateurs
occasionally resort to– many of our
students have written me in the last two weeks. I will quote but two
representative remarks. In the first, Ambica
Kammas, class of ’13– a brilliant student of biology– states, quoting her, “I’m in
South Africa doing field work at the moment. And I’m going to seek
out a peaceful spot and read aloud my favorite
Wilbur poems into the ether. His grace and sense of fun– both so palpable in his poetry– will always be an
inspiration,” end quote. The second writer
is Roger Creel, ’11, a dancer and choreographer–
soon on his way to graduate school in geology. Quote, “a spark has left the
world with Dick Wilbur gone. A peat fire that burned long,
gave forth continuous heat, and filled the air with comfort. He would have wanted
us to remain joyful, but a leaden feeling
persists,” end quote Dick would have
applauded the metaphor. And here is a poem, “Hamlen
Brook–” that to my mind, is Richard Wilbur
at his very best. It contains the virtues of
his early and late work. On the one hand, the virtuosic
sentence and image-making that– seemingly effortlessly– Dick deploys in the
most traditional of stanzas, the quatrain. And on the other, a description
of a mere inchling trout, a creature that– because Dick
follows its rapid movements with such wonderous
affirmation– seems to represent all
the goodness of creation. Appropriately, given
the epiphanyl nature of this encounter, there is
not a slant rhyme in sight. One further note, the back
story to “Hamlen Brook” has to be Frost’s palm
in hendecasyllabics, for once, then something. Your homework
assignment tonight is to read more than once the
two poems, back-to-back. “Hamlen Brook.” It’s on the Wilbur
property in Cummington. “At the alder-darkened
brink where the stream slows to a lucid jet, I
lean to the water– denting its top with sweat– and see before I can
drink, a startled inchling trout of spotted
near transparency, trawling a shadow
solider than he. He swerves now,
darting out to where in a flick slew of sparks
and glittering silt. He weaves through
stream bed rocks, disturbing foundered leaves. And butts, then, out of
view beneath a sliding glass crazed by the skimming of a
brace of burnished dragonflys across its face. In which deep cloudlets
pass, and a white precipice of mirrored birch
trees plunges down toward where the azures
of the zenith drown. How shall I drink all this? Joy’s trick is to
supply dry lips with what can cool
and slake, leaving them dumbstruck also with an
ache nothing can satisfy.” I once asked Dick about
that unspecified ache, wondering if it
acknowledged a desire that such an experience as the
poem enacts might last forever. Truly wise man that he
was, he simply smiled. I’m going to read “The
Beautiful Changes,” the title poem of Wilbur’s
first collection, and also a poem written
about other kinds of changes that fits well to
the ways that we carry the change that is death. “The Beautiful Changes.” “One wading a Fall meadow
finds on all sides, the Queen Anne’s lace
lying like lilies on water. It glides so from the walker. It turns dry grass to a lake,
as the slightest shade of you valleys my mind in
fabulous blue Lucernes. The beautiful
changes as a forest is changed by a chameleon’s
tuning his skin to it, as a mantis arranged on a
green leaf grows into it, makes the leaf leafier, and
proves any greenness is deeper than any one knows. Your hands hold roses
always in a way that says, they are not only yours. The beautiful changes,
in such kind ways, wishing ever to sunder things
and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose for a moment
all that it touches back to wonder.” I’m going to read a poem
called “Praise In Summer,” it comes right before
“The Beautiful Changes” in the same volume as
the poem Karen read. And it’s a poem that is, in a
sense, about beautiful changes. But also, as it makes its
own changes, it kids itself. And that’s one of the
things that I love about it. You’ll hear that it’s a sonnet. And if you listen
carefully, you’ll also see that it’s a sonnet
that both rigorously observes the sonnet’s conventions of
rhyme, and at the same time, violates the
conventions of octave and sestet in an
exceedingly productive way. It’s a poem– among other
things– about poetry. “Obscurely, yet most
surely call to praise, as sometimes summer
calls us all. I said, the hills are
heavens full of branching ways where star-nosed moles
fly overhead the dead. I said the trees
are mines in air. I said see how the sparrow
burrows in the sky! And then, I wondered why this
mad instead perverts our praise to uncreation, why such
savers in this wrenching thing are things awry. Does sense so stale
that it must needs derange the world to know it? To a praiseful
eye, should it not be enough of fresh
and strange that trees grow green, and moles can
course in clay, and sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?” I’m Betty Martin. I feel so lucky to have
had the opportunity to get to know Richard Wilbur. I will never forget
the honor he did by reading at my inauguration. I believe the idea was David
Sofield’s at commencement, that he allowed us to honor him
with a portrait at the front of Johnson chapel, that
we were able to celebrate his 90th birthday
in the way we did. I feel lucky to be part of a
community that would gather in honor of him to read poetry. I’m going to read “In
The Elegy Season.” Perhaps– among other things–
it’s a bit of a lesson that he teaches us about what
the spirit, the mind, the heart can do in the face
of loss or longing. “Haze, char, and the
weather of all souls. A giant absence
mopes upon the trees. Leaves cast in
casual potpurries, whisper their scents from
pits and cellar-holes. Or brood in gullies
steeped in wells, they spend in chilly steam
their last aromas. Yield from shallow
hells or revenants of field and orchard air. And now, the envious
mind which could not hold the summer
in my head, while bounded by that
blazing circumstance, parades these barrens
in a golden trance, remembering the
wealthy season dead. And by an autumn inspiration,
makes a summer all its own. Green boughs arise
through all the boundless backward of the eyes. And the soul bathes in
warm conceptual lakes. Less proud than this,
my body leans an ear past cold and colder
weather after wings soft commotion, the sun
race of springs, the goddess tread heard on
that dayward stair, longs for the brush
of the freighted air, for smells of grass
and cordial lilac, for the sight of
green leaves building into the light and azure
water hoisting out of wells.” I’m Jane Wald with the
Emily Dickinson Museum. And I have the honor
to read “Altitudes.” This is a poem
that Richard Wilbur read at the opening ceremony
for the Emily Dickinson museum in 2003, when the Homestead and
the Evergreens came together. And then he read again
eight years later at Betty Martin’s inauguration. The first day was an extremely
warm September afternoon, and the second– as I recall– was an extremely
cold, blustery afternoon. The poem itself
also is a little bit of a study in contrast
in different forms of spirituality, where it
begins in the majestic loftiness of a European
cathedral, and then ends in kind of solitary reflection
under Emily Dickinson’s orchard dome. “Look up into the dome. It is a great salon,
a brilliant place, yet not too splendid for the race
who we imagine there, wholly at home with the gold
rosetted white wainscot, the oval windows, and
the faultless figures of the painted vault.
Strolling, conversing in that precious light,
they chat no doubt of love. The pleasant burden
of their courtesy borne down at times to you
and me, where in this dark, we stand and gaze above. For all, they cannot share, all
that the world cannot in fact afford, their lofty premises are
floored with the massed voices of continual prayer. How far it is from here to
Emily Dickinson’s father’s house in America. Think of her climbing
a spiral stair up to the little cupola with
its clear small panes, its room for one. Like the dark house below,
so full of eyes and mirrors and of shut-in flies, this
chamber furnished only with the sun is
she and she alone. A mood to which she rises,
in which she sees bird choristers in all the
trees, and a wild shining of the pure unknown on Amherst. This is caught in the dormers of
a neighbor who, no doubt, will before long, be coming out to
pace about his garden, lost in thought.” Hello, my name’s Amelia Worsley. I’m going to be reading
a poem called “Love Calls us to The Things of This World.” I chose it because
I was actually teaching it to a freshman
seminar class this time last year. And I hope to be teaching
it for many years to come. So I read that the
provocation for this poem was a moment when
Wilbur was staying in an apartment in Italy,
and saw laundry whizzing past his window. It’s a very philosophical poem
with references to Aristotle and to the gospel of St. John. But I think characteristically,
with a lot of self-deprecation and humor when he was
interviewed about this poem in a video you can see online– if you Google it– he said that the thing
he was proudest of was that he used the word hunks. [LAUGHING] So listen up for
that near the end. “Love Calls Us To The
Things Of This World.” “The eyes open to
a cry of pulleys and spirited from sleep,
the astounded soul hangs for a moment, bodyless,
and simple as false dawn. Outside the open
window, the morning air is all awash with angels. Some are in bedsheets, some are
in blouses, some are in smocks. But truly, there they are. Now, they are rising together in
calm swells of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they
wear with the deep joy of their own personal breathing. Now they are flying in place,
conveying the terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
and staying like white water. And now, of a sudden,
they swoon down into so wrapped a quiet that
nobody seems to be there. The soul shrinks
from all that it is about to remember,
from the punctual rape of every blessed
day, and cries, oh, let there be nothing on
Earth but laundry, nothing but rosy hands in
the rising steam, and clear dances done
in the sight of heaven. Yet, as the sun acknowledges
with a warm look the world’s hunks and colors, the
soul descends once more in bitter love to
accept the waking body– saying now in a changed voice
as the man yawns and rises, bring them down from
their ruddy gallows. Let there be clean linen
for the backs of thieves. Let lovers go fresh
and sweet to be undone. And the heaviest nuns walk in
a pure floating of dark habits, keeping their
difficult balance.” I have chosen a small
poem about the small years of large experience,
known as childhood. It’s a small poem, but none
of Wilbur’s poems are slight. All are estimable. “Boy at the Window.” “Seeing the snowman standing
all alone in dusk and cold is more than he can bear. The small boy weeps to hear
the wind prepare a night of gnashing and enormous moan. His tearful sight
can hardly reach to where the pale faced
figure with bitumen eyes returns him such a
god forsaken stare, as outcast Adam
gave to paradise. The man of snow is
nonetheless content, having no wish to
go inside and die. Still, he is moved to
see the youngster cry. Though frozen water
is his element, he melts enough to
drop from one soft eye, a trickle of the purest rain. A tear for the child
at the bright pane surrounded by such warmth, such
light, such love, and so much fear. As you’ve already heard– and
will keep hearing for the next minute– Dick Wilbur was a
master of similes. Baby critics learned that
similes have two parts, a tenor and a vehicle. But even grown up critics can
never remember which is which. This particular poem, “An
Event–” a poem of the ’50s– has a wonderful simile with,
I think three terms on it. It has a flock of birds, it
has a fingerprint, and maybe a glass or two of red wine. I once told Dick– got up my courage to
tell him– that this was my favorite simile
in all of poetry, not barring “The Iliad.” And he said, Tony Heck
liked that one too. [LAUGHING] “An Event.” “As if a cast of grain
let back to the hand, a landscape full of small black
birds intent on the far south convene at some command. At once in the
middle of the air, at once are gone with head
long and unanimous consent from the pale trees and
fields they settled on. What is an individual thing? They roll like a drunken
fingerprint across the sky, or so I give their
image to my soul until– as if refusing to be caught in
any singular vision of my eye, or in the nets and
cages of my thought– they tower up, shatter,
and madden space with their divergences are each
alone swallowed from sight, and leave me in
this place, shaping these images to make them stay. Meanwhile, in some
formation of their own, they fly me still and
steal my thoughts away. Delighted with myself
and with the birds, I set them down and
give them leave to be. It is by words and
the defeat of words down sudden vistas
of the vain attempt, that for a flying
moment, one may see by what cross purposes
the world is dreamt.” The poem I’m going to read– “Advice to a Prophet–” needs
a little back story to it. The Germans
surrendered on May 8. Wilbur did not return to
America for six months. Why was this? Well, he wrote a column
for his division newspaper. And in this division
newspaper, he remarked that an officer of his
acquaintance wore riding boots, carried a riding crop, and
had pearl handled revolvers strapped to his waist. in the absence, Wilbur wrote,
of either horses or enemies. [LAUGHING] So who knows? That might have been
part of the reason why he was kept so
so long in Europe. The other circumstance to this
poem, “Advice to a Prophet” is that it’s on that he
took 19 years to write. He was in a bar. And one of the people there
knew that he was a poet. And he said– this was after
Hiroshima and Nagasaki– why don’t you write a poem about
the significance of the A-bomb? And Wilbur accepted
the challenge. If he could do it,
he would get $10 from the person who
was making the bet. But that didn’t
happen right away. Finally, he was he was
able to write this poem. And if you look
carefully at the poem, there is an undertone to it. He’s not simply
writing to someone who was trying to
explain the horrors of an exchange of atomic bombs. But he’s writing to
himself as the prophet who was giving this warning. “When you come as you must to
the streets of our city, mad eyed from stating the obvious,
not proclaiming our fall, but begging us in God’s
name to have self pity, spare us all word
of the weapons– their force and range. The long numbers
that rocket the mind, our slow un-reckoning
hearts will be left behind, unable to
fear what is too strange. Nor shall you scare us with
talk of the death of the race. How could we dream of
this place without us? The sun, near fire, the
leaves untroubled about us. A stone look on
the stone’s face. 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. We could believe–
if you told us so– that the white tailed deer
will slip into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy. The lark avoid the
reaches of our eye, the jack pine lose its knuckled
grip on the cold ledge. And every torrent
burn, as Xanthas once, its gliding trout
stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without the
dolphins arc, the doves return, these things in which we have
seen ourselves and spoken? Ask us, Prophet, how we
shall call our natures forth when that live tongue
is all dispelled, that glass obscured
or broken, in which we have said the
rows of our love and the clean horse
of our courage in which be the singing
locust of the soul unshelled. And all we mean,
or wish to mean. Ask us, ask us whether
with the worldless rose, our hearts shall fail us. Come demanding
whether there should be lofty or long-standing, when
the bronze annals of the oak tree close.” So if we ask, how did he write? We have the poems,
we have the writings. If we ask, how he taught? We have the testimonials. The next three
presenters are going to give you an opportunity to
ask a very difficult question to answer. How did he read? How did Richard Wilbur read? We don’t really ask ourselves
that question very often. The traces that literary
critics leave of how they read are really very hard to swallow. But the translator first reads. And then, voices. And then, the
reading hears voices, and then voices and writes. How did Richard Wilbur read? How did he read Jorge
Guillen the Spanish poet of life and affirmation? “Muerte A Lo Lejos.” Alguna vez me angustia
una certeza, y ante mi se estremace mi futuro. Acechando esta de
pronto un muro del arrabal final en que
tropieza la luz del campo. Mas habra tristeza
si la desnuda el sol? No, no hay apuro todavia. Lo urgente es el maduro Fruto. La mano ya lo descorteza. Y un dia entre los dias
el mas triste Sera. Tenderse debera
la mano sin afan. Y acatando el inminente
poder dire sin lagrimas: embiste justa fatalidad. El muro cano va a imponerme
su ley, no su accidente. “From A Distance.” “When that, that certainty
appalls my thought, my future trembles
on the road ahead. There, where the light
of the country feel is caught in the blind
final precinct of the dead, a wall takes aim. But what is sad, stripped
bare by the sun’s gaze? It does not matter now, not yet. What matters is the
ripened pear that even now, my hand strips from the bow. And the time will
come, and my hand will reach some day without
desire, that saddest day of all, I shall not weep. But with a proper awl for
the great force impending, I shall say, lay
on, just destiny. Let the whitewall impose on
me its uncapricious law.” Translation– especially
poetic translation– is not for those weak in words. It is– let’s say
it straight out– a violation. And if that violation
is to become a creation, the translator must be at once
modest before his subject, yet bold. Richard Wilbur was
modest and bold– too modest, some said, not
bold enough for others. But in his courageous
translations of some of France’s most complex
yet still accessible poems– from Francois Villon
to Baudelaire– he succeeded in
bringing his confrere to the thirsty attention
of those who both loved the French language, and those
who were not fortunate enough to read or speak it. He wrote at one point
in his typical modesty, one thing that moves a poet to
translate from other tongues– as I know from my
own experience– is the urge to broaden his
utterance through imposture– to say things he is not yet
able to say in his own person. One of his most
marvelous translations– one of my favorite
poems, one in fact, that I read in his class’s
50th reunion in 1992. He came up to me afterwards
and said, so you liked that, did you? It’s a poem, a sonnet by
Joachim du Bellay, a Renaissance writer who was living in Rome
at the time that he wrote it. Though its first word is happy– both in the translation
and the original– it is a poem of
regret and loneliness, one that names the aches
brought on by nostalgia. Yet, it most eminently sings
of the power of the imagination to attenuate these anxieties. In French first. “Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a
fait un beau voyage ou comme cestuy-la qui conquit la
toison, et puis est retourne, plein d’usage et raison,
vivre entre ses parents le reste de son age! Quand revarri-je, helas, de
mon petit village fumer la cheminee, et en quelle saison
revarri-je le clos de ma pauvre maison, Qui m’est un province,
et beaucoup davantage? Plus me plait le sejour
qu’ont bati mes aieux, que des palais Romains
le front audacieux, plus que la marbre dur
me plait I’ardoise fine. Plus mon Loir gaulois, que le
Tibre latin, plus mon petit Lire, que le mont
Palatin, et plus que l’air marin la doulceur angevine.” “Happy The Man.” “Happy the man, who– journeying far and wide
as Jason or Ulysses did– can then turn homeward,
seasoned in the ways of men, and claim his own. And therein peace abide! When shall I see
the chimney smoke divide the sky above
my little town: Ah, when stroll the small
gardens of that house again, which is my realm and
crown, and more beside? Better I love the plain,
secluded home my fathers built than bold facades of Rome, slate
pleases me as marble cannot do. Better than Tiber’s flood, my
quiet Loire, those little hills than these, and dearer
far than great sea winds, the zephyrs of Anjou.” I’m honored to read Mr.
Wilbur’s translation of a poem by the Russian poet
Anna Akhmatova. The poem is “Lot’s Wife.” I think you know the story. [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “Lot’s Wife.” “The just man followed
then his angel guide where he strode on the black
highway, hulking and bright. But a wild grief in his
wife’s bosom cried, look back. It is not too late for a
last sight of the red towers of your native Sodom, the
square where you once sang, the gardens you shall
mourn, and the tall house was empty windows where
you loved your husband and your babes were born. She turned, and looking
on the bitter view, her eyes were welded
shut by mortal pain. Into transparent salt her
body grew, and her quick feet were rooted in the plain. Who would waste tears upon her? Is she not the least of our
losses, This unhappy wife? Yet, in my heart, she
will not be forgot. Who, for a single glance,
gave up her life.” From an unhappy wife to
a brilliantly happy wife, “A Late Aubade,” for
his wife, Charlotte. “You could be sitting
now in a carrel, turning some liver-spotted
page, or rising in an elevator cage toward Ladies’ Apparel. You could be planting a raucous
bed of salvia and rubber gloves, or lunching through
a screed of someone’s loves with pitying head. Or making some
unhappy setter heel, or listening to a bleak
lecture on Schoenberg’s serial technique. [LAUGHING] Isn’t this better? Think of all the time
you are not wasting and would not care to waste. Such things, thank god,
not being to your taste. Think what a lot of time,
by woman’s reckoning, you’ve saved. And so may spend on this,
you who would rather lie in bed and kiss than anything. It’s almost noon, you say? If so, time flies. And I need not rehearse
the rosebuds theme of centuries of verse. If you must go,
wait for a while, then slip downstairs
and bring us up some chilled white wine, and
some blue cheese, and crackers, and some fine
ruddy-skinned pears.” I didn’t know when I chose this
poem, “The Prisoner of Zenda,” that I could introduce
it by saying, if you wonder what Dick
did when Charlie was away, this is what he did. He watched late night movies. And the first time I
heard him read this poem, I believe it was at a
very formal occasion. I think it might have
been in New York City. And I had never
actually read it before. And so to hear him read
it for the first time brought the humor and the
grace that other people have talked about. He introduced the poem always– as he does on the web of
stories when he reads it– by saying that he had fallen
asleep in front of the TV. And one movie led to the next,
and he woke up a little groggy, and just kind of
jotted this down. “At the end The
Prisoner of Zenda,” the King being out of
danger, Stuart Granger, as Rudolph Rassendyll,
must swallow a bitter pill by renouncing his
costar, Deborah Kerr. It would be in poor behavior
in him and in Princess Flavia, where they’d have put their
own concerns before those of the throne. Deborah Kerr must
wed the King instead. Rassendyll turns to go. Must it be so? Why can’t they have their cake
and eat it, for heaven’s sake? Please let them have it both
ways, the audience prays. And yet, it is hard to
quarrel with a plot so moral. One redeeming
factor, however, is that the actor who plays
the once dissolute King, who has learned through
suffering not to drink or be mean to his future queen– far from being a stranger– is also Stewart Granger.” [LAUGHING] I am reading a poem
called “The Writer.” and I have written
probably 100 million pages about raising children, but I
really just wanted to say this. So here’s everything I ever
tried to say in one poem. “In her room at the
Prow of the house where light breaks and the windows
are tossed with linden, my daughter is writing a story. I pause in the
stairwell, hearing from her shut door, a
commotion of typewriter keys– like a chain hauled
over a gunwale. Young as she is, the stuff
of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy. I wish her a lucky passage. But now, it is she who pauses,
as if to reject my thought and its easy figure. A stillness greatens,
in which the whole house seems to be thinking. And then, she is at it
again with a bunched clamor of strokes, and again is silent. I remember the gazed
starling, which was trapped in that
very room two years ago. How he stole in, lifted
a sash, and retreated not to affright it. And how for a helpless hour,
through the crack in the door, we watched this sleek, wild,
dark and iridescent creature batter against the
brilliance, drop like a glove to the hard
floor or the desk top, and wait then humped and bloody
for the wits to try it again. And how our spirits
rose when suddenly sure it lifted off from a
chair back, beating a smooth course for
the right window and clearing the
sill of the world. It is always a matter, my
Darling, of life or death as I had forgotten. I wish what I wished
you before, but harder.” Poe Graham says,
I’m Bill Pritchard. I’m more familiarly known
as William H Pritchard. [LAUGHING] Dick Wilbur and I
were never close. But I think we approved
of each other’s writing. And our relations were cordial. I want to read a short
late poem, the opening poem of his 1987 collected
poems called “The Ride,” Now, I want to make a
brief remark about it, and then read it again. “The Ride.” “The horse beneath me seemed
to know what course to steer, to know what course to steer
through the horror of snow I dreamed. And so I had no fear. Nor was I chilled to death
by the wind’s white shutters, thanks to the veil’s
of his patient breath and the mist of sweat
from his flanks. It seemed that
all night through, within my hand no rein,
and nothing in my view but the pillar of his mane,
I rode with magic ease at a quick unstumbling trot
through shattering vacancies on into what was not, ’til
the weave of the storm grew thin with a
threading of cedar smoke. And the ice blind pain of a
man shimmered, and I awoke. How shall I now get
back to the inn-yard where he stands,
burdened with every lack, and waken the stable
hands to give him before I think that there
was no horse at all, some hay, some water to
drink, a blanket, and a stall? No word has been said against
Richard Wilbur to date. A great critic from
the last century named Hugh Kenner was not
on Dick’s wavelength at all. And in one of his books,
he took the opportunity to mock a bit, an early poem of
Dick’s called “The Juggler–” very elaborate and tricky– as a perfect teacher’s poem,
plenty for the teacher to say. Miss So-and-so, in
the first stanza, do you know that metaphor? And so on, and then talk
about the stanza form. And I thought “The Ride”
was a good antidote to that, because unless I’m
wrong, it doesn’t really give teacher much to say. I might note that only one of
the 28 final words in the lines are of two syllables. I think that eye reading too– if you had a text– might assist the ear a bit in
registering how as “The Ride” progresses, the third
and fourth stanza– there’s seven stanzas– iambic, trimeter, A, B, A,
B, very straightforward. Between the third
and fourth stanzas, a comma ends each one,
rather than a full stop. That may be something that you
need to have the eye, as well as the ear to register. “The Ride.” “The horse beneath me seemed
to know what course to steer through the horror of snow I
dreamed, and so I had no fear, nor was I chilled to death
by the wind’s white shutters, thanks to the veils
of his patient breath and the mist of sweat
from his flanks. It seemed that all night
through, within my hand no rein and nothing in my view
but the pillar of his mane, I rode with magic ease
at a quick stumbling trot through shattering vacancies
on into what was not, ’till the weave of
the storm grew thin, with a threading of cedar
smoke, and the ice blind pain of an inn shimmered,
and I awoke. How shall I now get
back to the inn-yard where he stands,
burdened with every lack, and waken the stable
hands to give him, before I think that there
was no horse at all, some hay, some water to
drink, a blanket, and a stall? I’m Bill Pritchard, or
always wanted to be. [LAUGHING] I’m going to read a short
poem that reminds us of not only what a devoted lover
of the natural world Dick was, but an unsentimental
one as well. “A Barred Owl.” “The warping night
air having brought the boom of an owl’s voice
into her darkened room, we tell the wakened
child that all she heard was an odd question from a
forest bird, asking of us, if rightly listened
to, who cooks for you? And then, who cooks for you? Words, which can make our
terrors bravely clear, can also thus domesticate a
fear and send a small child back to sleep at night not
listening for the sound of stealthy flight or
dreaming of some small thing in a claw borne up to some
dark branch and eaten raw.” [LAUGHING] I was fortunate enough to have
Richard Wilbur as a professor twice while I was at Amherst
in my poetry courses. And I feel very lucky to
have had that opportunity to study with him. I still have all of his
handwritten encouraging notes on the drafts of my poems. And I picked this poem
to read, because it is in a form that has become
my favorite form of verse since graduating
from Amherst College. It is a rhyming
stanzaic haiku poem. And as David Soefield
and Daniel Hall know, I have attempted to imitate
this form many times. And he makes it sound
truly effortless. So I hope you enjoy
it as much as I do. “Zea.” “Once their fruit is picked,
the cornstalks lighten, and though keeping
to their strict rows, begin to be the tall
grasses that they are– lissom, now, and free
as canes that clatter in island wind or plumed
reeds rocked by a lake water. Soon, if not cut
down, their ranks grow whistling dry and
blanch to lightest brown, so that, one day, all their
ribbonlike down-arcing leaves rise up and fall
in tossed companies, like goose wings beating
southward over the changed trees. Later, there are days full of
bare expectancy, downcast hues, and haze, days of an utter
calm, in which one white corn leaf, oddly aflutter its
fabric sheathing a gaunt stem, can seem to be the
sole thing breathing.” I’m Jennifer Acker and The
Common literary magazine. And I’m particularly grateful
for Wilbur’s early support for the magazine. And as you might imagine
from his modesty, he was particularly fond
of the title, The Common. I do want to point out
also, there is an essay– an early version– from Bob
and Mary’s book about Wilbur called “The Poet in Rome” that
appeared in The Common in issue four in 2012. And I think there are copies
of it over here by the door. And that sort of digs in
to Wilbur’s time in Rome, and the poems that that
came out of that era. I’m going to read “Mayflies,”
which was a favorite. There were several of us
considering this poem. And I just appreciate its
calm and its call to ah. “Mayflies.” “In somber forest,
when the sun was low, I saw from unseen
pools a mist of flies, in their quadrillions rise, and
animate a ragged patch of glow, with sudden glittering– as when a crowd of stars
appear, through a brief gap in black and driven cloud,
one arc of their great round dance showing clear. It was no muddled
swarm I witnessed, for in entrechats,
each fluttering insect there rose two steep
yards in air, then slowly floated down
to climb once more, so that they all
composed a manifold and figured scene,
and seemed the weavers of some cloth of gold,
or the fine pistons of some bright machine. Watching those lifelong dancers
of the day as night closed in, I felt myself alone in a life
too much my own, more mortal in my separateness than they– unless, I thought, I had been
called to be not fly or star, but one whose task
is joyfully to see how fair the fiats
of the caller are.” This is a late poem by Richard
Wilbur called “The Reader.” And I imagine his aspect as
he’s writing this poem watching a young child read, as a
kind of metaphor for our kind gaze down at us, caught up
in the wonder of imagination. “The Reader.” “She is going back, these
days, to the great stories that charmed her younger mind. A shaded light shines
on the nape, half shadowed by her curls,
and a page turns now with a scuffing sound. Onward, they come
again, the orphans reaching for a first
handhold in a stony world, the young provincials who at
last look down on the city’s maze, and will descend into it. The serious girl, once
more who would live nobly, the sly one who
aspires to marry so, the young man bent on glory, and
that other who seeks a burden. Knowing as she does
what will become of them in bloody
field or Tuscan garden, it may be that at times she sees
their first and final selves at once as a god might
to whom all time is now. Or, having lived
so much herself, perhaps she meets them
this time with a wiser eye, noting that Julien’s calculating
head is from the first two severed from his heart. But the true wonder of it
is that she, for all that she may know of
consequences, still turns enchanted to the next bright
page like some Natasha in the ballroom door– caught in the flow of
things wherever bound, the blind delight of
being, ready still to enter life on life
and see them through.” In Auden’s “Elegy for
William Butler Yeats,” he describes the cold dark day
the poet died, and says that, “by morning tongues
the death of the poet who was kept from his poems.” And I’ve noticed something
like the opposite happening in Richard Wilbur’s case. It seems to me that
several of his poems have undergone slight changes
in the aftermath of his death, as if in response to. The transformation has been
most obvious in an elegy for his wife, Charlie,
called simply, “The House,” where once
the speaker sounded to be like a man half in
love with easeful death, the voice has gone slightly
remote and otherworldly. That is, in a theory
way, the poem now seems to elegize
the two of them. “The House.” “Sometimes, on waking,
she would close her eyes for a last look at
that white house she knew in sleep alone, and
held no title to, and had not entered yet, for all her sighs. What did she tell me
of that house of hers? White gatepoast, terrace,
fanlight of the door, a widow’s walk above
the bouldered shore. Salt winds that ruffle
the surrounding firs. Is she now there,
wherever there may be? Only a foolish man would hope
to find that haven fashioned by her dreaming mind. Night after night, my
love, I put to sea.” And now, as a way to celebrate
the celebration maybe, Dick will read a poem. [APPLAUSE] I was watching a few minutes
of the Academy Awards recently, and I noticed how hard
it is for honorees simply to say, thank you,
and let it go at that. I am going to say that in
a moment, after which I’ll go back to my hick town
in Western Massachusetts. And here is a little
poem spoken by me as a coming to
Massachusetts hick. Out here, strangers might
wonder why that big snow shovel’s leaning against
the house in July. Has it some cryptic meaning? It means, at least
to say, that here, we needn’t be neat about
putting things away as on some suburban street. What’s more, by leaning
there, the shovel seems to express with
its rough and ready air a boast of ruggedness. If a stranger said in sport, I
see you’re prepared for snow, our shovel might retort,
out here, you’ll never know. [LAUGHING] [APPLAUSE] Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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