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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,585

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This is the grave of Richard Wilbur.

Born in 1921 in New York City, Wilbur grew up in New Jersey. His father was a portrait painter and his mother came from an old Baltimore newspaper family, so an artistic career was something always possible to him. He was on the school newspaper in his high school, graduated in 1938, and went to Amherst College. He worked in literary stuff there too, again including the paper. He graduated from there in 1942 and went into Army for the rest of the war, where he was just a regular soldier who saw combat. He wanted to be a cryptographer, but he had flirted with communism in college and so was seen as too politically suspect for such a sensitive job. He later claimed he was just a New Deal liberal, but that was later so who knows what he was really up to in the early 40s. After he got back in 1945, he enrolled at Harvard for this PhD, which he finished in 1947. He would teach poetry and literature at various colleges over his professional career, first at Wellesley, then Wesleyan, and finally at Smith.

These details aren’t overly interesting though. What made Wilbur famous was the poetry, not the teaching. He became a major American poet. He published The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, in 1947, his first book. There would be a lot of books over the years. In fact, he won the Pulitzer Prize twice, first for 1956’s Things of this World and then for 1988’s New and Collected Poems. Wilbur was a poet of the everyday, someone who more people probably could relate to than a lot of poetry. In this, he was something of a follower of Robert Frost, arguably the most read poet of the 20th century.

However, for a lot of critics, this made Wilbur a stuffy, old, out of fashion poet in the era of Sylvia Plath or the Beats. His New York Times obituary gets into this a good bit, reprinting a 1976 complaint about him from their poetry critic that read, “While we acknowledge his erudition and urbanity, we regretfully liken his mildness to the amiable normality of the bourgeois citizen.” I am not sure why art is not supposed to have the amiable normality of the bourgeois citizen, but then I am just an unfrozen caveman historian, so what do I know?

However, the Times obituary also published a response to this article, which evidently angered a lot of poetry fans out there. And it reads: “Sirs, the man has had a feast set before him, the very best, and complains because it is not a peanut butter and ketchup sandwich.”

………

OK, I don’t want to derail this post….but PEANUT BUTTER AND KETCHUP!!!!! Is this a thing? Is the world trolling me? And this is supposed to defend Wilbur? I mean, good lord people. Anyway.

Wilbur also did translation work, including an important translation of Molière’s Tartuffe. Evidently, this remains the standard English translation of the play to the present. This reminds me that I need to find my old copy of that and read it again. I am sure that when I read it, it was the Wilbur translation, though I am writing this from out of town so I can’t absolutely guarantee that. He became a major translator of other French works as well, particularly the plays of Racine. He also did translation from Spanish and Russian.

Somewhat interesting that his translation work focused on drama instead of poetry. Translation is one of those jobs that I rely on all the time, thanks to these people who have incredibly deep understanding of at least two languages, the patience to figure out how to get the spirit of the language correctly when there is no direct translation, and the intense concentration to see it through. Poetry seems even harder to translate, simply based on the nature of how poets use language. So I thought this was a good time to give a shout out to translators.

Wilbur also had interests in popular culture. He worked with Leonard Bernstein on the 1956 production of Candide, writing the lyrics to several of the songs, including “Glitter and Be Gay,” which became the hit song of the production and made a theater star of Barbara Cook, who originally sang it.

In 1987, Wilbur became the nation’s Poet Laureate. This was the second person to hold the honorary title, behind Robert Penn Warren. He won basically every poetry award in the United States. In 1994, he won a National Medal of Arts from President Clinton.

Let’s read a couple of Wilbur poems. The first is “March 26, 1974”:

R.Frost 100th B’day

The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In wet dull pastures where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch, and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law?
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream.
There was a subtle flood of stream
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter’s giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.

Let’s also read “Advice to a Prophet”:

When you come, as you soon 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, unreckoning 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 should we dream of this place without us?—
The sun mere 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 Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s 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 rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
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 shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.

Wilbur was married for 65 years before his wife died in 2007. He followed her in 2017, at the age of 96.

Richard Wilbur is buried in Dawes Cemetery, Cummington, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other poets, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Laura Riding is in Winter Beach, Florida and Arna Bontemps is in Nashville. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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