Thursday, 19 October 2017


Richard Wilbur, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and America's second Poet Laureate, died last Saturday. My obit of him went up at the Guardian online Tuesday; you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. I had actually written it quite a while ago, probably about ten years ago, long enough that it was saved in my computer in Microsoft Works! However it didn't require much updating, and I was very happy with what I'd written then.

When I was at Wesleyan, Wilbur was one of the two glamorous figures in the English department. The other was F.D. Reeve (father of the actor Christopher), whose obituary I also wrote, four years ago for the Independent. You can link to that one here. What links the two, apart from their patrician elegance, is Robert Frost and Russia. Reeve was Frost's translator when the older poet went to Russia, Wilbur translated Russians, especially Yevtushenko. But more importantly, Wilbur really was the heir to Frost's position as an American poet. His work has the same precision of language, the same sensitivity to the natural world, the same sense of some sort of moral agency behind it, though crucially I find Wilbur's world-view far less dark and far more approachable in our time than Frost's. I almost see it more in Wilbur's blank verse, and occasional free verse, than in the rhymed poems, but it's certainly there. That he was never able to assume Frost's centrality in America's public arts world speaks more to the changes both in American poetry and American society than it does to Wilbur.

I saw him compared to both Auden and Larkin in some obituaries, and it's easy enough to see why. But he's not as showy with his language as Auden, and he's nowhere near as misanthropic, as presumptively world-weary as Larkin. Somehow it's hard to imagine either of those poets translating Moliere with the playful verve Wilbur managed--I do recommend those to anyone still reading this far!

I was lucky enough to take two courses with Wilbur. One was his basic poetry course, where as I say in the obit, his breakdown of a wide range of poets was stunning: his command of the deeper meaning of words, their roots, their sounds, their usages was comprehensive, and he liked poets who could use words deftly and unusually: Hopkins and Cummings, I recall. I then came back and got into his verse writing course the following year, by which time, after the student strike of 1970, I had decided I should be studying those subjects I wanted to study. Wilbur had been one of the professors most supportive of the strike; I remember cycling round campus with the strike paper the morning his poem 'For The Student Strikers' appeared, hawking it like a newsie with a headline: 'Strike paper! Wilbur Poem! Getcher Wilbur poem here'.  The photo above left shows the documentary film-maker Stephen Talbot leading an anti-war march in Middletown in 1969: if you closely behind him you'll see Wilbur, a few rows back, unprepossessingly marching with the students.

I had published a poem when I was 16, in the New Haven Register, but I should have realised just how big a step a class with him would be. Wilbur was not a touchy-feely kind of teacher, but each assignment came back with thoughtful (and gentle) criticism of my work. I can recall one short exercise I wrote for him, a riddle, and he took great pleasure in guessing it, correctly of course.

At some point after that class, I discovered Charles Olson, a Wesleyan alumnus, and my view of poetry changed completely. I wish I'd been able to start making that leap while I was submitting poems to Wilbur, because his input probably would have spurred me on. But though the style I began to absorb from Olson was very different to Wilbur's I never lost my desire to be able to express myself with a mere fraction of Wilbur's acuity, grace, and precision.

It was a privilege to be able to write Wilbur's obit and note his passing for a British audience. I hope I did him justice. I just wish the paper would occasionally use a younger photo of poets who lived nearly 100 years! The first photo at top right is of the young poet; the one just above to the right is from about the time I was a student at Wesleyan, and how I remember him. RIP

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