Richard Wilbur is one of our nation’s finest living poets. Last spring, Yale awarded him an honorary degree—his latest distinction in a long list that includes the title of U.S. Poet Laureate, two Pulitzers, the Bollingen, the PEN Translation Prize, and the National Medal of Arts. For the past 65 years, Wilbur has honed his command of traditional meter and rhyme to mastery, and he continues today to give us elegant verse on all aspects of earthly American life. Wilbur is also a celebrated lyricist and translator of French literature. At 91, he is still active and teaching poetry at Amherst College, his alma mater. The Herald visited him at his home in Cummington, Massachusetts.
YH: How do you start writing a poem? What are you most often doing or looking at when the idea to write a poem occurs?
RW: I’ve got a feeling that “looking at” is the important thing. The one thing I think one can’t do or shouldn’t do is to put pressure on oneself about it. Robert Browning at one point made himself write every morning, and his worst material was written under those circumstances. Howard Nemerov used to get up early in the morning before his Bennington classes and hammer out a few lines, and they were never his best. I think one needs to feel, to some extent, passive about all this. Things have to come to you, in other words.
YH: Do you think there is too much is being published?
RW: Well, there’s more than I can consume. And I do think that many people are writing under pressure and publishing under pressure—the way people do in academe. Publish or perish, they say. I think there’s no best way of becoming a poet, but I think many people are trying to force it by taking high-pressure creative courses and trying then to go on for MFAs and worse. Yes, it can be all too hasty, and there can be too much of it.
YH: Tell me about the way you became a poet.
RW: Well, when I was at Monte Cassino, that battle during World War II, I was in a foxhole for a long, long time. And what can you do in a foxhole? You have your rifle, and you can clean it yet again, but in fact there’s very little you can accomplish there except when you pull yourself up and go on duty in one way or another. I found myself starting to write poems in that hole in the ground. It could have happened almost anywhere. And I don’t say this just for the comedy of it, but that was real isolation. And it was favorable to rumination. I didn’t then say, “I think I’ll be a poet.”
One of our generals said that there are no atheists in the foxholes. That was MacArthur, I think, who said that. And there are almost no non-poets in the foxholes. The daily magazine of the army published in Europe during World War II had an editorial page in which there was almost always a box labeled “Puptent Poets.” And you got the feeling that we were an army entirely of poets, and of poets published by the army.
YH: It’s true that your generation, when they came back from World War II, made great poetry.
RW: Oh, we all had had some practice without realizing that we were practicing to be poets. I suppose some had got the idea, but for me, it was a different matter. I brought home the usual war trophies, and some soiled paper with my poems on it, and went to Harvard. And one day when I was studying at Harvard, a friend of mine, a wonderful French poet named André du Bouchet, who was then hanging around Harvard, came to call. And my wife said, “André, I think you ought to look at these. These are some things that Dick scribbled during World War II.” He took them home to his apartment on Mass Avenue, and then was back within an hour, and he kissed me on both cheeks, and he said, “You are a poet!” And I think that may have been the moment at which I began to take myself seriously in that way. I don’t know that I wrote better or not.
YH: Could you talk more about how you relate what you’re “looking at” to your poetry? To seeing without speaking, or to non-verbal, or visual, art?
RW: That’s a tough one. But I know that having a father who was a painter, and a good one, and who would point out to me things like the blueness of the shadows of trees on the snow—I know that I was constantly in communion with my father’s color and pattern sense of the world. He and I were not the same person, but I always loved his work.
YH: Do poems or words have those kinds of colored associations for you? Is there a sense that you’re ever working in colors?
RW: I think that the words I find myself ready to use are words which I have experienced to a certain depth. And I don’t know whether I can be more exact than that. But I know that I observe, feel, and taste the world of words as my father did the world that he painted.
YH: When you teach poetry, you must feel something of your father in you in pointing out the blueness of a shadow. That must translate over into the realm of language.
RW: Every now and then, I’m speaking with the help of my father, yes.
YH: How has teaching changed or informed your own poetry?
RW: One of the courses I was asked to teach at Harvard was a freshman humanities course covering every darn thing—covering philosophy, history, and so on. And it obliged me to do kinds of reading and articulateness that I had never done before. It obliged me to read long Russian novels, which is perfectly terrible if you never became a speed-reader. I did find that under the pressure of teaching, I had the pleasure of becoming much more generally cultured than I had been. And for the kind of poetry that I’d wanted to write, that does no harm.
YH: Did you ever find that being so saturated in language all the time was a hindrance when you went to sit down and write poetry?
RW: Well it could be, yes, and in one period or another, there’s the danger of falling into a jargon of some kind. And I think I avoided that. There are disadvantages to talking as much as a teacher has to do, but it’s good practice, too.
YH: I suppose the follow-up question would be, can students in the same environment write good poetry despite the same dangers?
RW: I think they can. Poets are, as they say, born, not made. And there are some people who are born right, and who can survive or take advantage of any atmosphere. I don’t think there’s anything but good about the cultured atmosphere of colleges.
YH: How were you able to continue your stream of production for so long? You must, at some point, have had a problem with inspiration.
RW: I did have periods in which I couldn’t write anything. Nothing came to me. And the only thing you can do is to try to not feel perfectly absurd—a poet who doesn’t write? But all poets, if they’re honest with us, must admit to dead periods, or periods in which poems do not come to them. There’s a lot of passivity in writing, I think. I just wait to be visited. That’s why we have this fiction called the muse—she comes to you.
YH: What should we be reading now as Americans in 2012, or, what have you been reading that you’ve enjoyed?
RW: Gosh, I’ve been reading lots of different people, and many of them with happiness. It would be absolutely safe to say that everybody ought to read Elizabeth Bishop. This is one case in which justice has been done in the literary marketplace. When I first knew Elizabeth Bishop, she was patronized, she was not thought to be a poet of any importance. And now of course, she’s come thundering into her own. Now, she’s the person above all whom I can recommend with confidence.
YH: When you sit down to write in silence, who’s speaking? How do those voices that you get out of reading other writers, other poets, make themselves present?
RW: I think I digest those things, and if I’m lucky, they become part of me in an authentic way. But it’s always my voice that I’m using and that I’m turning into poems. You know, Emerson one time said that the deeper we go into ourselves, the more we are everybody. I think that’s really the answer to the question you’ve raised. Whatever it is that helps to make you everybody at some core is good, even if it begins as reading.
—This interview was condensed by the author