Amherst Magazine

A Poet Turns 90

By Emily Gold Boutilier

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Wilbur was the final reader at his 90th birthday party/poetry reading. He holds the same position at Amherst that Robert Frost once did.

It was not a typical 90th birthday party, but Richard Wilbur ’42 is hardly a typical 90-year-old. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate, Wilbur holds the same teaching position at Amherst that Robert Frost once did. To celebrate Wilbur’s becoming a nonagenarian, a poetry reading seemed only fitting.

A full house arrived in Cole Assembly Room in Converse Hall on March 2, 2011, a day after Wilbur’s milestone birthday, for a reading of 17 of his poems and five of his translations. The standing-room-only crowd included not only professors and students but also a young child with a pacifier (later replaced by a Ring Pop)—evidence of the poet’s broad appeal.

The first of 14 readers was poet and English department colleague David Sofield, who began by reading “First Snow in Alsace,” published in Wilbur’s first book, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947). Half of the readers were students; one, Irina Troconis ’11, read Jorge Guillén’s “Death, from a Distance,” in the original Spanish before reading Wilbur’s English translation. She uttered a quick “Happy birthday!” before returning to her seat.

Among the other readers was President Anthony W. Marx, who first attended a Wilbur poetry reading at age 18 (“Reading Wilbur to Wilbur,” Marx said, “is among the most amazing and bizarre moments of my time at Amherst”). English professor and critic William H. Pritchard ’53 read “C Minor” (“which I have a particular fondness for,” he said, “perhaps because I reviewed it”) and “A Storm in April”: “Some winters, taking leave, / Deal us a last, hard blow, / Salting the ground like Carthage / Before they will go.”

Before reading “October Maples, Portland,” Writer-in-Residence Daniel Hall described a famous letter from Frost to The Amherst Student near Frost’s 60th birthday in 1935. “It is very, very kind of the Student to be showing sympathy with me for my age,” Frost wrote. “But 60 is only a pretty good age. It is not advanced enough. The great thing is to be advanced. Now 90 would be really well along and something to be given credit for.” 

Indeed, it is. Near the end of the celebration, Spanish Professor Ilan Stavans announced that, as a special tribute, he’d translated Wilbur’s “The Proof” into Spanish. At the podium, Stavans read both the original and the translation. Then he announced the final reader: Wilbur himself, who read “Out Here,” from his 2010 book, Anterooms. The poem is about a snow shovel still leaning against a house in July: “If a stranger said in sport / ‘I see you’re prepared for snow,’ / Our shovel might retort / ‘Out here, you never know.’ ”

The poet received a long, warm standing ovation. Soon after, a student presented the guest of honor with a batch of homemade cupcakes. 

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04