Amherst Magazine

The Saver of Drafts

By Emily Gold Boutilier

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For decades, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections has been collecting the work of former U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur ’42. Handwritten drafts, galleys and first-edition books have arrived from various sources, including Jack Hagstrom ’55 and Wilbur himself, who recently made official his plan to leave his papers to Amherst. The college now has nearly 1,000 books and magazine contributions by Wilbur in its library catalog and some 2,000 individual Wilbur items on deposit, many of which are accompanied by the poet’s typed notes about them. Here are nine of our favorite items:

1. A word list from editor Louis Untermeyer to those writing the series Modern Masters Books for Children. Wilbur—whose 1963 book Loudmouse is part of that series—found the list “extremely coercive (barn, cow, grandma, grandpa, Christmas and holiday are on it, and that seems to call for a certain kind of story),” he says in a note to Archives and Special Collections. He admits to “repeated excursions” from the list: “Some 200, I think. But Louis liked the story and printed it anyway.”

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2. A publisher’s dummy of Seed Leaves, a limited-edition 1974 book that Wilbur wrote in tribute to Robert Frost. It includes rich illustrations by Charles Wadsworth. 

3. A handwritten draft of “Altitudes,” a poem that appears in Wilbur’s two Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes, Things of This World (1956) and New and Collected Poems (1988). He read the poem at President Biddy Martin’s inauguration.

4. Correspondence about the Broadway musical Candide—for which Wilbur wrote the lyrics—including this letter to composer Leonard Bernstein: “Dear Lenny: I send you the aria in its present condition, to show you that I have been working. Try this on your pianoforte. … Arrivederci, Dick.”

5. The July 1932 issue of the children’s magazine Under the Chinaberry Tree, which features a drawing by an 11-year-old Wilbur. Titled “Down the River,” the drawing is of a fisherman; it earned the boy a $2 gift certificate.

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6. Wilbur’s unpublished 1950 cartoon of Robert Frost, which depicts Frost as a country-dweller meeting an urbanite. The caption reads: “Mr. Frost meets a representative of the Partisan Review at the city limits, to answer a questionnaire on the Alienation of the modern Artist.”

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7.  A copy of A Bestiary, the 1955 hardcover (illustrated by Alexander Calder) that Wilbur compiled for Pantheon Books. This limited edition of just 800 copies linked Wilbur to the world of high art and fine press printing—worlds apart from the cheap chapbooks and mimeographed publications of the Beat Generation.

8. A draft of Wilbur’s preface to Responses II, which “came to be called (owing to protests from marketing people) The Catbird’s Song,” says the poet in a note to Archives. One of two prose books by Wilbur, it was published in 1997.

9. A 1955 contract between Wilbur and his publisher Harcourt Brace for Things of this World, for which he received a $300 advance. Such paperwork holds special value today, when abundant digital resources make it “easy for every academic library to start looking the same,” says Archives and Special Collections Director Michael Kelly, who believes that special collections increasingly set libraries apart.

Photos by Rob Mattson