Amherst College to celebrate poet Richard Wilbur’s 90th birthday with readings by students and faculty

February 16, 2010

AMHERST, Mass.—In celebration of his 90th birthday, Richard Wilbur, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate who holds the same teaching position at Amherst College that Robert Frost once did, will be honored with a reading of his poems and translations on Wednesday, March 2 at 4:30 p.m., at Converse Hall’s Cole Assembly Room (his actual birthday is on March 1). The event is free and open to the public, and a reception will follow in the Converse Hall Lobby.

“It’s going to be 35 to 40 minutes of pure inspiring poetry by Dick Wilbur, including translations from French, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, and probably Italian as well,” said Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst, and an organizer of the birthday celebration.

So far, those who are scheduled to read from Wilbur’s work include several of  his current and former students; Amherst President Anthony Marx, who has read from Wilbur’s poetry at various occasions during his presidency; faculty members, including Stavans, David Sofield, the Samuel Williston Professor of English, and a poet who has taught with Wilbur; poet Daniel Hall, Amherst College’s Writer-In-Residence and chair of its Creative Writing Center who is teaching with Wilbur this semester; the critic William Pritchard, the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English; Laure A. Katsaros, assistant professor of French; and Catherine A. Ciepiela, professor of Russian.

The upcoming birthday celebration, Stavans said, presents an opportunity to honor Wilbur’s many years of consistent, creative literary production, and to honor him as well for his teaching. Wilbur, Stavans predicted, will appreciate the gesture.

“My impression is that he’s honored and grateful for the many things that the college has done for him, and he finds it fitting that his poetry will be read by students and faculty.”

There will be some historical symmetry in the birthday celebration in that Amherst College also feted Robert Frost, on his 80th birthday, on March 26, 1954. Like Wilbur, Frost was the John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer in English, spending several weeks in Amherst each fall and spring from 1949 to 1963, meeting with students and faculty and holding public readings.

Wilbur, who graduated from Amherst College in 1942, and taught at Wesleyan University for two decades and at Smith College for another decade, was appointed the John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer in the fall of 2008. He has taught a course at the college every semester since then. (Read a story about one of Wilbur’s courses, and view an interview with him here).

“The college has a longstanding tradition of having poetry at its core,” Stavans said. “Beyond poetry, the college has produced an astonishing array of playwrights, writers and translators of all sorts. Of course, not only Amherst College but the town of Amherst celebrates its tradition of poetry, and its connections to poets such as Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Dick Wilbur, David Ferry ’46, and James Merrill ‘47. I love that this tradition continues and I’m hopeful that there will be passing of the torch from a major American poet like Dick Wilbur, perhaps to a student at Amherst.”

In comparing the work of Wilbur and Frost, Stavans noted that the two poets, though vastly different in their styles, have at times focused upon similar themes.

“Wilbur is a poet of nature and experience, and he brings those two together,” Stavans said. “He’s very much connected to the landscape and every-day experiences of this part of the world. The sense of the geography that surrounds us, where we act out our lives, is very much the subject of both of them.”

Wilbur’s commitment to translation – of poems, plays, and other forms of literature – is also important to celebrate, Stavans added.

“I am enormously impressed by the commitment that Dick has shown for languages and other cultures,” Stavans said. “We are often told American literature is very parochial and self-centered, that it spends its time looking at its own face in the mirror and refuses to see the rest of the world. But Wilbur is proof that there’s a broad and cosmopolitan way of approaching the world that has its place in American literature as well.”

As he approaches 90, Wilbur is still writing poems, translating them from other languages, and gaining accolades for both. In fact, “Anterooms: New Poems and Translations,” was singled out by The New Yorker as one of the 11 best poetry books of 2010. (According to its website, The New Yorker first published one of Wilbur’s poems, “Grasse: The Olive Trees,” in 1948; and a recent poem, “Horsetail,” appears in the current issue).

In a 2008 interview with Amherst College’s Caroline Hanna, Wilbur remarked, "I'm happy to say that I still have my wits about me, and recently I have written two or three poems that do seem to be among my best."  They are included in “Anterooms.”  The College wishes him many more productive years. 

For more information, contact Peter Rooney, Amherst College Director of Public Affairs, at 413-542-8452 (o); 413-207-4309 (c); prooney@amherst.edu.