(photo courtesy of Google Images)
Though I am by no means an expert on the poetry and life of recently deceased Richard Wilbur, I felt compelled to write a post honoring Wilbur's memory.
Richard Wilbur, the American poet near and dear to the hearts of many Amherst faculty and students (past and present), was born on March 1, 1921 in New York City, and passed away October 14, 2017 at the age of 96 in Belmont, MA. During his life, he was appointed Poet Laureate 1987-1988 and was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry. He graduated from Amherst College in 1942, after which he served in the U.S. Army during World War II until 1945. He taught at Amherst on-and-off until 2009. After 2009, he still made guest appearances in poetry classes here at Amherst to teach his own poetry.
On November 1, 2017, Amherst held an event in Frost Library to honor Wilbur's memory. The event was filmed, and you can watch snippets (or the whole thing, if you are so inclined!) right here.
Personally, I feel a special connection to Richard Wilbur that began in high school. In my AP Literature class, I was assigned to present on Richard Wilbur's biography and any one of his poems in front of my class. I chose to present the following poem, "Mayflies" (2000).
In somber forest, when the sun was low,
I saw from unseen pools a mist of flies,
In their quadrillions rise,
And animate a ragged patch of glow,
With sudden glittering - as when a crowd,
Of stars appear,
Through a brief gap in black and driven cloud,
One arc of their great round-dance showing clear.
It was no muddled swarm I witnessed, for
In entrechats each fluttering insect there
Rose two steep yards in air,
Then slowly floated down to climb once more,
so that they all composed a manifold
And figured scene,
And seemed the weavers of some cloth of gold,
Or the fine pistons of some bright machine.
Watching those lifelong dancers of a day
As night closed in, I felt myself alone
In a life too much my own,
More mortal in my separateness than they -
Unless, I thought, I had been called to be
Not fly or star
But one whose task is joyfully to see
How fair the fiats of the caller are.
Presenting this poem in high school sticks out to me so vividly. I remember commenting on the poem's beautiful imagery and how Wilbur uses this beauty to give order to nature. One of Wilbur's famous quotes is, "One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one's world somehow gets out of hand." I love this quote, because I believe it is true both for readers and writers of poetry.
At the memorial in November, one of the final poems that was recited was this very poem. I teared up hearing it presented to me, as an Amherst senior--the same poem I recited as a bright-eyed prospective Amherst student in high school. I owe a lot of my decisions at Amherst in part to Richard Wilbur, unbeknownst to him. In high school, I was not the hugest fan of poetry because I don't think I had the cognitive capacity yet to appreciate it. When I arrived at Amherst, I wanted to be a part in some way of the amazing poetry legacy at Amherst (i.e., Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur), so I took a poetry class... and I fell in love with the craft. I am now an English major, with a concentration in poetry--thank you, Richard!
I remember, when I took my first poetry class at Amherst and we reached the Richard Wilbur unit, Richard Wilbur had agreed to fly into Amherst to teach my class his own work. I was ecstatic. But on the day he was supposed to come in, he was feeling ill and could not make it. So, no, I never met him. Nevertheless, he was quite influential on my academic career.
Now, I think it is only fitting to end this post, as snow piles up in Amherst this winter, with the same poem that we ended with during the memorial in Frost Library.
Strangers might wonder why
That big snow-shovel’s leaning
Against the house in July.
Has it some cryptic meaning?
It means at least to say
That, here, we needn’t be neat
About putting things away,
As on some suburban street.
What’s more, by leaning there
The shovel seems to express,
With its rough and ready air,
A boast of ruggedness
If a stranger said in sport
“I see you’re prepared for snow,”
Our shovel might retort
“Out here, you never know.”