By Emily Gold Boutilier
Richard Wilbur ’42 is a former U.S. poet laureate and the winner of a National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes. He published his first poem in The Saturday Evening Post while serving in World War II. Now, Wilbur is back at Amherst as a John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer. This spring, he co-taught a poetry workshop with longtime friend David Sofield, the Samuel Williston Professor of English.
“Writing Poetry I” met on Wednesdays in the Clyde Fitch Room of Converse Hall. Among the weekly assignments, Sofield and Wilbur asked students to compose a descriptive poem, to attempt a long poem (at least 30 lines) and to translate, from the Italian, Umberto Saba’s “Ulisse.”
The translation idea was Wilbur’s. “It’s madness, this business of translation,” he said on a March afternoon, joining Sofield and 10 students around a dark wood table. As the instructors explained, a translator’s job is to stay faithful to both the original meaning and the original form, finding and using the closest corresponding form in English. In the case of “Ulisse,” they agreed, the closest English meter is iambic pentameter.
Students read their translations aloud. “The choice of the word appetite to replace love is very good,” one student said of a classmate’s work. Sofield added, “Ever-grieving strikes me as a good alternative” to the Italian doloroso, which means grief-stricken. Of another translation, Sofield objected to the inclusion of the word juvenescence. “That was from the thesaurus,” the translator admitted. Wilbur gently suggested that another student had “needlessly gone an extra mile by trying to rhyme,” leading “to certain distortions.”
Near the end of the session, a student questioned her classmate’s use of the phrase born foreign for the Italian nessuno, which means no-man’s land. The translator said he’d been unable to make no-man’s land fit the poem’s rhythm. “You could use, ‘And that no-man’s land now is my home,’” suggested the classmate. The translator replied, “Wow, that’s magic!”
“One can’t really teach poetry, but one can facilitate it,” Wilbur said in a recent video interview for the college’s Web site. In any poetry writing course, only two or three students will prove to be publishable poets, he added. “But that doesn’t matter. The important thing is to get oneself eloquently off one’s chest.”
Next semester, Sofield and Wilbur will teach a poetry reading course together.
Photo by Samuel Masinter '04