Richard Wilbur, class of 1942 and renowned American poet, was interviewed by David Sofield, former professor of English.
[0:01] David Sofield: Then I am David Sofield of the English department at Amherst College where I've taught for 45 years, and I'm sitting with Richard Wilbur, possibly the most distinguished living alumnus of Amherst College, on April 7, 2010, which promises to be the warmest April 7th in the history of Amherst. It's supposed to reach 88 degrees this afternoon and we're talking in the morning. Uh, I got to know Dick a little circuitously originally, because the first time that he and I ever had a real conversation, and I'm going to talk here for a couple of minutes before I ask Dick a question to introduce this. Um, Dick was giving a reading at Amherst maybe around 1980 or the very early 1980s, I'm not sure, he's given many readings at the College over, over the, his very long career.
[1:00] And I happened to be seated at dinner next to Dick's wonderful wife, Charlee, in the Lord Jeff and a beautiful, on a spring day a lot like this one, warm, I remember. And it was a big table and Dick was at the other end, so I wasn't talking to him. But Charlee and I had a very warm conversation; Charlee had very warm conversations with a great many people. And, and she and I became friends as well as Dick and I, I became friends of them together. And in the middle of the conversation, she said to me, “do you by any chance play tennis?” And I said, “I do.” [laughs]
[1:36] Which I do. She said, “would you like to come out to our house sometime in Cummington and be Dick’s partner in a doubles game,” which goes on periodically or went on periodically at their house. They have the world's most challenging tennis court at the house. [laughs] I said sure. And so that summer, I went out there and kept going out there for years and years and playing tennis with Dick and other people who've become great friends of his and mine, in fact, and I still play tennis with a person I met on that court.
[2:10] Anyway, this is not about tennis. It's about Dick and Charlee. But the friendship developed over the, now I would think about three decades and it became a friendship in poetry, as well as a friendship in tennis, and a friendship generally, to the point where two years ago, the president of the college Tony Marx, sent me an email having already been in touch with Dick, asking him if he would like to be the Simpson Lecturer at the college. This would mean in succession, although obviously not in immediate succession, to Robert Frost whose bust is over here and you can't see it on the, those of you watching and listening to this interview, but there is a bust, we're in the Alumni House at the College.
[2:56] Uh, Tony Marx in that invitation to Dick to become a Simpson Lecturer, which is an appointment without term. It's a special, the most special faculty position at Amherst College. Frost held it for a long, long while, a couple of other people have held it in the interim. And [clears throat] I was in Rome on sabbatical with my wife Lisa, and having a fine time and in comes an email from Tony Marx saying, “would you please encourage Dick Wilbur to accept the Simpson Lectureship.” And so he said, so I said back to that, that I, I would, I would, indeed, encourage Dick to do it if he wanted to do it, and I got in touch with Dick who does not do email. I want it known right now. [laughs] So don't try to email him. Although he has a college email address, he doesn't, he doesn't do email. Uh, and Dick said he would do it if he and I could teach together.
[3:57] And so we've been teaching together for two years now, and right after this interview, this is a Wednesday at now 10:15 in the morning, 10:05 in the morning, we have a class in writing poetry. We've also done a couple of other things. We've done a class in great 17th century lyric poets and a class in poetry, a seminar for English majors and another seminar this past fall in poetry from the middle of the 20th century to the present. In those, in that second course, Dick doesn't let us do him much, or the one day that I insisted that we do him he insisted on not being there. [laughs] So it worked out perfectly well.
[4:38] So I turn to Dick and my, my thought Dick, and we've talked about this a little bit before this occasion would be, since you've been interviewed so often about, about your career as a poet, which interviews are widely, widely available. I thought it might be best, since this is for the Amherst College archives and the oral history project, for you to do some talking about what the College has been to you and for you over a very long time, now must be 71 years or so. Uh, but this is also an interview about you as, as the writer you are. And so I would ask you first to reflect a little if you would on your childhood and your schooling before you came to Amherst in the fall of 1938 on that remarkable day, the day Dick arrived at Amherst, he'll tell the story, was the hurricane day. I believe he'll tell the story. So talk a bit about family if you would, and, and schooling before Amherst and then we'll talk about Amherst.
[5:49] Richard Wilbur: In the, um, early days of me, there was very little talk about college and nobody in my family had ever gone to college. My mother's family for, was from Baltimore. And she came of a long line of newspaper editors and newspaper writers. And journalism was favorably considered always in my household.
[6:24] Sofield: [laughs]
[6:26] Wilbur: And therefore, writing was an honorable profession. My father had come East from Nebraska, as a quite young man, and put himself through the Art Students League in New York, that was his equivalent of college. And, indeed, it was a very good school. He's, he studied with Robert Henri and John Sloan and Bellows, and people of that, of that class. [crosstalk]
[7:00] Sofield: Substantial, yeah.
[7:00] Wilbur: Um, and went on to be for half of his career, a very successful commercial artist, and then quit on that, he was tired of the limitations of lithography for one thing, and, and became a portrait artist and did some wonderful work in, in that vein as well. The, my father was an amiable man and an English millionaire named Joshua Dickinson Armitage ran into him on a golf course somewhere. I don't know where this happened.
[7:51] But Mr. Armitage took a shine to my father, and before long, we were living in a rented pre-Revolutionary stone house on Mr. Armitage’s gentleman's farm out in North Caldwell, New Jersey. It was quite a big farm, it was 450 acres as I remember. And it had on it everything that a farm should have, all of the necessary animals--
[8:32] Sofield: [laughs]
[8:33] Wilbur: --and orchards of everything that you might want.
[8:39] And, um, it was rather good to find myself from age two onward, growing up in such a place, especially as because it was a gentleman's farm, the farm of a retired industrialist with an English background, it, it also had two bowling greens and one tennis court.
[9:09] Sofield: Hmm.
[9:09] Wilbur: And so, I, so very early I was breaking in for those games that you and I got to playing later on.
[9:20] Sofield: [laughs]
[9:21] Wilbur: That, my parents somehow wangled permission for me to be educated at the, at the best schools in the vicinity. I'm not talking about private schools, but I did my elementary education in Essex Fells, New Jersey, two and a half miles from the country town in which I lived.
[9:54] And then I did my high school work at Montclair High School, seven miles away from where I lived, and rather a long day's travel, actually. And that was an excellent high school, so, so good that any graduate of Montclair tended to be accepted “like that” at any college. That's what happened to me. Well, as--
[10:23] Sofield: Did you do, were you active in the literary circles, as it were, in the high school?
[10:37] Wilbur: Yes. I started right in wanting to be a writer of one kind or another. And I think as I've told you, in the past, I, I published my first poem at the age of eight, in a kind of high-toned kids magazine called John Martin's Book, there was a page in that magazine called the “All Around the Table Club” where the little subscribers were encouraged competitively to contribute. And I, I think actually they published two little poems of mine. I was paid $1 for each one and of course, I've kept the dollar.
[11:35] Sofield: [laughs]
[11:36] Wilbur: And by the time I was in high school, I was attempting all kinds of writing as well as a good deal of, of drawing and, and caricature, poster making. I became the editor of the high school newspaper in Montclair. And I was elected to some kind of senior class office, I forget what it was. But in any case, those two things probably helped my application to Amherst when it came. I don't know whether I've ever told you about why I went to Amherst.
[12:29] Sofield: I don't remember that you have.
[12:31] Wilbur: Well, my, my parents had a very good friend named Louis Wakelee. Louis E. Wakelee, if I'm not mistaken, he was a, an Amherst graduate. And he was in every way an Amherst enthusiast.
[12:57] He felt Amherst had made him what he was, and he thought I could do with a bit of the same going over. My parents didn't know anything about the college world, nor did I. We, with my father and mother I made a northward trip to have a look at Amherst and it looked very much as it does now if one forgets that we have been overrun by cars.
[13:37] Sofield: [laughs] College and town alike.
[13:41] Wilbur: [laughs] And so, I applied for Amherst and, and was accepted. And Mr. Wakelee’s enthusiasms were not only for Amherst, and for Amherst athletics in which he had participated, but also for Chi Psi fraternity.
[14:04] Sofield: Ah.
[14:05] Wilbur: Yes, I was to go to Amherst and I was to join Chi Psi fraternity. And I obediently did so.
[14:17] Sofield: [laughs] So tell us about the day you arrived.
[14:19] Wilbur: The day I arrived was the day when the Great Hurricane struck New England. And I remember when I was, where I was when the first gusts came. I was standing in the hall at North Dormitory on the first floor. And I dare say it's still true that the big doors of North Dormitory are very thick and they have inset windows of thick glass. And through, through the thick glass of that door, I remember seeing a great hallucination.
[15:13] Suddenly the big trees of the Senior Grove were swaying and then subsiding, lying down. Of course, it wasn't too long that that was a soundless experience, but I didn't hear any noise at first. [crosstalk]
[15:32] Sofield: [laughs] Yeah, ‘cause you’re behind the thick door, yeah.
[15:34] Wilbur: And, and, but yes, I guess the door, the door was preventing my hearing it. Uh, in any case, the wind soon made itself known. And so our initial day, I'm speaking of the “hurricane class,” as we came to be called, was a day in which a great wind blew and, and we began the process of picking up after it. Um, I think this meant that there was a delay in the fraternity rushing program which always was the, was the first event of the fall. But we, we picked up slates and we sawed up trees, carried branches around for a couple of days, and then we settled this important matter of fraternity membership.
[16:46] Sofield: Which has meant a good deal to you over, over the decades.
[16:50] Wilbur: The--
[16:50] Sofield: I mean, you made friends in the fraternity that you’ve, that have remained friends. [crosstalk]
[16:52] Wilbur: Yes, yes, they, uh, I guess I, David, I don't think I went into the fact that, that I had, because I was living out on a farm and going to schools and, school at some distance, I didn't really have a neighborhood childhood.
[17:11] And so, though the farm was a wonderful place to grow up, the, there was just an edge of loneliness to my childhood. And so it was wonderful to find myself taken into the prescribed fraternity, Chi Psi.
[17:38] Sofield: [laughs]
[17:39] Wilbur: And to find that I had 50 instant brothers, all of whom were very brotherly to me. And it made a great difference to me as a social animal to be, well, almost at once taken into a fraternity at Amherst and made social.
[18:10] Sofield: Did you live in the fraternity in later years?
[18:13] Wilbur: Not, in later years, yes. There's a good deal to be said against the fraternities, of course, and they were isolating. But I have memories of considerable comfort in the isolation of the Chi Psi Lodge, which I think is now called Mayo-Smith Hall.
[18:47] Sofield: It, it is, it is.
[18:50] Wilbur: We, from, from sophomore year on, members of that fraternity lived with a roommate or two in the building, and we ate our meals in a great hall from long tables. I waited on the tables a good deal myself--
[19:12] Sofield: [laughs]
[19:13] Wilbur: --because to, to some extent I wanted to work my way through college, as it was rather easy to do in those days.
[19:22] Sofield: But what did you do in the summers? I, I know you, you went around the country to some extent, did you not, on the rails?!
[19:29] Wilbur: Yes, yes, that's right.
[19:31] Sofield: There's a poem about it. And-- [holds up book]
[19:36] Wilbur: [laughs]
[19:37] I can't quite explain why I wanted to do it, except that I had a considerable spirit of adventure. And, uh, but on one of the summers of my college career, I hoboed mostly on the rails, when necessary, with a, with my thumb through 46 of the 48 states.
[20:06] Sofield: Wow.
[20:07] Wilbur: And it was great fun, and I was, I was too dumb to know how dangerous it was.
[20:15] Sofield: [laughs]
[20:16] Wilbur: I stayed out of Georgia and Florida because those states were said to put people on the chain gang if they were, if they were classifiable as vagrants.
[20:30] Sofield: Uh huh. Good thing. [both laugh]
[20:34] Wilbur: But I had, I had lots of the, lots of the adventures which one has in going on the road, I slept in hobo jungles and so on.
[20:48] Uh, the second, a second summer, because I came back to Amherst and shot my mouth off about my adventures of of the previous summer, two of my friends from Amherst volunteered to come with me on a second tour of the then-48 states.
[21:15] Sofield: Again avoiding Georgia and Florida?
[21:16] Wilbur: Uh, yes.
[21:17] Sofield: [laughs]
[21:18] Wilbur: No Georgia, no Florida. The three of us almost came to grief in McComb, Mississippi, but I won't go into that story.
[21:25] Sofield: [laughs]
[21:26] Wilbur: We, we all, we all survived and had adventures, and, and had a good time and got back safely. George Shenk was one of them, he was a member of my fraternity and at one time one of my roommates, and Tom Wilcox--
[21:45] Sofield: Yeah, a lifelong friend.
[21:47] Wilbur: --who was a lifelong friend of mine, uh, was the, was the other my companions. I, I corresponded fairly regularly with my family, and also with Charlee whom I had met by the time I was taking a second jaunt around America.
[22:11] Sofield: Uh huh. Well, we're going to talk about Charlee in a, in a moment, but I didn't realize that, I didn't know when you'd met her. Uh, the Amherst in your time, which was fall 1938 to June 1942, a date to, to ponder because the war, America was in the War by that time. Your Amherst, I'm thinking I don't know exactly and I'm not the historian to, to know, but I think may have had something like 600 students in the College.
[22:43] Wilbur: I thought it was larger than that.
[22:45] Sofield: Was it 800?
[22:45] Wilbur: I thought it was closer to 800, but I could be quite wrong.
[22:48] Sofield: Yeah. No, you may well be right. I don't, I know there was, at some point it went from 600 to 800 and 800 to 1100, which it was when I came to Amherst in the fall of 1965 and then went up incrementally with the institution of coeducation, and--
[22:49] Wilbur: Yes.
[22:52] Sofield: --and to the present, something like 1600, it's going to go I guess to 1700. But a college of 800 is, is half the size of Amherst now, the Amherst that you've come back to as a faculty member.
[23:19] Wilbur: Yes, though I'm happy to say it doesn't seem crowded.
[23:23] Sofield: Yeah.
[23:24] Wilbur: Whatever the number was, one did have a sense of knowing--
[23:31] Sofield: Sure.
[23:33] Wilbur: --everybody to some extent. I imagine it, this partly had to do with the, uh [laughs], with the silly classification system that the fraternities offered. Uh, in other words, one knew a lot of people in a distorted way.
[23:51] Sofield: Yeah.
[23:53] Wilbur: Say, considering them to be Jack, the Deke--
[23:58] Sofield: [laughs]
[23:58] Wilbur: --or Miner, the--
[24:01] Sofield: Did you take English, English Department classes from the beginning?
[24:05] Wilbur: Yes. I had a slight mishap at the, at the very start. There was some sort of a test intended to discover your competence in English. And if you did well on it, you were excused the extraordinary course that Theodore Baird and others had been putting together.
[24:32] Sofield: Yeah.
[24:32] Wilbur: I forget what that was called, “English A” or “English 1.”
[24:36] Sofield: I think it was English A before it was English 1, so it might have been English A in your time.
[24:40] Wilbur: Yes.
[24:40] Sofield: And it didn't become a requirement of all freshmen until after World War Two, but, but a version was being offered when you were a freshman, yeah. [crosstalk]
[24:49] Wilbur: Yes, and I know people like my friend Tom Wilcox were greatly excited by that course.
[24:58] Sofield: For good reasons.
[25:00] Wilbur: And, but because I was excused, I went and had a course instead, a freshman English course with David Morton, a member of the faculty who was an amiable, charming poet, but not a challenging teacher. And so I'm so--, I'm sorry to have missed out on the English A experience. [crosstalk]
[25:29] Sofield: Yeah, well. [laughs]
[25:30] Wilbur: But of course, the, the teachers who were making that course so stimulating were around for my sophomore year, and I took Mr. Baird’s course in Shakespeare and in 18th century literature, and I took Armour Craig’s very first course which was, which was taught at a forbidding hour, 7-something in the morning.
[26:07] Sofield: [laughs] He was young, you were young.
[26:10] Wilbur: It was his very first course, and it was a course in 17th century prose. I think it was in that course that I first was given a sense that without the intervention of a teacher, I could just look at a page of writing from the 17th century and interact with it. Many, many students, because they listen to lectures, and read outlines, and approach-- [crosstalk]
[26:53] Sofield: And get it, now get it off Google.
[26:55] Wilbur: Yes. Many, many, many students do not quite get to that point of feeling that they can read a poem by John Donne as if it had just been written, and as I said, interact with it. I'm very grateful to the challenges that Theodore Baird gave us all.
[27:27] Sofield: Sure.
[27:28] Wilbur: And to what Armour Craig somehow gave me.
[27:35] There were other fine teachers in the English department. Uh, the George Roy Elliot was a very amiable and scholarly teacher of the, of 19th century and romantic poetry, and George Frisbie Whicher, who, uh--
[27:59] Sofield: That’s a real middle name, by the way. Frisbie.
[28:01] Wilbur: Yes. [laughs] Yes, George Frisbie Whicher, who, about the time I was at Amherst, was publishing the very first good book about Emily Dickinson called This Was a Poet. George Frisbie Whicher was more of a performer, I think, than any of my teachers were. He could read poems beautifully, and I can remember the great wonder of hearing him recite Vachel Lindsay's “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan.”
[28:42] Sofield: [laughs]
[28:43] Wilbur: The whole poem all, all six sections of it. And I've loved that poem ever since.
[28:51] Sofield: I've heard you recite parts of that poem--
[28:53] Wilbur: Yes. [laughs]
[28:54] Sofield: --in class. [laughs]
[28:56] Wilbur: Yes.
[28:56] Sofield: And over lunch. Did you write a thesis? [indistinguishable crosstalk]
[29:00] Wilbur: Excuse me?
[29:01] Sofield: Did you do a thesis? Were theses done in those days?
[29:04] Wilbur: They were, I think, but I was not eligible. And the, I had a nice note from Mr. Elliot, round about my junior year saying, “you, your grades don't justify your writing a thesis as an English major, but I want you to know that we, we have we in the English department have made note of your growing seriousness.” [both laugh] What, what I had done with myself largely was writing this or that kind of thing. I, I was aiming from the beginning to become the editor of the Student if I could, at least I wanted to work on our undergraduate newspaper. And I wrote short stories, columns, poems for the undergraduate magazine Touchstone.
[30:08] Sofield: And, and drawings?
[30:09] Wilbur: Drawings, as well, yes. And all, all that meant that I was somewhat distracted from my regular course [crosstalk]
[30:20] Sofield: Yeah. Well, that's still the case if you work in The Amherst Student, you have to give up something else in order to do it ‘cause it’s--
[30:26] Wilbur: Yes.
[30:27] Sofield: --very demanding of your time.
[30:29] Wilbur: Most, the, what I, what I especially gave up was sports. And, though I was in a fraternity, which had, I think the entire lineup of the football team in it.
[30:47] Sofield: [laughs]
[30:48] Wilbur: We were, we were a jock fraternity, although there were lots of non-jocks in the brotherhood. And--
[30:58] Sofield: Understand that a football team in those days was 11 people, not 22, much less, 80, I think, are now in the Amherst College squad, maybe 70. [crosstalk]
[31:06] Wilbur: Yes. That's right. They played, whoever played, it played both offense and defense. [crosstalk]
[31:12] Sofield: Sure, right.
[31:14] Wilbur: And I was one of the brothers who did not become conspicuously athletic. As a freshman, I went down to the gymnasium and Tug Kennedy, who was the swimming coach and also had been a boxer in the, in the Navy, showed me what a left jab was by jabbing me.
[31:45] Sofield: [laughs]
[31:46] Wilbur: And I did, I did a bit of boxing until the day when Gene Hubbard, who was the center of our football team and a member of Chi Psi, said to me, “how you doing Dick?” And I said, “I'm enjoying things very much. ‘Course, my head rings a little at night.”
[32:11] Sofield: [laughs]
[32:12] Wilbur: He said, “from what?” And I said, “well from, from boxing.” And he said, “look, you quit boxing. We took you into this fraternity to raise our academic average.”
[32:25] Sofield: [laughs]
[32:26] Wilbur: So I-- [laughs]
[32:27] Sofield: You quit boxing.
[32:28] Wilbur: Dutifully quit that, that sport, at which I wasn't a natural. I had actually not quite enough desire to hurt anybody.
[32:40] Sofield: Not to your discredit.
[32:42] Wilbur: [laughs]
[32:43] Sofield: So you met Charlee when you were a sophomore? Or a junior?
[32:48] Wilbur: She was in the class of ‘43 at Smith.
[32:51] Sofield: Right.
[32:52] Wilbur: And I'm fuzzy about dates, as a man of 89 is en--, is entitled to be.
[33:00] Sofield: Yes.
[33:02] Wilbur: But I know that my roommate, one of my roommates, Brooks Beck, said to me one day that he was going to arrange a date with a wonderfully suitable girl in Sessions House, it's at Smith, and I took him up on it, went over at the appointed time to Smith and Sessions House and sat in a room may called the “fussers’ parlor.”
[33:37] Sofield: [laughs]
[33:38] Wilbur: You know, the, the idea was that you were, you were an awkward swain and it was your business to writhe in a chair until the girls appeared. Well, when Charlee came through the door, I know this is, this sounds stupidly poetic, but when she came to the door I was in love with her right away. And very happily, she took a favorable view of me. And that went on, of course, for 60-odd years.
[34:17] We were married in June, immediately after my graduation from Amherst. Charlee passed up her senior year at, at Smith. And I think we were, I think we were almost the first married couple to come out of the class of ‘42, and probably the first to have a child. We, we had a daughter, Ellen, almost immediately.
[34:49] Sofield: And there was some urgency in those days, because the War was on and you were, and your classmates were likely to be drafted, as they were indeed drafted.
[34:59] Wilbur: Yes, and some had volunteered and left the College early. Ed Gilson had gone into the Marines. He was to die on one of those damned islands in the Pacific. Julie d’Este had gone off to fly for the RAF, I think, or the Canadian Air Force. Well, many people, some people had left before gra--, before formal graduation. And we all had to figure out something to do. Something kept me from wanting to be a 90-day wonder, kept me from wanting to go into one of those training programs. [crosstalk]
[35:50] Sofield Yeah. Officer training programs, yeah.
[35:51] Wilbur: Officer training programs. It probably had something to do with the fact that all during my younger years I'd been pro-labor and pro-New Deal, and I didn't want to take advantage, I think, of my collegiate sta--, uh, standing. That's a guess at my motive.
[36:25] Sofield: Yeah, yeah. You were involved in, in “leftist circles,” right, to a degree as an undergraduate?
[36:32] Wilbur: A little bit, a little bit. I, I don't know what the, what the political flavor of Amherst was when, when I was an undergraduate. I suspect that most of my classmates came from Republican households. And so I seemed, whenever I opened my mouth and talked about politics, I seemed more leftist than I really was. I think I was just an enthusiast of Franklin Roosevelt and his programs. And, and also, as I said, I was pro-labor and in fa--, in favor of, of the unions.
[37:28] And, and that, the habit of thinking and feeling in that way, I think made me rather readier to go into the Army as a private--
[37:43] Sofield: Sure.
[37:44] Wilbur: --than someone else might have.
[37:46] Sofield: Before we leave the College and your experience at it when you were a student would you want to say a little more about the Amherst Student newspaper and what you did for it and what being editor meant and what kind of writing you did? And--
[38:00] Wilbur: As, as I remember, the, those who were competing for the editorship did writing of all kinds for the paper, but regularly wrote editorials and submitted them to the, to the existing editor. I submitted my editorials to Bob Morgenthau--
[38:31] Sofield: Uh huh. [laughs]
[38:31] Wilbur: --who was the, the editor of--
[38:36] Sofield: Wow. Immediately before you. [crosstalk]
[38:37] Wilbur: --of the paper immediately before me.
[38:39] Sofield: Wow.
[38:40] Wilbur: And I had, I probably had some advantages with Bob because he, I had joined him in a, in an organization of his foundation called the Political Union, the main function of which was to bring speakers to the campus.
[39:00] Sofield: Um hmm.
[39:01] Wilbur: I remember we sponsored a lecture by Norman Thomas, the--
[39:10] Sofield: Excellent perpetual Socialist candidate, right. [laughs] [crosstalk]
[39:13] Wilbur: Socialist candidate. I must say that I had never been, in my own eyes or in anybody else's eyes, of any interest as a political thinker. [laughs] And, and so I'm not particularly proud of, of the editorials which I wrote and submitted to Bob, some of which he published. Um, I don't suppose they're disgraceful, but I think they were, they were, for me, writing exercises rather than, rather than specimens of real political, serious political thought.
[40:10] Sofield: Um hmm. The War had started, of course, by then in Europe in ‘39. So your senior year, when you were editor, was the academic year 1941-‘42.
[40:23] Wilbur: Yes. So that's, that's when we kind of-- [crosstalk]
[40:26] Sofield: Was the prospect of your classmates and yourself facing the likelihood of military service.
[40:34] Wilbur: I wrote a number of articles and editorials rather sassily opposing our involvement in World War Two. And then of course, I wrote [laughs], wrote an extremely concessive--
[40:52] Sofield: [laughs]
[40:53] Wilbur: --editorial when Pearl Harbor occurred and there was no longer anything to discuss.
[40:59] Sofield: Yes, right, right. Right after graduation you, I want to come to the poetry in a second, and, and maybe I should actually interject at this point the question, did you write any poems while you were an Amherst student that are in the New and Collected? I'm assuming not, ‘cause you really began writing during the War. [crosstalk]
[41:19] Wilbur: No. When I was at Amherst, I was trying to advance on all fronts as a writer, of course. And I think I had one poem maybe in the Touchstone, the undergraduate literary magazine. But, and I did, I did write poems, not for publication, sent quite a few to Charlee--
[41:47] Sofield: I was going to imagine that. [laughs]
[41:47] Wilbur: --during the time of our courtship.
[41:51] Sofield: Right.
[41:52] Wilbur: Um, but didn't become serious about it until World War Two, and, and, and for the, for the most obvious reasons. Um, the, although American soldiers overseas were furnished with wonderful paperbacks by the Army, they, they had been selected by a fine non-Army committee in, in, in the States, and these “Armed Services Editions,” as they were called, made good reading wherever one was, and many a soldier threw out his gas mask and, to make room for a one of the Armed Services Editions. In a foxhole, what you could do was to read and that was better than cleaning your rifle over and over again.
[43:00] Sofield: [laughs]
[43:01] Wilbur: And the other thing you could do was to write. And this, this is true not only of me but of the Armed Services generally. People, people began to write poems.
[43:21] Sofield: Um hmm.
[43:22] Wilbur: General, one of the generals, I can't think of the name of that general who--MacArthur, yes.
[43:32] Sofield: General MacArthur, Douglas MacArthur.
[43:33] Wilbur: Douglas MacArthur, Douglas MacArthur once said, “there are no atheists in the foxholes.”
[43:39] Sofield: [laughs]
[43:40] Wilbur: Well, there were certainly no non-poets in the foxholes, everybody was writing, was writing poems, people who were utterly surprised by themselves were doing that. And the Armed Forces newspaper, um--
[44:00] Sofield: Stars and Stripes?
[44:01] Wilbur: The Stars and Stripes had, in almost every issue it seems to me, a box in the corner of the editorial page headed “Puptent Poets.” And the poems that flooded the Stars and Stripes office were mostly not very good, but they were, they were being written by everybody.
[44:33] Sofield: Yeah. So I know that you're, I mean, it's a long story about your military service, and I know that your friend and mine, Bob Bagg of the Amherst class of 1957 has recently contracted to write your biography and has completed a long, long chapter on your--
[44:50] Wilbur: Yes.
[44:51] Sofield: --experiences in the Second World War, and you've claimed to me that he knows more about it than you do.
[44:55] Wilbur: I think he does.
[44:56] Sofield: Certainly about the larger war, you were-- [crosstalk]
[44:58] Wilbur: Yes, what they call the “big picture” is what Bob knows and I don’t. [laughs]
[45:02] Sofield: [laughs] Yeah. But where were you, exactly? I know you, you were in the invasion of Italy. That must have come from, this is real ignorance on my part, but from North Africa, were you in North Africa and you came up the Italian peninsula? [crosstalk]
[45:17] Wilbur: Well, actually, oh, actually, let's see, I was, I was sent at a time when the Army was confused as to whether to classify me as “suspected of disloyalty” for my supposed radical views.
[45:36] Sofield: That's why I asked you about leftist circles at Amherst College.
[45:38] Wilbur: [laughs] Yes. Well, they, I guess, whatever I had in the way of liberal leftist New Dealing opinions did do me some harm in the, in the Army. I had been originally trained first as an infantryman, then as a, as a cryptographer, and at a certain point, [laughs] when I was hanging out in a secret camp in Warrenton, Virginia, the word came through that I was to be sent to a, kind of a dumping ground camp, called Shenango where the undesirables of all kinds were sent to await shipment as general replacements to Europe. Well, I went then as a general replacement from Shenango to North Africa.
[46:52] Sofield: Yeah.
[46:53] Wilbur: And, and waited there rather briefly to be taken somewhere else.
[47:00] Sofield: But as a member at this point of the Signal Corps?
[47:04] Wilbur: I guess that I, that my signal training was on my, was on my service record. But I think I was going to be sent, very likely, into an infantry company with no training in the Garand rifle. I had trained--
[47:26] Sofield: ‘Cause you were writing poems, not cleaning it.
[47:28] Wilbur: Yes. [laughs]
[47:29] Uh, yes. Well, while I was waiting around briefly in North Africa, the, the landing at Salerno occurred, and what later became my division, the 36th “Texas Division” was, of course, part of that. Then when I was shipped over to Italy as a general replacement, a good many of us undesirables were ushered into a great racetrack called the Hipódromo de Agnano, near Naples.
[48:15] Sofield: [laughs]
[48:16] Wilbur: And this was, this was a place where they looked at your sec-, sec-, service record and assigned you to this or that. I was walking across this enormous encampment of a racetrack to volunteer for the paratroops which would have given me some training you know, with, with--
[48:50] Sofield: I've never been able to imagine parachuting. [both laugh]
[48:53] Wilbur: Well I hadn't done much imagining of para-, of parachuting, but I think I was right to fear that I was not well-enough trained with the Garand rifle and with other infantry skills to go right into the front line. And the paratroops would have given me some training.
[49:22] Sofield: Yeah.
[49:22] Wilbur: And so I had decided to volunteer for them. And I and a couple of other people of the same mind were walking across the Hippodrome when my name was called by a PA system, and I reported to Captain Wingo of the divisional, 36th Division’s Signal Company. And I've since, I've since turned it into a bit of vaudeville, but it really was rather like this: I stepped into his tent, saluted, and said “Private Wilbur reporting for duty,” and Captain Wingo said, “Private Wilbur, it says here you want to overthrow the Government.”
[50:13] Sofield: [laughs]
[50:14] Wilbur: I, I said--
[50:15] Sofield: On a racetrack in Naples, this is happening. This is great.
[50:18] Wilbur: [laughs] And I said, “no, sir, I don't want to overthrow the Government.” And he said, “well, we've, we've just lost one of our cryptographers, and we need one in our Signal Company. So you can come into the company, if we catch you overthrowing the government, out you’ll go.”
[50:40] Sofield: [laughs]
[50:41] Wilbur: It was something like that. I've refined the comedy, a little--
[50:46] Sofield: Don’t change it. That’s the perfect--
[50:46] Wilbur: --in retelling it.
[50:49] Sofield: [laughs]
[50:50] Wilbur: And so I found myself in the 36th Division, serving with a lot, largely Texans, who of course are the best soldiers in the world. And feeling, at once, oddly at home. And, and we we, fought our way up the Italian peninsula, we had the privilege of, of taking Rome. And then we went beyond it a little bit, I think to Civitavecchia, and, and then were told to go back down south and prepare for the southern France inva-, invasion. Which we did, and we landed near Fréjus in Saint-Raphaël in an invasion, which, because the Germans had, in many ways pulled back and were, and were short on airplane fuel, which, which was a comparatively bloodless landing.
[52:14] And so we then went up, up the middle of France and into the Vosges, and were part of the final push into Germany.
[52:25] Sofield: You were involved in Monte Cassino?
[52:28] Wilbur: Oh, yes.
[52:29] Sofield: Did you say a word about that, or--?
[52:30] Wilbur: No, I didn't. Yes. Monte Cassino was my first experience, really, of, of active combat. And we were, our Signal Company, was dug into a side of the valley facing the mountain on which the abbey of Monte Cassino stood. And we were very, very vulnerable and the Germans at that time were firing 88s with, as harassing fire, for heaven's sake, um--
[53:18] Sofield: Harassing, indeed.
[53:18] Wilbur: Yes. [laughs] And so we spent a lot of time in holes in the ground, except when we were involved in active s-, Signal operations. We, we had our code machines and our other, our other “office equipment,” as it were, in a garage which was the, in the town of Cervaro, down the hill, and we were at the end of the town closest to the monastery, so that we worked under what seemed rather vulnerable conditions. The, one of the messages I had to decipher was a message to our Division telling us that at such and such an hour on the next day, the monastery was going to be bombed because it, it was felt that the Germans were using it as a observation point.
[54:48] Sofield: Um hmm.
[54:49] Wilbur: They weren't, but, but we honestly thought they were. And that was the, that was the most striking and distressing message I--
[55:02] Sofield: Yeah.
[55:03] Wilbur: --ever deciphered or decoded during World War Two.
[55:06] Sofield: Very historic monastery. Yeah.
[55:10] So where in this, in these couple of years that you're in North Africa, Italy, southern France and the final push into Germany. Do you remember having written the first poem that, that you've kept and published in your first book? Because when you published the Collected, you published everything that's in all of the books that, that constitute the Collected.
[55:35] Wilbur: Well, I know that one of my first poems was written at a time when we were pulled back from the line and sent to a recreation area near Caserta. And I forget how many days of, of rest we had there. But I do remember exploring the garden of a wonderful building in that town. An old and historic building, but I can't name it now, and writing a poem about that. And then later on, later, when we were pushing out of the Anzio beachhead, I forgot to mention that we, that we--
[56:31] Sofield: Yes, Anzio.
[56:31] Wilbur: --that we, we moved over to, to, to Anzio after Cassino. As we were pushing north from the Anzio beachhead, I was asked to do some wire laying up to the front line. And the Jeep driver who took us out there, unhappily on a later jaunt to the front lines, overshot and was killed by German machine guns. And I wrote a poem about him called “Tywater.” That was--
[57:13] Sofield: Ah, yeah.
[57:13] Wilbur: That was his name.
[57:15] Sofield: Yeah, yeah. Would you read one of these poems? I mean, I think during the course of the couple of hours we're going to be talking, it would make sense to--
[57:24] Wilbur: Sure.
[57:24] Sofield: --to have you do that, and I brought the book.
[57:28] Wilbur: This is when World War Two was running down and we were about to overrun the, the Germans after long stalling.
[57:39] “First Snow in Alsace”
The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.
Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn
As if it did not know they'd changed,
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.
The ration stacks are milky domes;
Across the ammunition pile
The snow has climbed in sparkling combs.
You think: beyond the town a mile
Or two, this snowfall fills the eyes
Of soldiers dead a little while.
Persons and persons in disguise,
Walking the new air white and fine,
Trade glances quick with shared surprise.
At children's windows, heaped, benign,
As always, winter shines the most,
And frost makes marvelous designs.
The night guard coming from his post,
Ten first-snows back in thought, walks slow
And warms him with a boyish boast:
He was the first to see the snow.
[59:18] Sofield: Thank you. So we're gonna jump a little--the war is over, you’re home, you're reunited with Charlee and Ellen.
[59:26] Wilbur: Yes.
[59:26] Sofield: Uh, did you go immediately to Harvard?
[59:32] Wilbur: Yes, almost immediately. [crosstalk]
[59:33] Sofield: On, on discharge.
[55:34] Wilbur: Some, I had, I can't tell when I got wind of the GI Bill, but I was timely informed of its existence, and that immediately shaped my sense of what I would do with myself. I suppose I had imagined, if I survived the war, just blundering into the world of American newspapers.
[1:00:05] Sofield: Sure.
[1:00:06] Wilbur: Trying to find a niche there, but this sounded just right, and my friend, friend Tom Wilcox staked out a, an apartment for us up in Cambridge and up we went very soon after my return and started into, to do the graduate school thing. And I did achieve a, an MA by 1947, I think.
[1:00:45] And then, through extraordinary good luck, I was accepted into the Harvard Society of Fellows as a Junior Fellow. That meant that I was to have three years of good, good lunches and dinners.
[1:01:06] Sofield: Very good conversation.
[1:01:08] Wilbur: And very good conversation with the 24 young scholars and 8 or 9 imposing senior fellows, people like, that meant, that meant that I found myself sitting at a dinner next to Alfred North Whitehead, for heaven's sake.
[1:01:37] Sofield: [laughs]
[1:01:38] Wilbur: It, it was, that was all quite wonderful. And the, what the Harvard Society of Fellows required of you was simply that you make use of all of the, all of the advantages of the University, all of its libraries and so on, for three years and come up with something if you could. And almost at once, because two of my Cambridge friends, one of them a fellow fellow, Pierre Schneider, the other André du Bouchet, a French refugee who had gone to Amherst and then to Harvard Graduate School. Because I, because I was much taken up with these two friends who introduced me to a lot of French literature, I felt an itch to go to, to France and follow up some special interests they’d awakened in me. So one thing I did as a Junior Fellow was to go to France with the, with Charlee and, and catch the bug that was going to affect my future career for many years.
[1:03:31] She and I went to a wonderful fresh production of Molière’s The Misanthrope at the Comédie-Française, starring Pierre Dux. And it was, it had been freshly mounted so that the jaded French audience was utterly ravished by it and their ravishment infected me. And in due time I became a translator and interpreter of much of Molière.
[1:04:14] Sofield: To some extent with Charlee's help, is that true? I mean Charlee knew French and--
[1:04:19] Wilbur: Yes, she knew French. She'd, she’d done, she, she was very good with languages.
[1:04:25] Sofield: Yeah.
[1:04:26] Wilbur: And she checked me line by line at my request when I was translating anything, but she, she had an especially good touch with, with Molière.
[1:04:44] Sofield: Yeah.
[1:04:44] Wilbur: Knew what he was up to, what the tone of voice was.
[1:04:48] Sofield: Yeah, yeah, great. So you're back at Harvard, where you must have encountered Robert Frost--
[1:04:56] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:04:57] Sofield: During that time, right, in the late 1940s?
[1:04:59] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:04:59] Sofield: Frost had left Amherst just before you arrived, that is to say Frost lived in Amherst on Sunset Avenue from the mid 1920s, I think 1925, to 1938 when his wife Elinor died, and Frost was, the story that I've always heard and read is that, that Robert Frost was so distressed by the death of his wife, such a profound change in his life that he, he needed to move, he needed to leave Amherst, and he did, not to come back until 1948 as the Simpson Lecturer. And in that interval, he was in Cambridge, I think a good bit of the time, as well as in the winters and in the summers of course in Vermont, maybe, back then. [crosstalk]
[1:05:47] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:05:48] Sofield: But you encountered him in Cambridge?
[1:05:50] Wilbur: I did. I had hoped to encounter him at Amherst. That was--
[1:05:54] Sofield: Yes, yes.
[1:05:54] Wilbur: That was my one big disappointment about Amherst when I came as a student there. [crosstalk]
[1:05:59] Sofield: Sure, sure.
[1:06:00] Wilbur: But once I was through with the war and back and, and, and live, and living in Cambridge, I did very soon meet Robert Frost. And Charlee's being my wife was a great advantage to me there, because her great aunt, Susan Hayes Ward had been a great encourager of Robert Frost at a time when nobody else was encouraging him.
[1:06:37] Sofield: [laughs] Yeah.
[1:06:38] Wilbur: He always referred to her as “the first friend of my poetry.” He used to go up to where the Ward and Hayes families lived in South Berwick, Maine, and read his poems to her. In fact, he wrote a poem at her insistence.
[1:07:05] Sofield: I didn’t know that.
[1:07:05] Wilbur: Yes, she said to him one day when he had come to read poems to her, “Robert, you've written that nice poem ‘Birches” for boys. Now you ought to do one for girls.”
[1:07:20] Sofield: [laughs]
[1:07:21] Wilbur: And this story would be better if I could remember the name of the poem which she assigned to him, but she told him a story about her girlhood. And it had woods and trees in it, and a good little plot, and he executed a poem of about the length of “Birches” to, to gratify Susan Hayes Ward. I don't think he ever wrote a poem on demand for anybody else.
[1:08:03] Sofield: [laughs] Probably [coughs], right. Except for the inauguration, right. [laughs]
[1:08:06] Wilbur: For the inauguration, which--
[1:08:08] Sofield: A long time later.
[1:08:09] Wilbur: --I think he didn’t like very well.
[1:08:10] Sofield: That’s right. It's a, it’s a poem for an inauguration. That's what it is rather than a regular Robert Frost poem, so to say.
[1:08:17] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:08:17] Sofield: What did Frost mean to you as a, as a, not so much as a friend but as a friend in the art?
[1:08:24] Wilbur: He was the first person I ever heard give a poetry reading. When I, when I was in high school, I remember taking the trolley car down to Montclair to hear Robert Frost read to the Women's Club of Montclair. He was traveling around the country in those days, reading just everywhere in order to make money for the care of his afflicted children.
[1:08:56] Sofield: Yes.
[1:08:57] Wilbur: And they, so I think very early I, I took in by ear some of the qualities of Frost that excited me in, in poetry. And by the time I met him in Cambridge, I think I had a very large part of his poetry by heart. So that although the important thing governing his kindness to Charlee and me was Charlee's family [laughs], he also thought well of me for having so much of him by heart.
[1:09:47] Sofield: I’ll bet. [laughs]
[1:09:50] Wilbur: And he was, he was always very reserved in his encouragements, but he did, he did take a kindly view of my poems. When I came out with the first book in 1947, he, he didn't pat me on the head, but he called Charlee and spoke well of the book over the telephone. And that was--
[1:10:27] Sofield: That’s all you needed. [laughs]
[1:10:27] Wilbur: That was conveyed to me. [laughs]
[1:10:31] Sofield: I’d ask you to read what I think of, I'm sure there are other candidates, but I think of this as your most Frost-ian poem and it is certainly one of my favorite poems that you've done, “April 5, 1974.”
[1:10:44] Wilbur: [laughs] Yes, this, I admit that this is a Frost-ian poem. I hope it also sounds like me.
[1:10:51] Sofield: It does.
[1:10:52] Wilbur: [laughs] It's, it’s called “April 5, 1974.” [crosstalk]
[1:10:55] Sofield: This is April 7, 2010, right, so--
[1:11:00] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:11:00] Sofield: It's a weather poem. [laughs]
[1:11:02] Wilbur: Right, it is.
[1:11:03] Sofield: In, in different weather from the weather, summery weather today.
[1:11:06] Wilbur: Yes, this is more, more summery.
[1:11:09] Sofield: Right.
The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch, and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law?
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream,
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter's giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mither, mo--, mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.
[1:12:18] Too bad I loused up that next-to-the-last line.
[1:12:20] Sofield: [laughs]
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.
[1:12:27] Sofield: Excellent. Excellent, thanks.
[1:12:31] So you finish at Harvard having accumulated many pages on Edgar Allan Poe, as I understand it, many of them in print and took your first job, which was at Harvard, right? I mean, you taught at Harvard for a couple of years and then Wellesley a couple of years. [crosstalk]
[1:12:50] Wilbur: Yes. Yeah, the, the Society of Fellows had been created by one of Harvard's presidents who was a little impatient of the PhD program. And so it wasn't surprising that it was possible to move from, from three years in the Society of Fellows onto the faculty, as a beginner. And I was taken into the English department, made an assistant professor, and I was classified as a what, what, what was the name of it? There was a, there was a program involving assistant professors who were teachers of writing. And they were not, however, promotional types. They were not going to remain in the Harvard English faculty.
[1:13:55] Sofield: There's something, I don't know if this is it, but there's something called the Briggs-Copeland, is that it? [crosstalk]
[1:13:58] Wilbur: Briggs-Copeland, yes. [crosstalk]
[1:13:59] Sofield: That’s it.
[1:14:00] Wilbur: Yes, I was a Briggs-Copeland appointee. And so I was to be at Harvard for maybe five years, and I was to teach writing. Though I had only written one or two short stories in my life, I found myself teaching classes in the short story. But I was also allowed to teach a course in modern poetry ending with Hart Crane, as I remember, and to, and to teach in the rather exciting freshmen humanities program, which was just, just beginning at that time.
[1:14:56] What else did I do? I did a, I did a, a seminar in Edgar Allan Poe, which had about 10 takers. Fortunately, they were very bright guys who kept discovering new things about Poe as one could do. The reason why one could make discoveries in Poe was that Poe scholarship had been very lame brained until, until that time, I think, I think Poe scholarship was mostly of a factual nature. And, and that that was because people who busied themselves with Poe scholarship really didn't have much respect for Poe as a writer.
[1:15:48] Sofield: Yeah.
[1:14:49] Wilbur: Didn't have any sense that he, that there were, that there were depths in some of his work that were worth plumbing. Well, that was exciting teaching that, that course to people who themselves made discoveries in Poe. Then on to Wellesley for two years and in the midst of which I went to Rome,
[1:16:18] Sofield: Oh, as a, to the American Academy?
[1:16:19] Wilbur: Yes, I’d already, I’d already scampered off to New Mexico in 1952 on a Guggenheim Fellowship, so I was rather in and out as a, as a teacher in those days. [crosstalk]
[1:16:34] Sofield: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. Where you settled was Wesleyan.
[1:16:37] Wilbur: Wesleyan, and I was a real home-sticker as, as most teachers are not. I, I stayed at Wesleyan for 20 years at least. Well, you, you've been a home-sticker at Amherst.
[1:16:54] Sofield: 45. [both laugh]
[1:16:57] Wilbur: Yeah.
[1:16:58] Sofield: And by this point, you've had, you must have had three children and maybe four. I mean, you--
[1:17:05] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:17:06] Sofield: The boys were born in succession after the war, obviously. [crosstalk]
[1:17:10] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:17:10] Sofield: Yeah.
[1:17:10] Wilbur: And I--
[1:17:11] Sofield: One of whom I taught, I wish it to be recorded on this occasion. [laughs] [crosstalk]
[1:17:14] Wilbur: Oh, that's right. My son Nathan was--
[1:17:16] Sofield: Is an Amherst alum.
[1:17:17] Wilbur: Was an Amherst alumnus.
[1:17:19] Sofield: Yeah.
[1:17:19] Wilbur: My son Christopher was accepted at Amherst, but something made him go to Harvard.
[1:17:24] Sofield: Don't know what.
[1:17:26] Wilbur: Yeah.
[1:17:26] Sofield: Yeah. So at Wesleyan, I want to come back to Amherst College in a, in a second, but I'd like to hear a little something about what you did at Wesleyan for 20-plus years, and in the, in the publishing, because you were heavily involved in the Wesleyan poets publishing. [crosstalk]
[1:17:43] Wilbur: Yes. Well, in, in, in classes I, I started out boldly teaching Shakespeare to a large class and I didn't really go, go on to be a Shakespeare man. I, there were, there were other people who, whose--
[1:18:08] Sofield: [indistinguishable crosstalk]
[1:18:08] Wilbur: --habit it was to teach Shakespeare and I let them, let them do it. Later, I did inherit the, the Milton course at Wesleyan. And that was a delight to me always. Um--
[1:18:23] Sofield: So every year, for many years you taught a Milton course.
[1:18:26] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:18:26] Sofield: Yeah.
[1:18:28] Wilbur: And, of course, if you're a writer, as I noticeably was by that time, people want you to teach writing courses, and so I did with, with pleasure. The only course I really hated teaching at Wesleyan was a course in remedial English, which I was asked to do one year and which I was foolhardy enough to accept. The trouble was that I have never been any good at all on English grammar or French grammar, and just barely adequate in Latin grammar, ‘course, you can't get anywhere in Latin--
[1:19:25] Sofield: [laughs] That’s right.
[1:19:26] Wilbur: [laughs] --unless you acknowledge the existence of declensions and cong-, conjugations, but I was willfully stupid by, about grammar always and bored by it. I remember when I sold my first poem to The New Yorker, which was in 1948, or so. It was a poem about New Year's Eve. And I had a telephone call in latter December from Mrs. E. B. White from The New Yorker saying, “Mr. Wilbur, we want to use your New, New Year's poem. Now, we have to go to press with it right away, so there won't be time for us to send you a proof. We'll have to talk it over the telephone.” And I said, “all right, Mrs. White.”
[1:20:28] Sofield: [laughs]
[1:20:29] Wilbur: And she said, “you don't seem to understand the difference between which and that.”
[1:20:34] Sofield: [laughs]
[1:20:35] Wilbur: And, and I said, “well, well, no, I don't, Mrs. White. It seems to me that ‘which’ is a rough sounding word and that ‘that’ is a smooth sounding word, and that's the best I can do.”
[1:20:50] Sofield: [laughs]
[1:20:51] Wilbur: And she said, “oh, well. After all, Fowler's usage is an English book we’ll let you have your mistakes.”
[1:21:00] Sofield: [laughs]
[1:21:01] Wilbur: And so--
[1:21:02] Sofield: They didn't let many have their mistakes.
[1:21:04] Wilbur: [laughs] No. They were in a hurry, I guess in this case. And so--
[1:21:10] Sofield: Well, it changes the texture of a line to--
[1:21:13] Wilbur: It does, indeed.
[1:21:14] Sofield: --you know, you move from one of those words to the other.
[1:21:16] Wilbur: Yes, but, but of course, they, they didn't really want me to be ungrammatical. And so, well, I've, I've, I've always been as bad at grammar as I could be.
[1:21:32] Sofield: [laughs]
[1:21:33] Wilbur: And here I was teaching a course in remedial English at Wesleyan. [crosstalk]
[1:21:39] Sofield: Remedial, yeah.
[1:21:40] Wilbur: Fortunately, among the students who had, had been obliged to take this course, there were a few who understood the principles of grammar, although they couldn't apply them.
[1:21:56] Sofield: [laughs]
[1:21:57] Wilbur: And so I spent a semester saying, “Mr. So-and-so, can, can you tell us what grammatical rule would apply here?” And--
[1:22:08] Sofield: [laughs] Very resourceful.
[1:22:09] Wilbur: Yes. They covered up for me, the very students I was supposed to be instructing.
[1:22:15] Sofield: That's great. So when did you, do you remember, you may not remember, but first come back to the College after the war? Did you come back to do readings in the late 1940s, say, after your first book or was it-- [crosstalk]
[1:22:28] Wilbur: Well, I, I came back, rather to my surprise, to every class reunion.
[1:22:35] Sofield: Uh huh.
[1:22:35] Wilbur: And I turned into an old grad.
[1:22:38] Sofield: Yes.
[1:22:38] Wilbur: And, but, uh--
[1:22:41] Sofield: [laughs] Here we are in the Alumni House.
[1:22:43] Wilbur: Yes. But, um, what was the other thing?
[1:22:47] Sofield: The question is when you, when you started doing readings--
[1:22:51] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:22:51] Sofield: --of your own poems in the, at the College.
[1:22:53] Wilbur: Now, I can't say what the year of it was, but I think one of the first readings I gave was at Amherst, and Jimmy Merrill and I--
[1:23:04] Sofield: I was going to bring up Jimmy Merrill soon.
[1:23:06] Wilbur: We gave up, we gave a joint reading in the Octagon. And Jimmy, Jimmy did very well, although in subsequent writing, he said that he felt he had displayed all kinds of affectation.
[1:23:25] Sofield: Yeah, well. [both laugh]
[1:23:27] Wilbur: And, uh--
[1:23:28] Sofield: Jimmy Merrill was five years younger than you, so he would have been quite young at that point.
[1:23:33] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:23:35] Sofield: And not having himself pursued, uh, graduate school. But you got to know him well as the years went on, especially once you started going to Key West and he moved to Key West for the--
[1:23:47] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:23:47] Sofield: --the winters.
[1:23:48] Wilbur: Yes, Charlee and I went to Key West for the first time in the middle 1960s. A colleague of mine at Wesleyan the painter Sam Green had said, “why do you and Charlee always go to some place like Aruba--”
[1:24:12] Sofield: [laughs]
[1:24:13] Wilbur: --“during the winter vacation, and, and spend all your money on airfare so that you can’t stay very long. My suggestion,” Sam said, “is that you go to the American tropics.” He'd just been visiting Key West and had made some charming paintings of the, of that then-dilapidated town, and he persuaded us to give it a try. And we were very fond of Key West right away. And before long before two or three years of Key West visits had elapsed, we had found ourselves a house there.
[1:25:04] Sofield: Yeah.
[1:25:05] Wilbur: In a compound to which we had attracted some other writers. The, we introduced my friend John Ciardi and John Hersey to Key West, and there began to be a, a number of, of our friends and their friends coming to the island, until we constituted quite a writer's colony.
[1:25:41] Sofield: Good.
[1:25:42] Wilbur: And a kind of a continuous cocktail party
[1:25:45] Sofield: Was Hemingway around at all?
[1:25:47] Wilbur: Hemingway had gone.
[1:25:49] Sofield: Yeah.
[1:25:49] Wilbur: The only writer I remember during, who was there during our very first visit was Tennessee Williams.
[1:26:00] Sofield: Uh huh.
[1:26:01] Wilbur: He was pointed out to me in a, an Italian restaurant where Charlee and I were dining. And, and the waitress said, “do you, do you know about the very famous playwright Tennessee Williams?” I said, “yeah, I know about him.”
[1:26:20] Sofield: [laughs]
[1:26:21] Wilbur: And she said, “well, he's right over there.”
[1:26:23] Sofield: [laughs]
[1:26:24] Wilbur: And I said, “which one is he?” And she said, “he’s the little, he’s the little runt under the window.”
[1:26:32] Sofield: [laughs] Yeah.
[1:26:33] Wilbur: Well--
[1:26:34] Sofield: But you stayed with Key West for decades.
[1:26:36] Wilbur: Yes, yes. And until, until Charlee’s health made it clear that she was no longer going to be able to enjoy a tropical island. So we stayed on into the ‘80s.
[1:26:53] Sofield: Yeah, yeah, well, good. And when did you, I know it was when you were teaching at Wesleyan, but when did you acquire the Cummington property? This is where I come in, that’s where I [indistinguishable]. [both laugh]
[1:27:05] Wilbur: That, that was around 1964 or ‘5. We had been down in New Haven at Yale for a big old program in memory of Randall Jarrell, who had just died, and various--
[1:27:27] Sofield: ‘65, it was.
[1:27:28] Wilbur: --various people like, uh, John Crowe Ransom, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, Richard Eberhardt were down there to say a few words about him from a, from a platform, and to read a few of his poems, and I was part of that. And Robert Penn Warren, who was also part of that--
[1:28:03] Sofield: And a faculty member at Yale, yeah.
[1:28:04] Wilbur: Yes, that's right. He said to me, “do you have any money in the bank?” And I said, “well, a little.” He said, “bully, if you do, take it and go north from where you're teaching in, in Connecticut and buy up some of northern New England, because what's happening now is that everybody wants a second home. And terrible real estate speculators are coming down from Canada, coming in from other places and they're flooding the valleys and calling it lakes and surrounding these phony lakes with chalets. We've got to save some of New England's land from these people.”
[1:28:54] Sofield: [laughs] Um hmm.
[1:28:55] Wilbur: And well, on the same occasion, Jonathan Aaron, an old friend of ours and the son of an old friend, Dan Aaron, said that his parents had just found a fine old house in Cummington, Massachusetts, for very little money and maybe 100 acres of land to go with it. And as a matter of fact, they could well advise me as to the name of an honest real estate woman they had encountered there in Cummington. So, well, to, to be brief about it, we got in touch with the honest real estate woman, went up to Cummington and loved what we saw and bought, for almost no money at all, a little shack
[1:30:05] Sofield: And a foundation. Is that what I remember?
[1:30:07] Wilbur: And a burnt out foundation.
[1:30:09] Sofield: Yeah.
[1:30:10] Wilbur: A ruined tennis court, a ruined swimming pool, and 50 acres of, of woods. And by the time, by, by, by, by 1971 we had built a house in the burnt out foundation and that became where we lived.
[1:30:30] Sofield: Yeah. Then you moved from Wesleyan to Smith.
[1:30:34] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:30:34] Sofield: I assume in part because you were wanting to live in Cummington?
[1:30:38] Wilbur: That's right, yes. We were, after all, just a half an hour from Smith College--
[1:30:43] Sofield: Yeah.
[1:30:45] Wilbur: --once we had moved to Cummington and Smith kindly took me in.
[1:30:51] Sofield: Are you willing to say a word about a possibility that didn't get realized of coming to Amherst at some point with a--?
[1:31:00] Wilbur: I think I--
[1:31:01] Sofield: You mentioned something to me once, and this is the kind of occasion, these interviews, in which, in which, I think whoever is in charge of all this [both laugh] thinks it's a good idea to, to speak a bit about about Amherst and if there are, you know, if any, any qualifications one has about one's loyalty to the, not that you have any qualifications, but there was a, there was talk at one point, right, of your--
[1:31:28] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:31:28] Sofield: --coming to the Amherst English department? Which I knew nothing about, although I was probably here at the time it happened. [crosstalk]
[1:31:34] Wilbur: Yes, I think you were. But, uh, there was a time when Harvard had offered me a job, to come back to Harvard from Wesleyan. Wesleyan countered with a kind of offer of giving me every third semester off with pay. That was going to help me as a writer, of course.
[1:32:01] Sofield: Sure.
[1:32:02] Wilbur: And in this interval of dickering, I had a kind inquiry from Cal Plimpton and came up and talked with Armour and one or two people about, about it.
[1:32:17] Sofield: Um hmm.
[1:32:18] Wilbur: But the arrangement that Wesleyan had made was altogether too kind. [crosstalk]
[1:32:25] Sofield: Too good. Yes. [laughs]
[1:32:26] Wilbur: So I stayed on, on there--
[1:32:29] Sofield: Yeah, yeah.
[1:32:29] Wilbur: --much as I was attracted to coming back to Amherst.
[1:32:33] Sofield: Eventually you did, and here you are.
[1:32:35] Wilbur: I did.
[1:32:35] Sofield: Uh, not at a young age did you come back, but, but I applaud the initiative of the administration in thinking to, to make you a Simpson Lecturer. It's meant something to me, I would say, because Dick and I have been co-teaching, as I said at the very beginning of these two hours, what I think will be two hours, and we've had a, had a good time doing it, at least by my lights. Do you want to say a word about how you find the current Amherst students, as you've encountered them in the classroom?
[1:33:07] Wilbur: I find them indubitably brighter than we were. They’re, they are, though, at any rate, the ones I've met have been very, very lively, very well-prepared for anything we had to offer them. The, the only thing the matter with them is that they use the word “like” in every sentence.
[1:33:41] Sofield: [laughs]
[1:33:42] Wilbur: [laughs] That's, it’s--
[1:33:43] Sofield: Even when we tell them not to.
[1:33:44] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:33:45] Sofield: And we have done that.
[1:33:46] Wilbur: We have indeed. Well, they're, they're very good thinkers and readers, good writers. They're not good talkers. And perhaps--
[1:33:59] Sofield: They're shy.
[1:33:59] Wilbur: Perhaps, maybe it is, maybe it is shyness. [crosstalk]
[1:34:02] Sofield: Although there's also a kind of ethos at the College, and it has been this way for quite a while, maybe this is more pronounced once coeducation came in, in which students seem to be more reluctant to speak eloquently or to try to speak eloquently in front of their peers. And it's a disappointment. I mean, I remember since I came here in 1965, and the, all the things that happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s, did happen while I was a young instructor and assistant professor here. The students were, were, and this was before coeducation, the students were, were truly passionately involved in class discussion and there was no holding back and it was a very exciting time to be a teacher and you, you undoubtedly encountered that at Wesleyan as well. But the classroom itself has, has been muted a bit my, I would claim. And I don't know if my little theory about coeducation and not wanting to be seen as showing off and pleasing teachers and, and you know, so it is a little hard to get to get the kind of conversation going in class that used to be pretty, pretty routine.
[1:35:16] Wilbur: When I was teaching at Harvard, it was generally felt that, though the girls from Radcliffe in our classes were in many cases the brightest of our students, that they suppressed their cleverness and their, their scholarly knowledge because they were in the presence of boys.
[1:35:53] Sofield: Yeah, yeah.
[1:35:54] Wilbur: And I don't know whether the same theory obtained about the boys, but, uh--
[1:36:02] Sofield: It's, it's a thought I've had over years that the classroom is not quite the, the alive place that, and maybe this is just my getting a lot older, I've been here 45 years. And so you remember the early years, as you know, with the kind of intensity, for the intensity that, that you, that you maybe projected onto the classroom, that does seem to be a shift and lots of other people will offer the same kind of testimony. Well, I would say, for posterity, that this has meant a whole lot to me to be teaching with you and of course to have known you all this time.
[1:36:42] Wilbur: Well, it's been wonderful for me to be hauled out of retirement. I--
[1:36:47] Sofield: Yes.
[1:36:47] Wilbur: For 20 years, I hadn’t taught a class.
[1:36:50] Sofield: That’s right. You taught at Smith for 10 years and then stopped.
[1:36:53] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:36:53] Sofield: Yeah.
[1:36:54] Wilbur: And, and, of course--
[1:36:55] Sofield: So from age 65 to 85, if I may so say, you know--
[1:36:58] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:36:59] Sofield: --you, you weren't teaching, you were writing.
[1:37:01] Wilbur: And I'd forgotten everything I ever knew, as perhaps I display in class.
[1:37:06] Sofield: [laughs] Never, never. Which reminds me to ask you to read a poem and maybe to recite one if you can, I would think an appropriate way to bring this to a conclusion would be to come back to where we nearly started, and that is to Charlee and your family. You were, you were generous enough to ask me to speak at her memorial, in a little church in Cummington after she died, and it was one of the, one of the truly moving occasions for me in my life and an honor, to be sure. Uh, your poetry since Charlee has, has gone does seem to me to be to be focused on Charlee and your life without her.
[1:37:51] Wilbur: I suppose it is, yes.
[1:37:53] Sofield: I think it is. I was teaching “In Memoriam,” or a little bit of “In Memoriam,” Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” the other day and it occurred to me in the middle of a sentence when I was speaking about Tennyson and the loss of his great friend Arthur Henry Hallam, when Hallam was 23 and Tennyson the same, and Tennyson spent, you know, the next decade and a half writing this astonishing series of 100-plus poems in memory of his friend who was tapped even when he was in his early 20s as a future Prime Minister of England. Well, it occurred to me in the middle of a sentence I was speaking about Tennyson and Hallam, that, that, that you're engaged, and I've said this to the class, that you're engaged in a much smaller project, uh, of “in memoriam, [laughs] Charlotte Hayes Wilbur.”
[1:38:41] Wilbur: Well, I probably am, without being programmatic or quite aware of it. [crosstalk]
[1:38:46] Sofield: Yes, yes, right. Yeah. I don't mean to make you excessively aware of it. [both laugh] And I certainly don't want to stop it. But there are two poems, um, you begin the most recent, I know you have an another book coming out this fall, so if anybody listens to this interview before then, I don't know that, when it'll be available, but maybe in time for, for that book, to be titled Anterooms, which is going to begin, is it not, with the poem “House”?
[1:39:13] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:39:14] Sofield: “The House.”
[1:39:14] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:39:15] Sofield: Would you be willing to read “The Reader”?
[1:39:18] Wilbur: Oh, yes.
[1:39:19] Sofield: And maybe to speak the poem “House,” if you could do that. [crosstalk]
[1:39:23] Wilbur: I wish I could.
[1:39:24] Sofield: Yeah. You didn't bring it with you and I should have brought it with me.
[1:39:28] Wilbur: My trouble is, and I greatly envy all my Russian poet friends who can say everything they’ve ever written from memory, I find that I write so slowly and with so many changes, that when I try to remember my poems, I remember various stages of composition.
[1:39:55] Sofield: Well, I do the same. [crosstalk]
[1:39:56] Wilbur: Which is confusing.
[1:39:57] Sofield: Yes, yeah, yeah. Well, here is “The Reader.” Um--
[1:40:03] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:40:03] Sofield: Which poem I did read at the, at the memorial service.
[1:40:06] Wilbur: Yes, Charlee was a very great reader and, and very ashamed of me because I never finished reading War and Peace.
[1:40:17] Sofield: [laughs]
[1:40:18] Wilbur: She was a great consumer of, of the classic, of classic fiction. And this poem looks at her as she's reading.
[1:40:36] The Reader
She is going back, these days, to the great stories
That charmed her younger mind. A shaded light
Shines on the nape half-shadowed by her curls,
And a page turns now with a scuffing sound.
Onward they come again, the orphans reaching
For a first handhold in a stony world,
The young provincials who at last look down
On the city’s maze, and will descend into it,
The serious girl, once more, who would live nobly,
The sly one who aspires to marry so,
The young man bent on glory, and that other
Who seeks a burden. Knowing as she does
What will become of them in bloody field
Or Tuscan garden, it may be that at times
She sees their first and final selves at once,
As a god might to whom all time is now.
Or, having lived so much herself, perhaps
She meets them this time with a wiser eye,
Noting that Julien’s calculating head
Is from the first too severed from his heart.
But the true wonder of it is that she,
For all that she may know of consequences,
Still turns enchanted to the next bright page
Like some Natasha in the ballroom door—
Caught in the flow of things wherever bound,
The blind delight of being, ready still
To enter life on life and see them through.
[1:42:36] I probably should have an available index of that poem in the back of the book--
[1:42:42] Sofield: Yes.
[1:42:43] Wilbur: --letting people know what novels I have in mind, but--
[1:42:47] Sofield: [laughs] Yeah.
[1:42:48] Wilbur: The, the fellow “who seeks a burden” is Stavrogin in the, in The Possessed.
[1:42:55] Sofield: Yeah.
[1:42:56] Wilbur: In the translation I read--
[1:42:58] Sofield: Yes.
[1:42:58] Wilbur: --he says, “I seek a burden.”
[1:43:00] Sofield: Ahah, ahah. I had wondered about that, and although I've read The Possessed, I read it when I was a student. It occurred to me as you were reading, maybe another way to, to return it to the larger world, to return our talk to the larger world would be to have you read another Amherst poem about a poet and I can imagine there are people who will be watching and listening to this who would appreciate your doing the Emily Dickinson poem “Altitudes.”
[1:43:32] Wilbur: Yes.
[1:43:32] Sofield: And then we really will stop, although we could go on.
[1:43:35] Wilbur: [laughs] Alright. Yes, this is a, this is a two-part poem. In the first part, one is somewhere in Europe, in Catholic Europe, looking up into the dome of a cathedral. And in the second part, one is back in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Look up into the dome:
It is a great salon, a brilliant place,
Yet not too splendid for the race
Whom we imagine there, wholly at home
With the gold-rosetted white
Wainscott, the oval windows, and the fault-
Less figures of the painted vault.
Strolling, conversing in that precious light,
They chat, no doubt of love,
The pleasant burden of their courtesy
Borne down at times to you and me
Where, in this dark, we stand and gaze above.
For all they cannot share,
All that the world cannot in fact afford,
Their lofty premises are floored
With the massed voices of continual prayer.
[1:45:03] Part Two
How far it is from here
To Emily Dickinson's father's house in America;
Think of her climbing a spiral stair
Up to the little cupola with its clear
Small panes, its room for one.
Like the dark house below, so full of eyes
In mirrors and of shut-in flies,
This chamber furnished only with the sun
Is she and she alone,
A mood to which she rises, in which she sees
Bird-choristers in all the trees
And a wild shining of the pure unknown
On Amherst. This is caught
In the dormers of a neighbor, who, no doubt,
Will before long be coming out
To pace about his garden, lost in thought.
[1:46:04] That would, in a literal construction of that poem, that would be her, her brother Austin.
[1:46:11] Sofield: That's right, in The Evergreens. [laughs]
[1:46:12] Wilbur: Yes. But I, I mean him to represent so many Americans of that generation who were making up their own religion for them, for themselves, and sometimes with help from India. [laughs]
[1:46:31] Sofield: Yes. Well, Dick, thank you very much.
Richard Wilbur, class of 1942 and renowned poet, has won dozens of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize twice, the National Book Award, and the Wallace Stevens Prize. He has written Broadway show lyrics, most notably Candide, a collaboration with Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein; he's also published two collections of critical essays, and a number of children's books. In the fall of 2008, he returned to his alma mater to teach as the John Woodruff Simpon Lecturer. One of Wilbur's lifelong passions was translation. His renditions range from Moliere and Racine to Akhmatova and Brodsky. In addition to his writing and translating, he taught for 40 years at Harvard, Wellesley, Wesleyan, and Smith.
David Sofield, Samuel Williston Professor of English, has taught English and creative writing at Amherst since 1965. His own debut collection of poems entitled Light Disguise was published in 2003. In the fall of 2009, he and Richard Wilbur co-taught a new seminar titled Donne, Berbert, Marvell, Milton. He has also served as Wilbur's doubles tennis partner.
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