Students, professors honor Richard Wilbur at poetry reading

It was not a typical 90th birthday party, but Richard Wilbur ’42 is hardly a typical 90-year-old. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate, Wilbur holds the same teaching position at Amherst that Robert Frost once did. To celebrate his becoming a nonagenarian, a poetry reading seemed only fitting.

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And so it was that a full house arrived in Cole Assembly Room in Converse Hall on March 2 at 4:30 p.m., a day after Wilbur turned 90, to celebrate his big day with a reading of his poems and translations. In a sign of the poet’s broad appeal, the standing-room-only crowd included everyone from professors and students to a young child with a pacifier (later replaced by a ring pop).

The first of 14 readers was poet and Samuel Williston Professor of English David Sofield, who has taught with Wilbur. Sofield read three poems, including “First Snow in Alsace,” published in Wilbur’s first book, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947). Seven of the readers were students; Irina Troconis ’11, for example, read Jorge Guillen’s “Death, from a Distance” in both English (Wilbur was the translator) and the original Spanish. She uttered a quick “Happy Birthday!” before returning to her seat.

Among the other readers was Henry Clay Folger Professor of English William H. Pritchard ’53, who read “C Minor” (“which I have a particular fondness for,” he said, “perhaps because I reviewed it”) and “A Storm in April,” especially appropriate on that cold March afternoon:

Some winters, taking leave,
Deal us a last, hard blow,
Salting the ground like Carthage
Before they will go.

President Anthony W. Marx also took part, reading “Cottage Street, 1953” and noting that he attended his first Wilbur poetry reading at age 18. Now, the president said, “reading Wilbur to Wilbur is among the most amazing and bizarre moments of my time at Amherst.”

Christopher Spaide ’11 read, among other poems, excerpts from “The Disappearing Alphabet,” which is for children:

How strange that the banana’s slippery PEEL,
Without its P, would be a slippery EEL!
It makes you think! However, it is not
Profound enough to think about a lot.

Before reading “October Maples, Portland,” Writer-in-Residence Daniel Hall described a famous letter Robert Frost wrote to the Amherst Student shortly before his 60th birthday in 1935. “It is very, very kind of the Student to be showing sympathy with me for my age,” Frost wrote. “But 60 is only a pretty good age. It is not advanced enough. The great thing is to be advanced. Now 90 would be really well along and something to be given credit for.” 

Indeed, it is, and after reading “The Proof,” Professor Ilan Stavans—who, as a special tribute, had also translated the poem into Spanish—announced that Wilbur would be the final reader. Wilbur, whose title at Amherst is John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer, took the podium, read “Out Here” from his 2010 book Anterooms, and received a long, warm standing ovation.

Soon after, a student presented the guest of honor with a batch of homemade cupcakes.  

See photos of the celebration, and download the evening’s program (PDF).