Richard Wilbur looks back on rare life of a happy poet

Stationed in Italy, France and Germany, war made Bryant a poet

Posted: Friday, January 12, 2007

CUMMINGTON, Mass. - Poetry is not literally in the air as you drive through the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, but as the temperature cools and your cell phone loses its signal, a certain space does open up in your mind, a swell of rhythms from an older and calmer time.

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Cummington, a small town once home to 19th-century poet William Cullen Bryant, is the primary residence of one of today's most celebrated poets and translators, Richard Wilbur. The 85-year-old is a Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate, often cited as an heir to Robert Frost and other New England writers.

All artists should live so well. Wilbur shares a modern, split-level house with his wife, Charlee, on about 80 acres that include walking paths ideal for a thinking man, and a tennis court and swimming pool for exercise. A neighboring dairy farm reminds him, at times most comically, of his own rural childhood.

"Twice I have found a cow in the water of my pool, although I'm glad to say the cows survived," he says during a visit by The Associated Press on a recent afternoon in his writing quarters, a bright, high-ceilinged cottage looking out on rock maples and pine trees.

Sixty years after his first book was published, Wilbur is a fixture in anthologies and commonly cited as among the greatest poets of his time. He will "inevitably" have a volume of his own released by the Library of America, publisher Max Rudin says, although no date has been set.

Wilbur is regarded, not always to his liking, as a leading "formalist" - "formal" can be found near "formaldehyde" in the dictionary, he jokes - a master of traditional, tempered verse that can seem old-fashioned in more radical times. "Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range/the long numbers that rocket the mind," he once wrote. He is not a Romantic given to epics or wind-swept odes, but a man of care and reason who addresses his readers as fellow civilized beings.

"He's one of few writers I've ever known who has a balanced center of gravity," says fellow New England poet Jay Parini, a resident of Middlebury, Vt. "He speaks with clarity, but also with wit and subtlety. And there's not an ounce of pretense about him, in person or in his writing."

Besides his poetry, Wilbur has written children's verse, collaborated on the libretto to Leonard Bernstein's production of "Candide" and established himself as a leading translator of French playwrights, notably Moliere, whose satirical couplets have served as an ideal template for Wilbur's wordplay and wit.

He looks much younger than his age, with his clear voice, muscular torso and thick dark hair, and remains busy writing and translating. He recently published a poem, "Thistle," in The New Yorker, and completed an English edition of Pierre Corneille's "The Theater of Illusion," scheduled to be published in April. Wilbur also participated in The National Endowment of the Arts' "Operation Home Coming," the anthology of stories from veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

"We interviewed him for the project and he offered a wonderful memory of trying to write a poem in a fox hole," says NEA chairman and fellow poet Dana Gioia. "One does not think of Wilbur as a war poet, but he served in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II. ... He had an immediacy and deep sympathy with the these young writers in the armed forces."

Poets are supposedly isolated souls, but on the walls of Wilbur's writing studio hang pictures of President Clinton ("a literate pol") Hillary Clinton ("a bright Wellesley girl") and Dylan Thomas ("good fun, although I suppose he was on his way to destroying himself"). Wilbur also knew a subdued Smith College student named Sylvia Plath, remembered in his poem "Cottage Street 1953" as "the pale, slumped daughter" of her "frightened" mother.

Wilbur himself does not pretend to identify with Plath, Thomas or any other tortured artist; neither war nor old age has shaken his essentially benign view of the world, one sustained by family life and his Christian faith in the afterlife.

"I think many people associate happiness with shallowness," he says. "What people don't want is someone who is complacent. And I know that I am not a complacent man."

The son of a commercial artist and an 11th-generation American, Wilbur was born in New York in 1921 and moved to rural New Jersey two years later, where his family lived in a colonial-era stone house on 400 acres of land, much room to roam for a budding poet and his thoughts.

He was interested in music and painting early on and, as a teenager, managed to get his first verse, about a nightingale, published in John Martin's Magazine, which paid him $1. At Amherst College, he worked on the campus humor magazine and spent enough time around student leftists to get him kicked out of the Signal Corps at the start of World War II - he was classified as "Suspected of Disloyalty" - and transferred to front-line duty in the 36th Infantry.

War made him a poet. Stationed in Italy, France and Germany, with hours and days of down time between conflicts, he recalled jotting down verse if only because it was the most practical way of expressing himself. "In a fox hole, you can write a poem, but you cannot paint a picture," he observes.

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