Richard Wilbur in his study in Cummington, Massachusetts. Photo by Arlo Haskell.
Richard Wilbur’s auspicious 1947 debut, The Beautiful Changes, earned the admiration of two of the most enduring American poets of the era, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. By the late 1950s, Wilbur had completed a landmark translation of Molière’s The Misanthrope, and received the Pulitzer Prize for his third collection of poetry, Things of This World. Since then, Wilbur has received nearly every award and honor available to an American poet, including two Pulitzers, two Bollingen Prizes, a National Book Award, and the office of the U.S. Poet Laureate. His definitive translations of Molière, Jean Racine, and Pierre Corneille represent nearly the complete output of these major figures of 17th-century French drama, and he has translated poetry by an astounding range of poets including the Portuguese Vinícius de Moraes, the Russian Anna Akhmatova, and the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges.
For parts of five decades, Wilbur and his wife Charlee spent winters in Key West. Here they became part of a cadre that included John Ciardi, the noted translator of Dante’s Inferno, Pulitzer Prize-winning World War II correspondent John Hersey, two-time National Book Award-winning poet James Merrill, and poet, biographer, and social critic John Malcolm Brinnin.
Our interview began in February as a series of exchanges through the mail. On a sunny day in late August, I drove to visit Wilbur at his home in the Berkshires outside Northampton, Massachusetts. We had a lunch of turkey sandwiches with beets from Wilbur’s garden and walked from the house to his study, an open structure with large windows and wall-to-wall bookshelves. On the windowsill is a pair of binoculars, and in front of the window is Wilbur’s desk, topped with an early 20th-century L.C. Smith typewriter and the blue folder containing the manuscript that will become Wilbur’s next book of poems, due in the fall of 2010. Our conversation—about Frost, Stevens, Key West, Wilbur’s practice, and his place in the republic of letters—follows.
Littoral: You knew both Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost early in your career. How did you come to know them, and what was their influence on your work and career?
Richard Wilbur: When I went to Harvard Graduate School on the G.I. Bill after World War II, Frost was spending much of the winters in Cambridge, and my wife and I soon got to know him. He was kindly disposed toward Charlee because her great-aunt, Susan Hayes Ward, had encouraged him when he was obscure, and was always called by him “the first friend of my poetry.” He took to me also, because I had many of his poems by heart, and when my first book appeared in 1947 he spoke kindly of it. We saw Robert– as he soon let us call him– frequently thereafter in Cambridge or in Ripton, Vermont, or at our house in Portland, Connecticut, once I’d begun to teach at Wesleyan. His poems always seemed to me to be a wonder and an inimitable model: I had no wish to ape his work, but it made me seek for a speaking voice, for meter and rhyme which worked as if by accident and for plain situations having overtones.
In Stevens’s work I was delighted by the gaiety of his flow of thought. I saw him rather rarely, but he was good to me and backed me for a Guggenheim in 1952; and I once had the honor of introducing him to a capacity crowd in Harvard’s New Lecture Hall. His ability to combine “the imagination’s Latin with the lingua franca et jocundissima” (as Stevens writes in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”) was something I sought after in my own way, and with gratitude for his infectious example.
L: Like Stevens and Frost, you ended up in Key West. What first attracted you to the place? Were you aware of their histories in the town?
RW: I well remember what drew me to Key West in the first place. It was the 1960s, and a colleague of mine at Wesleyan, the painter Samuel Green, said to me, “Why do you take winter vacations in remote places like Tobago, using up all your money on air fare? You ought to try Key West, our American subtropics.” He asked if I liked the movie Bonnie and Clyde. “Well, yes,” I said. “It’s morally questionable, but, aesthetically, very pleasing.” “Then you’ll love,” he said, “the combined beauty and tackiness of Key West.” Sam was right. Charlee and I stayed at first at the Sun ‘n’ Surf Motel near Duval Street, which was quite empty in those days, nothing at all like what it has become. I remember, after we settled in, we sat out on the balcony in the heat and realized we were going to require a drink, something with tonic. I went out and trudged all over town looking for tonic water, but couldn’t find any and had to settle for Tom Collins mix. “No tonic?” said Charlee. “Well, thank God. We’ve found a backwater.”
The Sun 'n' Surf Motel, Key West, circa 1960s, where the Wilburs first stayed.
Later we bought a one-room apartment on Elizabeth Street, and then with some writer friends– John and Barbara Hersey, the Ciardis– we bought into a compound on Windsor Lane, to which we returned for as much as three months of every year until 2005, when my wife fell ill. We enjoyed the company of many good friends, and I always loved simply being able to wear shorts, to ride my bicycle, and to play tennis on the city courts in the middle of winter. I found the variety of Key West life very conducive to my work. It has some of the virtues of a city– there’s always been a kind of art colony there in flux, and by now it has its own symphony orchestra, productions of plays– and then there are the boats, the fishing, that kind of thing. There’s more of a cocktail society than is good for us, of course, but all you have to do is not attend all the parties. You can live in Key West in all kinds of ways.
When we went down to Key West originally, I had no recollection that there was any connection with Frost. He wasn’t much of a hotel dweller, whereas Stevens was practically designed to be a patron of the Casa Marina, that great old hotel on the ocean where he stayed.
L: Were you among the Anagrams players in Key West?
RW: Yes, I’ve played a lot of Anagrams. I was introduced to it as a child, but I wasn’t an incessant player until I began playing in Key West with people like John Malcolm Brinnin and John Ciardi– a devoted and violent Anagrams player. There’s a long list of people who became devoted to the game: Jimmy Merrill played a little with us, Harry Mathews, Rust Hills, Irving Weinman, and each of the players took turns hosting the weekly game. John Hersey played– he knew all the names of all the fish in the sea, and he was very good at any word connected with boats and fishing– and after a certain amount of exposure to the game John wrote a story about it, published in Key West Tales. We tried to keep it a high-minded, good-tempered game. There were no wagers, but we did begin to have certain rules that were above and beyond the rules of the game itself. It was understood, for instance, that you would not have any Bass Ale, which came to be the official ale of these games, until the first of two rounds was over.
L: What was your reaction to being named U.S. Poet Laureate in 1987?
RW: I came to it not knowing what the assignment was. I appeared in the door of the Laureate’s office down there, and there were the two fine secretaries who handle the Laureate’s affairs, and I said, “Here I am, reporting for duty. What am I supposed to do?” And they said, “You’re supposed to think that up.” So I said, “Well, I suppose this is an honor. Should I just go home and write more poems for them to honor?” They said “No, that will not do.”
L: What are you reading these days?
RW: I’ve been reading Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and other poets of that period– which is to say my period– because I’m in the funny position of being about to teach my contemporaries at Amherst this fall, with my old friend David Sofield. We’ll co-teach the course, beginning with W.H. Auden, and proceeding through Bishop, Lowell, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath. It’s going to be difficult for me to turn myself into a considering, evaluative teacher of the works of people I knew so well, so personally. And I shall have to try hard to avoid being an old anecdotalist, telling stories on my old friends and acquaintances.
L: Are you writing poetry now?
RW: Yes. I don’t manage to write something every day, but I never have. I wait to be asked, more or less, and when something wants to be written I make sure that I’ve cleared the decks and that I concentrate on that alone and give it as many hours as it will need. I’m a terribly slow worker, but I’m also terribly patient, and I’m glad that I still have the ideas and the patience to execute them. I’m going to have another book next year, in the fall, and three of its poems will be in The New Yorker next week. The book will have translations as well; I have 37 more riddles by Symphosius for the volume, and I’ve finally satisfied myself with a translation of Stéphane Mallarmés famous sonnet “For the Tomb of Edgar Poe.” (more…)