Famous local poet celebrates 90th birthday

By Michael Roberts

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Courtesy Amherst College

Poet Richard Wilbur turned 90-years-old on March 1 and the milestone was honored at a tribute and poetry reading on Wednesday at Converse Hall of Amherst College, Wilbur’s alma mater.

Fourteen of Wilbur’s colleagues and Amherst College students read various poems from his 68-year career to a crowded audience, many of which were forced to stand.
Wilbur’s translations were recited nearly as often as original works. Such translations, like Charles Baudelaire’s “L’Invitation au Voyage” and “Canto XXV” from “Dante’s Inferno,” were first read in their original language and then followed by a reading of Wilbur’s English translation.

About half-way through the event, president of Amherst College Anthony Marx took the stage to read Wilbur’s “Cottage Street.”

Marx said, “The idea that I am now reading Wilbur to Wilbur is amongst the most amazing and bizarre moments of my time at Amherst College.”

He said the poem has a special place in his heart, as it has helped him through difficult times in his life.

“When moments of suicide have touched my life, this is the poem I go to,” he said. Marx later read a rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” during the reception.

Wilbur, seated directly in front of the podium, officially ended the occasion with a poetry reading of his own. Very humble, Wilbur read a humorous poem, set in New England,about a snow shovel propped against the side of a house in July –,just in case. His reading ended the event with laughter and smiles, along with a lengthy standing ovation. A reception in the lobby followed.

Amherst College student John Wagner thought Wilbur had a good sense of humor during the event and noted that Wilbur has a good reputation and is well-liked throughout campus.

Wagner said, “I had a class where we went through his poetry … just figured I had an obligation to come hear him.”

Wagner hopes that he’ll take a class taught by Wilbur in the future.

Wilbur is esteemed by his colleagues, and during the event there were a few comparisons to another famous poet to teach at Amherst College, Robert Frost. According to professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College, Ilan Stavans, who was one of the organizers of the event, “He is connected to the region in broader ways … just as Robert

Frost and Emily Dickinson were connected with its natural landscape, its playing field of ideas.”

Stavans continued, “He stands next to James Merrill, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop as a New Englander for whom the poetic tradition is an opportunity to explore time, place and the question of being.”

Stavans noted the purpose of the tribute and poetry reading.

“The occasion allows [reflection] on a career devoted to precise words. Remember: Poetry isn’t the art of crafting words; it’s the art of finding the precise word to say [to build] an image of the world,” he said.

In addition to being a poet, Wilbur is also a dedicated translator.

“Wilbur has devoted his life to translation. He’s rendered into English poets like [Anna} Akhmatova, [Jorge Luis] Borges, and Dante, as well as Moliere and [Charles] Baudelaire.

This commitment to translation is another feature of New England poetry,” said Stavans.

Wilbur won his first Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1957 with “Things of This World,” a collection of poetry. He won a second in 1989 with “New and Collected Poems.” In 1987 Wilbur was appointed a U.S. Poet Laureate. His latest poetry collection, called “Anterooms” was published last year. He currently teaches a poetry writing class at Amherst College.

Mike Roberts can be reached at [email protected].