“Sleeping in a Hobo Jungle Can Be a Dangerous Thing”: A Conversation with Richard Wilbur

More than half a century has elapsed since Richard Wilbur, still prolific at 87, won his first Pulitzer Prize. The extraordinary qualities of that statement should be highlighted for readers who claim there are no incontrovertible giants on the American poetry scene. Wilbur’s most recent book, Collected Poems: 1943-2004, has prompted a widespread critical reassessment of his career, at a time when the writing of poetry in traditional verse forms has attained its greatest level of popularity since the years after World War II. Throughout that career, Wilbur’s poems and translations have appeared steadily in anthologies, major magazines, and literary journals alike, beginning with his first published volume, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947). Ceremony and Other Poems (1950) followed, and in 1956 his third book, Things of This World, won the National Book Award and the aforementioned Pulitzer. Other landmark volumes include Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems (1961), the Bollingen Prize-winning Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (1969), and The Mind-Reader: New Poems (1976). In 1973, and again in the early and mid-1990s, Wilbur published his popular Opposites poems—a series that evolved from games with his four children. New and Collected Poems in 1986 earned Wilbur his second Pulitzer Prize. 

Wilbur has built a second literary monument with his translations of 17th-century French verse dramas and lyrics from a host of European languages. Moliere’s The Misanthrope (1955) launched that segment of Wilbur’s oeuvre, followed by an eminently playable version of Tartuffe (1963) and the rest of Moliere’s major comedies, as well as Racine’s tragedies. His penchant and aptitude for French comedy attracted the notice of Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman, who sought his help in salvaging Candide, today a classic of American musical theater. 

Soon after the 1956 premiere of Candide, Wilbur began teaching English at Wesleyan University. Twenty years later, he left to take a writer-in-residence position at Smith College, where he remained until 1986. The following year, he became Poet Laureate of the United States. Wilbur resides in Cummington, Massachusetts and Key West, Florida. This interview took place at the West Chester University Poetry Conference on June 7, 2008.


Sunil Iyengar: A lot of readers, admirers as well as critics, have discerned a persistently optimistic streak in your poetry. Do you agree with that assessment?

Richard Wilbur: I think so. I have always argued in poems and out that one should give a full account of one’s feelings, dark and light—that poems, at least poems of any length, ought to speak with the whole self, and of course there are many darknesses that I know about and I hope not to be simply a Pollyanna. I have an ultimately positive and celebratory impulse toward the world, and so I guess that wins out on the whole, but I hope to—I can’t quote the Thomas Hardy line about having a look at the worst—I hope to have “a look at the worst” here and there as well.[i]

SI: Does that source of optimism—that celebratory sense—derive from a deep-rooted faith of any kind, a religious faith perhaps?

RW: Well, I was brought up as an Episcopalian, or Anglican, and was happy with it, and I have been a lay reader in the Episcopal Church, and I still get to church as often as I can from where I live in the sticks, but one great thing about the Anglican Communion is that you can be indulged in almost any disbelief, you can pick and choose—even though at a certain point in the Mass you are supposed to recite the Creed. You are permitted to have a mind of your own, or a certain selectivity. In other words, I have been religiously conditioned, but I think a lot of my “positiveness” is simply a delight in the world itself, the terrestrial world, in its order and in its energy, and so a lot of my celebrating isn’t remotely doctrinal, it’s just temperamental and responsive.

SI: Moving from this optimism in general to your poetry—can you walk us through the type of faith required to sustain the writing you do? I know each poem varies, but what in general would you say are the steps for composition in your case? How do you go about writing a poem?

RW: In general, I think it happens to me as it must happen to most people, that I see something in the world, outside of me, in other people, or in the phenomena of what they call nature, and it strikes me often obscurely that there is an ideal aspect to what I have noticed, that it is something I would like to depict, to express with accuracy, but also something that might lead me to some conclusion. I realize that’s a vague way to put it, but I think with many people it operates that way, as an interest in what one sees, perhaps a delight in what one sees, and then a vague sense of potentiality, which is almost never deceptive.

SI: There’s always more than meets the eye, in a sense.

RW: As they say, there’s “something in it.”

SI: That’s very interesting, because you’re so felicitous with word use, and one of the things people constantly hail is the craftsmanship of the poems. I know a lot of poets who tend to work with the words—they’ll throw down raw words, as it were, and play with the words until they emit a poem somehow, but in your case it sounds as though you’re saying that it’s the world around you that captivates you, and through that process of seeing, you write the poem.

RW: I think so, yes. I know that my untidy worksheets have at their margins just individual words, like “sundial,” and I shall write down sundial because I have seen a sundial recently and I think there’s something to be said about it.

SI: Do you ever go back and learn more about the sundial in order to write about it? Do you have to do any kind of research to write about it?

RW: I don’t research anything elaborately, but if I’ve seen a fern with a certain interesting structure, I want to know which fern it is, and what its habits are and look a little into how ferns work.

SI: Peter Filkins, our friend, told me that you spoke to his class about “To a Young Orchard,” one of your recent poems, and how it was some symphony movement, or watching musicians sway, that inspired that poem.

RW: Yes, one afternoon last summer I saw a lot of good young musicians playing in quartets and quintets and it struck me that their movements were like those of trees agitated by the wind. And ultimately a poem came of that. I didn’t really make notes.

SI: Regarding your later poems, the ones that have been appearing recently in The New Yorker, I would think a lot of people would say this poetry ranks with the very best of your work, because it is distilled, almost haiku-like. I don’t know if that’s the right term, but there’s a brevity; it is more spare and yet it’s evocative.

RW: It is sparer than my poetry used to be, and I think part of it is that though I can’t explain why, I’ve taken to using the haiku as a paragraph or a stanza in poetry. Well—I do know how it happened. A number of years ago I wanted to write a poem about my herb garden and the behavior of thyme and rocks in it, and I started out the poem by saying, “This, if Japanese, would . . .”, and I had a couple of lines talking about how Japanese gardens often represent mountain ranges and natural phenomena in miniature, and I found myself writing this about Japanese gardens in an adaptation of haiku poem rhyming the first and third lines. [The poem is “Thyme Flowering Among Rocks,” from the 1969 collection, Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations.] And I rather liked the enforced spareness of that.

SI: It comes off very well. Do you keep a journal? Do you take notes on a daily basis?

RW: I had kept for years a little scribbling-in book, in which I put down—actually rather rarely—but I put down notions that come to me, things that I perceived in the world or in the poetry of others, things that might make for a poem of my own.

SI: Since so much of your poetry comes from the world, since you are responding to things you see to some extent, and of course to other poems as well, I was wondering if you recorded them so that you have them later or if you just sit down and remember something you saw, and write a poem.

RW: I try not to go too far with any incipient idea. I think somehow that jotting down a word like “sundial”—that’s mostly as far as I want to go, so that I don’t spoil the potential idea by finding second-rate words for it.

SI: Sounds like the word “sundial” would be redolent enough to work with. How have your tastes in poets changed with age? Are there poets you used to be very hot on?

RW: When I think way back to my beginnings, there were enthusiasms I initially had that are not so strong with me now. When I was 16 years old, I got my grandmother to give me as a birthday present the complete works of Hart Crane. And I found some of the less intelligible lines in “The Bridge” rather intoxicating, as I think he had, too. But now if I go back to Hart Crane, I’m more attracted to his plainer, shorter poems. As I get plainer and shorter, I think I’m attracted to some of the same things in others. In my case I remember Robert Frost one time saying, “If I like anything once, I still like it,” and that’s generally true for me. I continue to love Milton’s blank verse. The extraordinary muscular energy with which he handles the pentameter line is just a wonder to me, and I try to emulate it when the subject elects that form.

SI: Wordsworth I would imagine a similar relationship with.

RW: Yes, I think there are particular poems of Wordsworth to which I am very attracted. I think of a lecture that Robert Frost, once again, gave at Bread Loaf, it had the arresting title of “The Dullness of Wordsworth.” Everyone gathered to hear Frost denounce Wordsworth, and that’s not what he did. The essence of his lecture was that if you’re going to write at length, there have to be relaxed and prosaic sections; otherwise you produce an unreadable long poem. I think sometimes there is a dull earnestness in Wordsworth, but if I’m allowed to pick from him here and there, I think he is a marvelous poet.

SI: Of course even Moby Dick has longueurs . . . . Frost keeps coming up in talk about you, but also of course with your friendship with him and understanding him through the years. Has your view of Frost’s poetry evolved since you knew him or first had been reading him, when he was alive? Do you feel as close to his poetry now as you did then?

RW: I think so, yes. I don’t continually go back and read all of his poems, but at one time I had ingested just about his whole body of work, and I daresay all of that is still packed away in me. What I go back to most readily now [are] short poems like “Spring Pools,” which I say to myself, or that middle-length, wonderful poem of his, “After Apple-Picking,” the only time he ever used that form of the line of variable length and expressive rhyme-pattern. But I have not gotten tired of him at all. I like best the lyric and truly emotional Frost. The cracker barrel aspect of him does not appeal to me as much as it used to.

SI: And he was genuinely friendly toward you? I mean, you had a good rapport?

RW: Yes. He encouraged me partly by praising me to my wife, so she would pass it on.

SI: The secret of a 64-year-old marriage—blessed by Frost. Do you still read poetry criticism, contemporary poetry criticism, or poetry itself that is currently being written?

RW: I read particular contemporary poets. I find that I don’t devour contemporary poetry in quantity. Your question makes me think of a conversation I once had ages ago with John Crowe Ransom. I said to him in passing, “Of course I suppose you read Poetry, don’t you?” And he said, “Oh yes, I look at the criticism in the back, not of course at the poets in the front.” I think probably I’m not alone in looking through the letters and looking to see if the reviews are spirited and interesting, and then turning to the poems in the magazine, and of course finding individual ones to which I greatly respond.

SI: Are there certain journals you look at regularly in that respect?

RW: I don’t consume a great deal of contemporary American poetry as it comes, because there is really so much of it, and there are so many journals, and a lot of it, though able, is not of the highest intensity, and I feel I haven’t too much time to waste. I like to concentrate on poems that do something for me intellectually and emotionally, rather than sit around extracting their best qualities.

SI: Do you think it might be more difficult today for someone starting out to contend as a poet with all the different publications that are out there, as you point out, and with the rise of workshops and all that apparatus around poetry?

RW: I don’t really know how encouraging that is to some poets. There has been such a proliferation of MFA programs and little magazines associated with those programs. There’s an awful lot to take in in what they used to call “po’biz,” nowadays. And I think that the experience of so many writing classes and sections distracts a lot of people from John Milton, from finding as they should, continuous life in the past. I forget whose phrase it is—I think Yvor Winters said that he thought that a lot of younger poets were now prisoners of contemporaneity.

SI: In your case, when you were starting out, I don’t think you belonged to any kind of group that read your poems and discussed them in a workshop-like way, or did you?

RW: A little bit, but it was not in school. There was no class in writing poetry that I took, but I had some wonderful teachers at Amherst, patient and generous men who were willing to look at my poems and give me a feeling that what I had done in some cases was a poem. Then during World War II, after my college years, I found that I needed no encouragement to write poems because it was the only thing you could do under most of the circumstances [in which] I found myself. I found that somehow putting things a little bit in order in the midst of all that chaos was good medicine for me, and that I had no trouble concentrating on it, and didn’t need to be approved of. I could sit in a passageway of a troop ship, with people stepping over my legs, and work on a poem. The poems were in many cases not much, but it was that ordering activity that I began to find a necessity.

Now after the war, when I went to Harvard Graduate School on the GI bill, I met various poets. For the first time I was an incipient poet who was talking with other people for whom it was a practice. John Ciardi was also teaching writing at Harvard, and Richard Eberhart lived in Cambridge, and John Holmes, who taught English over at Tufts was available, and the novelist May Sarton was about. And with those people I used to gather once a month and we used to read one or two of our poems a month and say something about them. I think that I may have repeated during this weekend [at the West Chester University Poetry Conference] what Robert Frost said about that. He was living in Cambridge in the winters at that time. And he said to me, “I understand you’re getting together with some other poets and reading poems to each other,” and I said, “Yes, yes, I am.” And he said, “Well, do you show each other how to do it, do you rewrite each others’ poems?” And I said, “No, no, we’re just fishing for praise,” and then he said, “Well, that’s all right then.” I don’t think he believed in the teachability of poetry or in collective action toward poetry.

SI: But it sounds like you sought out those people. They are pretty impressive names when you were starting out. To get them to read your poems . . . .

RW: I just ran into them. I certainly didn’t have an impressive name, but I published one or two poems almost right away in a new little magazine associated with Harvard, so that gave me an entrée.

SI: And they would comment on your poems and so forth?

RW: Yes, that’s what it was. We just had a few drinks and read some poems.

SI: Some of your poems have intriguing dedications. For example, “For K.R on Her Sixtieth Birthday.”

RW: That’s a sort of funny story. I had known briefly the English poet Kathleen Raine, who, as the poem sort of mentions, was not only a poet but was devoted to William Blake, and there were certain people she liked to expound. She was having a birthday; somebody wrote me from England saying that Kathleen’s having a sixtieth birthday, and we want to give her a party and we want to have lots of poems of greeting and celebration, of congratulation, and so will you write one? I remember that it came to me in the middle of the night that I ought to write something to her in the form of a rondeau, but perhaps the initial line that occurred to me proposed that. In any case, I was pleased to wake up and write a poem in the middle of the night, which doesn’t usually happen to me. And before I sent it off to this fellow in England, I got a letter from Kathleen Raine saying so-and-so has been a terrible busy-body, and he’s making people write poems for my birthday and I don’t want you to bother. But I sent it to him and said, “I think I’ve written a good poem and so I’m not going to suppress it.”

SI: There was another poem called “Advice for a Muse,” and it’s dedicated to “TWW.”

RW: That’s an old classmate of mine from Amherst College—Thomas Wilcox. He and I of course from freshman year on were sitting in adjoining chairs for alphabetical reasons and he was always a good friend to me. In fact he and I and someone else once at my suggestion hoboed all around America, and he became an English teacher and taught at the University of Connecticut and up in Alaska as well, and had always been a friend of mine. He wrote an interesting article about the way an English novelist managed to convince us of the truth of his narration, and he felt that this author convinced us of the truth of his narration by often admitting that he didn’t know what was going on, that he couldn’t offer, couldn’t give all the particulars. Ignorance as a guarantee of truth. And so I found myself making a poem out of that subject and therefore dedicating it to Tom.

There’s another dedication to A.M. and A.M., and that’s my poem “A Black November Turkey.” I was dedicating that to Archibald MacLeish and his wife Ada, and I told them I just couldn’t spell their names out because they were too famous.

SI: One of your famous early poems, “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Village Sciarra,” is dedicated to “Dore and Adja.”

RW: Yes, Dore Ashton, art critic for The New York Times, and her husband, Adja Yunkers, an excellent printmaker. I had known them in America and then again in Rome during the year that I spent there, and so it was right to dedicate something about an Italian fountain to them.

SI: You referred to hoboing; I bet you met many shady characters along the way.

RW: Well, yes, but I was doing that at the age of 19, you know. First, I traveled to 46 states of the then 48 on my own, and then I came back to Amherst for the next year, and bragged so about a couple of my adventures that a couple of my friends wanted to go with me in the ensuing summer. I guess that I was so young and romantic and impetuous that I wasn’t properly scared by some of the situations I got into, you know. Sleeping in a hobo jungle can be a dangerous thing.

SI: You’ve often written in the ekphrastic mode. How would you say the visual arts have affected your poetry and writing?

RW: Oh, a great deal. I do agree with Ezra Pound and various other authorities that the primary thing in poetic imagination is the eye, and my father was a painter, and so I was brought up looking at paintings, being in paintings, going to New York to see the opening of the Surrealist/Dadaist show at the Museum of Modern Art. There was a very great interest in the visual in my early life. In fact, I always drew pictures myself and was encouraged to do so, and I thought that I well might end by being a cartoonist—either of the serious kind, you know the big square political cartoon, or the comic strip kind. And I still love to draw.

SI: I like the drawings that accompany your children books. A couple of literary gossipy questions: What was it like working with Leonard Bernstein on the opera/musical Candide?

RW: Well, there were moments of course when we rubbed each other the wrong way, when I wanted to do one thing with a number and he wanted to do something else. But mostly what I felt was pleasure in working with somebody so full of drive and energy. It was a peculiar thing to discover about him that he was not melodically inventive. Very good melodies did occur to him, but they took their time about it. That’s not a negative criticism—it’s just that if you’re working on a musical show, and thinking up new numbers, I suppose it’s desirable if your musical collaborator thinks of a lot of tunes. He had ultimately very good ideas about every number, but was slow to think up anything that we could whistle or set words to, and so very often he was reluctant to have me write the words first, and I had to push a little about that. We ended up in a happy draw, pretty well dividing the work evenly between us. Of course he’d been working on the materials of Candide for about five years before I came into the show and took over the lyric writing. By the time I was through, I had written or rewritten, according to my agent, 82.5% of the lyrics in the show, but there had been other lyricists before me, you see.

I think the first person to try writing lyrics for Candide was James Agee for heavens’ sake. I never saw any of his work, because it had disappeared entirely by the time I got into the show, but I asked Bernstein and [Lillian] Hellman what his work had been like and they said, “Well, it was too good—it didn’t need the supplement of music,” which was a nice generous thing for them to say. Dorothy Parker had also briefly tried to collaborate with Lenny, but they hadn’t gotten along. And then an excellent lyricist, John Latouche, had worked on the show, and whatever is in the show that is not my lyrics is likely to be his, maybe 10 percent of the lines of lyric. But Bernstein himself, collaborating with his wife Felicia, wrote one number, called “I am so easily assimilated.”

SI: You had a good rapport with Lillian Hellman, I take it? You did dedicate a book to her if I’m not mistaken?

RW: Yes, and she counterdedicated, she dedicated her play Toys in the Attic to me. So we were very fond of each other. We had our snippety moments, but no quarrels. And we endlessly talked into every night.

SI: Do you want to say anything about the people with whom you are often grouped with, or who were [around] when you were writing? Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Allen Ginsberg? Sylvia Plath? Are there any comments you would like to make about some of these people?

RW: The people I most hobnobbed with were [Theodore] Roethke and Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop and Richard Eberhart. He was a little bit older, but I don’t think we were any of us strictly generational in our associations. William Meredith was a good friend of mine, and latterly I became a friend of John Berryman. It’s actually quite a long list, because I think I had amicable relations with a lot of poets. When the Beat people appeared, I immediately found myself reclassified as an academic poet or an Eastern, gray flannel-wearing poet, but I never felt an angry rivalry with any of the Beats. I don’t think many of them had much talent, but I think Ginsberg did. He was full of life, and his existence was quite all right with me. Then there were those Black Mountain poets, and they too were theoretically rivals to all of the people I’ve mentioned, but I think on the whole it never got to be nasty and wherever possible there was respect involved. I liked some of the poems of Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley and I loved some of the poems of Denise Levertov. I was very fond of her. She allied herself for a while with the Black Mountain people. I don’t think any of that contentiousness was very interesting to the better poets who were involved. I think it was something that critics who had a weakness for describing the poetry scene sometimes made a great deal of.

SI: So many people have written books and theses and dissertations about a lot of those poets you’ve mentioned—about the “contentiousness.” None of them really fared well toward the ends of their lives, and it’s sad. One can’t necessarily draw a connection between their poetry and their lives, but I think what you’re doing is such a shining example for a lot of people who are starting out writing poetry—to know that one doesn’t have to wear one’s despair on one’s sleeve. It’s very nice to see that.

RW: I had the luck to be very happily married, and so there was always a central calm and joy in my life, I think that helped me not go the self-destructive ways of some of my friends. Although I also I think I must have an iron stomach because when all that drinking was being done, I did quite a lot myself.

I’m happy to have survived a lot of that, and I feel lucky that I never fell into deep depressions, though actually I have experienced that, by way not of temperament but of unhappy chemistry. My wife and I back in 1985 were working at a foundation on the shore of the Mediterranean, east of Marseilles, and it was the coldest winter in 50 years on the Mediterranean. The heat in our very pleasant apartment did not make any difference, and it’s rather depressing to be cold all the time. And it frazzles you to have your teeth chattering all day, and I went to a French doctor with my wife, and we said, “We find that this winter is frazzling us, and we, therefore, when it comes to sleeping, can’t sleep. We’re having dreadful insomnia as we’ve never had before,” and he prescribed Valium for us, and we took the prescribed dose. It was an open prescription, and so we kept on taking Valium in the amount prescribed for several months and became addicted to it of course, and when we came back to America I threw away our remaining Valium pills and we were suddenly climbing the walls, and to be brief about it, I found myself in a locked ward at one point because I was so depressed. And my wife’s condition was scarcely better. It took us quite a while to get over that quite innocent addiction, but you know, whether you’re innocent or not, it’s the same criminal thing to be depressed.

SI: And that gave you a sense of what people who maybe have it congenitally go through?

RW: I don’t see how some of my friends like Cal Lowell managed to do it, managed to write so many wonderful things, and get outside themselves in order to do it.

SI: You’ve certainly had experiences that are transformative in that way, I would imagine, certainly with the war. But when you look at your body of work, what’s striking to me are a couple of poems that [are], one might say, in a broad context, political. One is “To the Student Strikers,” which could also be read as an antipolitical poem in some ways, but also I think of “A Miltonic Sonnet for Mr. Johnson.” [This poem was written in January 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War. Wilbur writes that Thomas Jefferson “would have wept to see small nations dread / The imposition of our cattle-brand, / With public truth at home mistold or banned, / And in whose term no army’s blood was shed.” The poet ends by admonishing President Johnson: “Wait, Sir, and see how time will render you, / Who talk of vision but are weak of sight.” It’s a side of you that a lot of your readers don’t often encounter.]

RW: I suppose that I haven’t written a great body of angry political liberal poetry, I imagine it would come to 10 or something like that, including things like a poem “On a Marginal Way,” which in its background is a poem about wartime.

SI: But in general I imagine you don’t feel you’re obligated to respond to every political vicissitude or every kind of change, whatever’s going on currently in the political environment or the wars—

RW: What I feel about all that, Sunil, is well—there was a paperback of anti-Vietnam war poetry published, I remember, and you can’t find it anymore because in fact it is stone dead. The poems were written out of what seems to me the only decent political position, and yet somehow when poets begin preaching to the choir, it takes the adventure and variety out of the poetry, so I haven’t been moved to write as many political poems as I have had political feelings. I was protesting the war myself, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to write much poetry about it. I did reprove Mr. Johnson.

SI: At the end of the poem, “You who talk of vision, but are weak of sight.” Vision is so recurrent in your poems. As you’ve said, the eye is very important as a way of comprehending, and I would imagine in a religious sense almost—observing the world around you and rendering it with fidelity.

No contemporary poet [except], a lot of people may say, W.S. Merwin, has produced such a quantity of high-quality translations, and of course your Tartuffe, and a lot of your Moliere, is standard. Can you say just a few words about translation? In a broad sense, how do you approach translation differently from other translators?

RW: My approach to it really is that one shouldn’t bother with it at all unless one is willing to be slavish to try to get over into English everything that’s there in the original and not put one’s oar into it. For that reason I have not translated anything that did not give me a lot of pleasure in the original. I first started translating when I had a Guggenheim fellowship which in applying for I had said that I meant to devote to the writing of a poetic play. They gave me the fellowship and I retired to the New Mexican desert and tried to write a play and I couldn’t. But it occurred to me then that a couple of years before, my wife and I had seen a stunning production of The Misanthrope in Paris, and I thought, “I’ll translate that in a way that may be useful for somebody of taste to sit and read in his armchair,” and it turned out by accident to be a play in translation. As soon as that happened, I got closer and closer to the theater and began wanting in particular to be a translator of plays, and I’ve by now done I think all of Moliere’s verse plays and several of Racine’s and latterly I got going on Corneille and translated three of his plays with great pleasure. I don’t know where I go from there.

SI: Do you feel an affinity with these writers? Why do these poets call out to you—or someone like Baudelaire, to some degree?

RW: I think you can’t do a good translation unless you identify yourself with the author and at least kid yourself that you can speak for him and that you share his attitudes and tones of voice. By the time I was through translating Moliere in verse, I felt that I could tell what he felt of any subject. That’s an illusion, but I had so identified myself with him.

SI: Your children’s poems—it’s amazing what a wide audience you attract. Did they start out for your children, in some sense? You mentioned that one of them was a game, I believe.

RW: I had great times with my children, all sorts of games. The poems were not directly written for the children but they were written out of my experience of them. For a long time I used to tell three of my children a story late in the afternoon of every day. I’d come around saying, “It’s story time!” And then I’d be allowed half an hour in which to think of a story, and then to tell it. And I was always delighted by their responses even to my weakest efforts, and so the children’s poems I’ve written were not directly written for my children but they were attuned to what they found amusing. And one thing I did feel about children’s poetry, children’s literature in general is that it ought to please not only children, but the adults who might be reading to the children. That’s what I’ve tried for all along. I don’t think I could bring myself to write down to children. I credit them with the brains and sense of humor that they really do have.

SI: That’s very generous, and it shows up in the poems certainly. Well, we’ve all loved your “Advice to a Prophet.” Do you have any advice for young poets that you might not have mentioned?

RW: I think my big piece of advice would be a very obvious thing. That they not be prisoners of the contemporary, that they read English literature right back to Beowulf, concentrating on what pleases them, and read in whatever languages they are capable of reading, or train themselves to read, and thus become part of a kind of a timeless conversation among poets. I don’t mean that they should be , I don’t mean any young poet should try at once to be encyclopedic—well, you know what I mean.

SI: Wonderfully put. Lastly, I want to say that our editor of this journal, Ernest Hilbert, has written: “There is a tendency while celebrating Mr. Wilbur’s landscapes to neglect their devotional sensibility. Most poems published in English before the 19th century were in one way or another devotional—even metaphysical poetry is functionally devotional—but the type is almost entirely absent from serious contemporary American poetry.” Do you agree that there’s a lack of devotional—not necessarily denominational, in terms of religious—poetry?

RW: No, I frequently stumble on poems by younger poets of the present day, which seem very justly responsive to the world. I’m glad that even though we are more and more a city society, isolated from land and sea, there’s still that strong impulse in contemporary poetry. May it last.

[i]   See Hardy’s “In Tenebris – II,” Line 14: “. . . if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.”

About Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar, a poet, writer and editor in Washington, D.C., is a board member of the American Poetry & Literacy Project. His essays and reviews have appeared in Verse, The American Scholar, New York Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.
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