Richard Wilbur had a love of language

  • Richard Wilbur Contributed photo

  • Richard Wilbur Contributed photo

  • Richard Wilbur Contributed photo

  • Zachariah Vaughan, owner of Grace paint and Tile, works on the lettering on the side of the Creamery Grocery in Cummington, where Richard Wilbur frequented. Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

For The Recorder
Published: 10/25/2017 1:40:00 PM

Richard Purdy Wilbur was a United States poet laureate, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, a celebrated literary translator and a beloved college professor. But to many people in Cummington, where he lived for nearly 50 years, he was more commonly known as Dick, a congenial man who delighted in life’s simple pleasures.

He was a regular at The Old Creamery Co-op, where he would meet up with the “other” former national poet laureate with a Cummington connection, William Jay Smith, better known as Bill. The two poets “would come in and fight with each other about who would get here earlier on a Sunday, and leave little poetry notes on each other’s newspapers — it was 20 years ago,” recalled Noel Shears-Pennell, now a cook at the Creamery who back then worked as a cashier and in the deli.

In their 2017 biography, “Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur,” Robert and Mary Bagg quote one such limerick from Wilbur to Smith, written earlier in their friendship:

Bill Smith went to Hungary,

Wearing one dungaree.

The people of Buda, aghast

At seeing him look so half-assed, 

Cried, “Get out of Buda, you pest! 

You’re improperly dressed!”

“He was a riot,” Shears-Pennell said of Wilbur, who was named the second Poet Laureate of the United States, after Robert Penn Warren, in 1987. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I gotta poet laureate.’ I didn’t even realize it. I was a kid.” And he was just a guy who liked his copy of The New York Times, his mac ’n’ cheese and his chocolate chip cookies.

“He was an eminence who did not pretend to be Everyman from Cummington,” said David Sofield, Samuel Williston Professor of English at Amherst College, who co-taught poetry classes with Wilbur there for nearly seven years, until 2014. “He was an Everyman from Cummington who happened to be a genius with words.”

Born in New York City on March 1, 1921, and raised in North Caldwell, N.J., Wilbur died Oct. 14 in a nursing home in Belmont at the age of 96, leaving behind his eldest child, Ellen Wilbur, and three sons, Christopher, Nathan and Aaron; as well as three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His wife, Charlotte, a sparkler of a woman better known to friends as “Charlee,” died in 2007.

Wilbur spent his last days in Belmont after his health began to fail this past summer, said his son Christopher, 69, who lives in nearby Arlington.

But listening to the conversation at the Creamery in Cummington, it was almost as if Dick Wilbur had never left. As people trickled in for lunch, a few friends had already gathered together at a round wooden table to remember their friend. Among those reminiscing were Nancy “Nan” Clark, who met Wilbur in the 1960s and said, “Oh, well I have a story about Richard Wilbur, but I don’t think it’s for printing,” with a mischievous twinkle in her eye; Stephen Philbrick, the minister of West Cummington Congregational Church, who’d known Wilbur for 37 years; and Patty Kimura, a writer who kept Wilbur company Monday through Friday from 4 to 9 p.m. over the past two years.

Like the minister, Kimura is also a poet. She got to know Wilbur while she was still working as a literary assistant for his fellow poet laureate, Bill Smith.

“When Bill died, Dick’s son Chris called me up and said, ‘Is it too soon? Would you come over and spend the evenings with our dad? He’s very fond of you,’” Kimura recalled. “I said, ‘I’m very fond of him. I would love to; it’s not too soon.’” 

Shortly after, they began their evening routine, which included saying an improvised grace, eating dinner (often soup) prepared by his longtime cook Karen Landry, watching the evening news (“He was shocked and disappointed that Trump was elected,” Kimura said, “he thought he was like Hitler”), petting his cat Leo and listening to his poet-companion describe the world outside.

Many nights, Wilbur asked Kimura to look out the window and detail the landscape he was unable to see, as his eyesight faded and it became increasingly difficult for him to get up.

“He would say, ‘What does it look like out there?’ and I would describe the fog,” Kimura said. “He would say, ‘That sounds about right — I remember that fog from my childhood in North Caldwell.’

Other times, she’d tell him about the cats, wild turkeys, opossums or skunks that occasionally would come by.

“He would have been disappointed if I’d simply said it was raining,” Kimura said. “He wanted me to speak in his language, and my language, about the world. So I’d describe the color of green of the moss which is different on a day of rain … he was very precise about language; he really treasured each word.”

Wilbur’s housekeeper of more than 30 years, Jeanette Horton, also saw that love of language firsthand.

“I would be doing his housework, while he was doing his recliner. He was so grateful for everything we did … he always wore his dress shirts and his khaki pants right to the end,” Horton, 74, said, her voice cracking. 

“One of the very last things we talked about at home, sometime in June — one day, I said to Dick, ‘It’s a very bright and sunny day, just the sun is so bright, Dick,’ and he said, ‘Well, Jeanette, the sun is blazing.’ And that’s how he would describe everything — with special words.”

Wilbur lived across the street from a dairy farm and loved cows, in particular.

“He once had me look up the word ‘moo’ in different languages,” said Kimura, who reported back with several translations. “He said, ‘What about Russian?’”

After some more research, Kimura came back with “mychaniye.” While they were having supper, he asked Kimura if she thought the cows would recognize it.

“I said, ‘Do you want me to see?’ And with a little bit of delight, he said ‘yes.’ So, I went out of the house to the abutted field and mooed in Russian to the cows and came back in,” Kimura recalled, smiling. “He said, ‘Did you get any response?’ and I said ‘no.’ And he said, ‘They probably don’t speak Russian.’”

As friends and neighbors shared stories at the Creamery, a theme emerged that, unsurprisingly, Wilbur himself once described best: “He said the natural world was a way of correcting the chaos of oneself and the world,” Kimura recalled, her eyes turning glassy. “As much as I am grieved by his loss, I am consoled by his words.”

His words have soothed so many people — one reason why, when Wilbur’s family gathers at The Village Church of Cummington for his memorial service in early November (a few days after his death, they were still figuring out the details), it’s likely that his poetry will play a part.

“It’s primarily going to be an Episcopal service,” said his son, Chris.

When asked if he had a favorite poem of his father’s, he couldn’t name just one, saying, “I have many.” There’s “Hamlen Brook,” named after a stream that runs through the woods of the family’s 75-acre property in Cummington. Wilbur also wrote about his children. His daughter, Ellen, is the girl in his poem, “The Writer”: 

Young as she is, the stuff

Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:

I wish her a lucky passage.

“She is a writer and continues to write,” said Chris, a retired software engineer. “There’s one called ‘Boy at the Window,’ which was about me. In the poem, I’m looking out the window at a snowman who has started to melt, and I’m quite sad. The poem is about my state of sadness, and at the end, the last words are ‘so much fear.’” 

“What makes it a funny story is that I was very embarrassed by that poem, because it made me look like a sissy weeping about the snowman and full of fear,” Chris continued.

He was only four or five when his father wrote the poem (The New Yorker published it in January 1952), but when Chris was around 10 and going to school in Portland, Conn., where they lived at the time, “My father once came to my school and read the poem in front of my class,” he said, “and I was mortified.” 

He laughed.

Bob and Mary Bagg’s biography about Wilbur

By all accounts, Wilbur was made of “valid ingredients,” to borrow a phrase from the American poet and critic Louise Bogan, who described him this way in a New Yorker review of his debut book of poems, “The Beautiful Changes,” which he published in 1947 at the age of 26. In the same review, Bogan wrote, “Let us watch Richard Wilbur,” supplying his future biographers, Bob and Mary Bagg of Worthington, with the title of their 2017 book — a title that aptly reflects their own work.

They spent 11 years, on and off, “watching” Richard Wilbur, learning everything they could about the poet through his published writings and personal correspondences in the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections as well as from firsthand interviews with a large cast of characters in his life, including his wife, Charlee, who suggested to Bob that he write the biography in the first place.

In the fall of 2005, the biographers began digging into the archives and setting up interviews with Wilbur and Charlee, Mary said: “After some initial introductory conversations with Dick and Charlee, we would often split up, Bob interviewing Dick and me interviewing Charlee, and then we’d talk together for a few minutes at the end.”

Their revelations fill the book, but three days after his death, a few impressions came to the fore. “He was a man for whom the balance of life was crucial,” Mary wrote in an email, “balance between his teaching and writing, for instance — or between writing verse and translating 17th-century French drama, both with impeccable rhymes — and the balance between those activities of the mind with the physical activities he so loved, such as walking in the Cummington woods, playing tennis and gardening.”

Many people described Wilbur as down to earth and accessible. “He was interested in people and life, but I believe the most important central part of him we had access to only in his poems,” said Steve Philbrick, the minister, leaning against a covered piano in the West Cummington Congregational Church. “He was down to earth in the sense that his feet were on the ground, too. He loved the earth… Was he ‘one of us’?” The minister paused, tapping his fingers on the top of the piano. Finally, he spoke: “He was smarter, intellectually braver and more talented than ‘us.’ And he was proud of his work, but he was not conceited. He didn’t think that he was better than us. But he delighted in what he could do as a poet, and when he did it well, it really pleased him.”

“One day he was feeling a little down, and I said, ‘You are a good and decent man, and to me that’s the highest compliment,’” Kimura, his former companion, recalled, “and he said that it was to him — that he would like to be remembered as a good and decent man.”

As memories of Wilbur unspooled, naturally they threaded together with memories of Charlee, whom he met while at Amherst; she was at Smith. He graduated in ’42, and they married in June of that year.

Nan Clark recalled meeting them in the 1960s at the Deer Hill Inn in West Cummington. The Wilburs moved to Cummington in 1969. Clark and her husband, a professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., had bought a farm in Chesterfield. “Often on the weekend, we would go to the Deer Hill Inn, in the evening, and who would be there but Richard and Charlotte? They would come and have a drink and dance together. We got to know them very well ... and, oh, we discussed everything,” Clark said. “One evening, because of the different age groups, we got talking about sexuality and what happens as you get older. Do you still have an active sex life? Is it something to look forward to or not? Various people had made comments about how their sexual life had diminished as they got older together, and all of a sudden Charlotte got this look on her face, and she said, ‘Well, Richard makes love to me every day!’ ”

“I have never forgotten that,” said Clark, wearing a pine-green sweatshirt decorated with fall leaves. “I don’t think he was at all embarrassed. I think it was absolutely true. And that is not the way she said it… But I don’t think you can write that.”

The takeaway? “I think he was fearless in his love of life,” Clark said, “and he loved his wife.” 

And she loved him back. “Everyone asked me when I would retire,” said Horton, the Wilburs’ longtime housekeeper, “and I said I promised Charlee when she was taken ill, and she said, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen to Dick?’ … we promised we’d take care of him, and I think that gave her a lot of ease in her mind.”

The couple certainly survived a lot together. The Baggs’ biography is organized around some of the most dramatic chapters in Wilbur’s life: his coming-of-age in World War II; his magical year in Rome where he wrote some of his finest poems; the discovery, during the era of the “refrigerator mother,” that their youngest child, Aaron, was autistic; the several years it took Richard and Charlee to recover from a Valium addiction; and their conflicting feelings about the their sons being drafted during the Vietnam War. The book gives a portrait of a complex man, who was, at times, at odds with himself and within himself — “even though he didn’t often give that impression to people,” Mary said.  

For instance, Wilbur was passionately against the Vietnam War, Chris said, but “he was very opposed to going to Canada, and he would have preferred me to either go to jail or be a conscientious objector. As it happened, both I and my brother got low numbers in the lottery in spring of 1970, so we were saved from having to make any such choice.” 

“He was very much at odds with what was going on in the culture of the 1960s — the youth-oriented culture,” Chris continued. “I think he saw himself as a custodian of or an exemplar of a more traditional way of thinking … He hated things like, ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30’ and knee-jerk vilifying of ‘the Establishment.’ There he was trying to teach his students about John Milton, and he was in a university environment at Wesleyan where everything he was trying to teach them was suddenly seeming irrelevant.” 

It was in 1957 that Wilbur received his first Pulitzer, as well as a National Book Award, for his collection “Things of This World.” But in the 1960s, Wilbur was often criticized for being too polished, in contrast to the countercultural and confessional poets of the era.

“He was always getting hammered with that — that he was too genteel,” Chris said. “But it was largely a matter of the trends of the time of the mid ’50s: the Beat generation ... and the poem ‘Howl,’ which opens with everyone going mad with the insanity of the culture.” His father, by contrast, “liked order,” Chris said, “and I think that really caused a divide in how people reacted to him … the whole confessional school, they sort of took over much of the literary imagination of the time, and that was painful for him.” 

The New York Times obituary emphasized this same point: “Mr. Wilbur followed a muse who prized traditional virtuosity over self-dramatization; as a consequence he often found himself out of favor with the literary authorities who preferred the heat of artists like Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg.” 

But in America in 2017, chaotic and unpredictable as it is, there is indeed something comforting about the elegance and order of a Richard Wilbur poem, which, like the man himself, was composed of valid ingredients, measured well. 

“He was very inventive within the form, and he could rhyme like Frost. He was a genius in that,” said Tracy Kidder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Williamsburg resident.

“He was not just a major American poet — he was one of the great American poets,” Kidder added.

“He was a big, tall, handsome man with beautiful manners; a really noble writer and a brilliant human being.” 

After Wilbur died, the Hatfield-based author and poet Jane Yolen shared a poem she wrote for him, even though they’d only met briefly.

“Richard Wilbur, RIP”

A letter to the editor in response to a snarky review of Wilbur’s poetry: “Sirs, the man has had a feast set before  him, the very best, and complains because it is not a peanut butter and ketchup sandwich.”    

The ordered feast, ordered mind,                                in the midst of the world’s energy;                               that quiet cog running machinery,                              precision instead of chaos.

Some of us prefer the choice,  

voice of reason to the shout;                              that grain of sand itching       beneath foot’s arch,

to the ache of thorn,           spill of blood,                   the head in the oven             making a reputation.

As of last week, Philbrick was still working on a poem about Wilbur that he started seven weeks ago. 

“The question,” he said, as he gazed out a window of his church, “is — will I ever finish that poem about Richard Wilbur?”


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