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André du Bouchet declares me to be a poet


Becoming a scholar of English
Richard Wilbur Poet
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When I came out of the army in... I guess it was '45, I learned that there was such a thing as the GI Bill which would pay my tuition and allow me to go further on with my education and perhaps become a teacher of English. My notion I suppose, my vague notion, had been that if I survived the war I would be a newspaper writer, perhaps a newspaper cartoonist, too, because I did a good bit of that. But once I heard of the GI Bill, it became clear to me what I ought to aspire to do, and I remembered how my good Amherst teachers had me feel that to be a scholar of English literature and to teach it would be an honourable life. So, off we went to Cambridge and I got an MA in English at Harvard and studying with such admirable people as Harry Levin, FO Mathiessen, Kenneth Murdock, Douglas Bush, and I did well enough, I guess, so that Mathiessen encouraged me to apply for the Society of Fellows, a wonderful institution at Harvard which takes young scholars and gives them three years in which they have a modest stipend and complete leisure and access to all of the facilities of the university and the privilege of talking to each other over dinner and lunch table, and of consorting with the senior fellows, who at that time included such worthies as Alfred North Whitehead.

I was lucky enough to be taken into the Society of Fellows and what I mostly did in the way of scholarship was to remember what I had discovered in Cassino and try to write a book about Edgar Allan Poe. That never happened. I've written lots of essays about Poe, but during the three years in which I was working on him, I never did seem to find the proper terms in which to describe his kind of operation. I taught a volunteer seminar in Poe while I was a junior fellow, and I also kept on writing poems. In 1948 or was it '47? In any case, very early in my tenure at the Society of Fellows, my first book of poems was published by happy accident and the New York Times listed it for heavens sake among it's 100 best books of the year or something like that.

Acclaimed US poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) published many books and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He was less well known for creating a musical version of Voltaire's “Candide” with Bernstein and Hellman which is still produced throughout the world today.

Listeners: David Sofield

David Sofield is the Samuel Williston Professor of English at Amherst College, where he has taught the reading and writing of poetry since 1965. He is the co-editor and a contributor to Under Criticism (1998) and the author of a book of poems, Light Disguise (2003).

Tags: World War II, Amherst, Cambridge University, Harvard University, Society of Fellows, New York Times, Harry Levin, FO Mathiessen, Kenneth Murdock, Douglas Bush, Edgar Allan Poe

Duration: 3 minutes, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008