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I started out both clever and stupid


My artistic parents
Richard Wilbur Poet
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My mother came from Baltimore and from a family, which for generations had been in journalism. My maternal grandfather, Clarence Melvyn Purdy, had been city editor of The Baltimore Sun in the early years of the 20th Century, and everybody else in the family had been a journalist somewhere. Some of them were heroic. There was a story about one of them saying to a threatening mob, a mob which threatened to come back the next night and get him, 'Don't forget the rope'. I am very glad to have that sort of heroism in my background, and of course that helped me think very highly of writing when I was young. My mother, though she never did write much of anything except very good letters, was an appreciator of good language and a good reader aloud, and all that mattered to me as a child.

My father's family is largely a mystery to me. I know that the Wilburs came to America in 1634... 1632 rather, and dispersed to Rhode Island and thence went in... off in all directions. But as for my father's immediate family, I'm ashamed to say that I know little about them. I have a feeling that his father was in accountancy or banking. In any case, my father, in Omaha, Nebraska in an atmosphere... a local atmosphere of banking or accountancy, discovered that he wanted to be a painter. And so he took some money he had scraped together, and as a very young man, left Omaha, came to New York City and went to the Art Student's League where he studied with Robert Henri and Bellows and all sorts of admirable people.

Now, as for... as for what that meant to me, as for what was formative about that, I think because my father was a very good painter, that it gave me a feeling for doing things properly. It also made me want to see things very clearly and to record them clearly, as my father did with his... with his paints. Poetry it seems to me is a highly visual art and so if your father was a painter, it shows up in the objects of your poetry.

My parents first lived in New York City on Haven Avenue, in what was to be the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. In their Haven Avenue building, they had an apartment and also a studio for my father, who, when he left the Art Student's League, embarked on a career as a commercial artist. He did magazine covers, The Saturday Evening Post or Colliers, that kind of thing, Red Cross posters, recruiting posters, Ward bread ads, there's no limit to what he did in the commercial way at a time when photography was much less used in advertising than it now is. For half of his career he was a commercial artist, and then growing very tired of the limitations of lithography, which can give you only four colours to work with, he abruptly became a portrait painter, and a very good one, and gave the latter half of his career to 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: Baltimore, Rhode Island, Nebraska, Art Student's League, Clarence Melvyn Purdy, Robert Henri

Duration: 5 minutes

Date story recorded: April 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008