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Teaching writing courses


Richard Wilbur Poet
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I can't account for all the influences under which I originally began to write. I know that way in the background there were poems I had read as a child in my family's house. There was a book called Poems of American Patriotism edited by Brander Matthews of Columbia, and it had Paul Revere's Ride in it and it had that splendid Whittier poem Barbara Frietchie, which I can still not read aloud without breaking up. Some of the poems in that book were more patriotic than poetic I suppose, but some of them I know have obscurely stuck with me all, all this time. And of course there were the usual children's poems: Mother Goose, Edward Lear, and Stevenson's wonderful Child's Garden of Verses. Then I had in my high school days commenced to Read TS Elliott. I had, I think, very little notion of what he was up to, but I loved the flavor of his poems and I loved his ability to do many voices, to shift, to shift tone.

I also was very fond in those days of something most people did not bother with very much were the poems of James Joyce, which were not at all experimental poems really. They were simply song-like, rather Elizabethan poems having little to do with the experimental author that he was. When I was 16, I asked my grandmother please to give me for my birthday the complete Hart Crane, and she did, and I did got drunk on Hart Crane's poems. I can still say a lot of him by heart. I think what I like now best is the simpler ones, like My Grandmother's Love Letters, but he, he gave me a strong sense of how intense and how exciting poetry should be.

Now, I know, I'm skipping a lot of other people I read in my adolescence. By the time I got to writing my own poems, I know that I had been touched by Marianne Moore, and I don't know that I can point out her influence in my first book, The Beautiful Changes, but I know that it was there. Perhaps, perhaps - though she wrote in syllabics always - she inclined me to play around with certain stanza structures. I don't doubt that was part of what she did for me, and of course she also did for me what was done by most of the poets I've admired: she gave me a feeling that poetry should be full of excitingly exact concrete perceptions. Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom I came upon toward the end of World War II, gave me also a sense of how intense and vatic poetry could be, or some poetry could be. He was a great describer as well, and I responded also to the extraordinary rhythmic jags of his poems. I don't think I was ever quite so jagged as he, but he did give me a feeling that strong vigorous rhythms were part of what one should aspire to.

Now, I know there were other influences, but I can't bring them to mind now. I think that my first book was responsive to lots of poets, even Degas. Degas' sonnets I know were an influence on that first book, and my second book too, I think, was colored by my reactions to other poets, and thereafter - I hope this is true - thereafter I think I ceased to be so very much influenced by other poets and simply went on in what had become my own way.

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: Poems of American Patriotism, Columbia, Paul Revere's Ride, Barbara Frietchie, Mother Goose, Edward Lear, Child's Garden of Verses, My Grandmother's Love Letters, The Beautiful Changes, World War II, Brander Matthews, John Greenleaf Whittier, Robert Louis Stevenson, T S Elliott, James Joyce, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edgar Degas

Duration: 5 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008