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Discovering Key West


Poetry readings become popular
Richard Wilbur Poet
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I think I started doing a lot of readings in the Cambridge area about the time I started teaching at Harvard. The poetry reading, in my experience, became a popular form of concert at just about that time. When I was in my teens, I was aware that there were a few great performers travelling around the country and doing their poems. Carl Sandberg would say some poems and then he would get out his - what was it - a guitar or a banjo? And Vachel Lindsay had been a very rousing presence on both sides of the water. Edna Millay went to my wife's school, Dana Hall, and gave a reading in which she stood there in a long, white gown next to a table on which was one perfect rose.

[Q] And the students never got over it, I'm sure.

No, that's right. Robert Frost had been a great performer on the circuit too, but that's almost the limit of the list of travelling poets, up until the post-war period. For me, the watershed moment came at Harvard when Wallace Stevens had been invited to come and give a reading. He wasn't terribly fond of giving readings, but he was a Harvard alumnus and so he came back to do it, not telling his friends at the insurance office what he was up to, and I think he was first to read in Emerson D in the philosophy building, a little room in which to hear about Plato but not a sizable room for a poetry reading. It was clear an hour before the reading was to occur that we had an overflow audience there, and it overflowed into Sever Hall and then that overflowed and finally we took possession of a great lecture hall in the bowels of the Fogg Art Museum. I remember walking past a man whom I recognised as Wallace Stevens on my way from one of these locations to the other, and he was standing there aghast. The word aghast was invented to describe how he looked at the imminence of this vast audience. And as soon as the poetry reading came by way of experiences like that to be a more exciting experience for people literarily inclined, it was possible for someone who had published a few poems in a few obscure literary magazines to presume to give a poetry reading and to expect to have an audience.

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: Harvard University, Fogg Art Museum, Wallace Stevens, Carl Sandberg, Vachel Lindsay, Edna Millay, Robert Frost, Plato

Duration: 3 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008