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Teaching undergraduates to write poetry


Writing for the theater
Richard Wilbur Poet
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If you are a poet of course you are used to sitting in a stupid-looking state all by yourself and waiting for a line to come which may not come until 5:35 in the afternoon. It's a lone but I won't say lonely business. People who can't be by themselves had better not try to write poetry. But what a difference there is when you find yourself involved with theater, musical or otherwise, and when, in setting down one word and then another, you are trying to hear what will happen to these words when they are projected over the footlights. My first real direct encounter with theater came when I worked on Candide with Bernstein and Hellman, and at first I really didn't think of the audience. I didn't think of the man from Scarsdale in the third row who must be amused and in a hurry, too, because he has to get back to Scarsdale that night.

I remember writing an experimental lyric as I was sort of trying out for the job of lyricist for Candide, in which I had some singer say, 'We'll find ourselves a humble cot and cultivate the chicken'. Well, my collaborators, Hellman and Bernstein, did not recognise the word 'cot'. They didn't know its ancient meaning, having to do with a rural residence. And so that's where my education about the audience began, and pretty soon I did learn as people came and tried out for the show, as we began to try out our numbers with Bernstein at the piano and others listening, as we began to rehearse. I came to see that a line that simply says, 'I love you', at the right point in the show and with the right music, is entirely adequate, that a great deal of verbal sophistication is not necessarily called for, at any rate, not the kind that the readers of poetry tend to relish.

When it came to attending rehearsals of Molière productions and translating further Molière plays as I have gone on and on doing, I found that attending rehearsals was a great help and it was also a great relief because I found that from the beginning with that particular author, with Molière, I had known how to translate the original into speakable English couplets. Speakability is so important. I know that when I was first writing poems, I used to have no awareness whatever of whether it would be hard or easy to say the poem aloud. Professionals like Tennyson would never allow two ess's to occur in great proximity. They'd write an extra line in order to get around that kind of difficulty of pronunciation, but that's something I slowly had to learn about poetry, and something I had to work on always with Molière.

I had the luck early in my experiences with Molière to meet the actor Brian Bedford who is God's gift to Molière on this continent, and as I translated the latter plays of Molière that I have done, I've always been hearing Brian's voice in my head. I've said to myself, 'How would he say that? How would he get the laugh that that calls for? How would he express the mood that underlies this line? I think by now I am probably a pro at translating French 17th Century drama, and the trouble is that I've just run out of Molière's verse plays. I think I've done the last one that it would be practical to attempt.

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: Candide, Scarsdale, Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein, Molière, Brian Bedford, Alfred Lord Tennyson

Duration: 5 minutes, 57 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008