When I was a student at Amherst, I recited Richard Wilbur’s “The Ride” at a funeral. A few months later I was in Professor Wilbur’s office. I almost didn’t mention what I’d done. Saying the poem had been important to me, it had been important, I hope, to the deceased man’s family, but it didn’t seem like it would be that important to Wilbur. His poems had already brought inspiration around the world. What was one more anecdote from a silly college student?
In the end I told him anyway. Wilbur had been letting his thoughts drift, and his attention wasn’t really on me; but as I described the funeral and told him which poem I’d said, he turned and listened. Afterwards he thought for a long, quiet moment, and then he said something I didn’t expect. He said, “Thank you.”
He thought for a moment more, and added, “You know, Azlan, as a poet, I’ve always felt the need–not to be appreciated–but to be,” and he paused, settling into the right word, “of use.”
When I started teaching English, I started there. I wasn’t sure what he had meant. I wasn’t sure how I could do it. But I remembered, and listened to my students, and wanted to try. I think he meant “of use” like a hand that helps me up into the open space of a mountain, where I can see things a new way, or a hand resting on my shoulder while I cry. I think he meant “of use” like the clear statement of a thought I’ve always meant to figure out, or the playful, hopeful song that reminds me of my heart. That reminds me my heart connects with others’. Richard Wilbur is all of those things, for me and for so many others. And so I know we can be them for one another.