My friend Aaron and I were once in Richard Wilbur’s office at Amherst College. A few months before, Wilbur had opened his Poetry Writing Seminar by saying, “It would be churlish of me, indeed, to start this by saying that you all propose to distinguish yourself in the same field as did Shakespeare and John Donne. But the fact remains that it would be true.” Sitting in his office, Aaron (himself a budding poet) asked Wilbur, “How do you find something to write about? After thousands of years and so many brilliant, talented people saying brilliant, insightful things, how do you find something to say?”
As I remember it, Richard Wilbur looked out the window. He was a tall man, and it was easy enough to see that he had been strong when he was young. Still, when I knew him, a few quick steps up hill were enough to take his breath away. So he paused, watching the trees.
I’d heard how Wilbur had started his class: “It would be churlish of me,” and so on. I’d wondered why. It felt like an impossible challenge to offer college undergraduates. Looking back, I think that’s why he offered it–because it felt impossible, and it wasn’t. Everything from an airplane to a representative democracy to a poem was made up by someone. The constructions around us can feel inevitable, invincible, but they aren’t. They were made by children and adults, by inspiration and compromise. They might be intricate. They might be solid. They might’ve been made by Shakespeare and John Donne. But when we reach down, we touch the same field where they worked.
Back in the story, in the office that day with Aaron, Wilbur smiled after a long pause.
“You know, Aaron, with any luck, you can spend sixty years saying the same good things. I know I have.”
Richard Wilbur, a guide to me and to so many others, died last Saturday. He was playful, attentive, and kind. He was as fully immersed in art and the possibility of art as anyone I have ever known, and, brilliant himself, he deeply, truly, hopefully opened to the art of others. He taught me that the same good things–compassion, awareness, dedication, joy, respect–are needed, again and again and again. He taught me that talking and writing are like planting crops for the community. He taught me that, in one way or another, we all share the same field, and what we’re growing is a world.