Literary Treasures: Richard Wilbur’s Inaugural Reading as Poet Laureate (1987)

The following post is part of our monthly series, “Literary Treasures,” which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

Thirty years ago this month, Richard Wilbur gave his inaugural reading as the second Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. The recording of Wilbur’s October 5 reading is this month’s Literary Treasure:

Wilbur, who passed away on October 15 at the age of 96, is the second major American poet we’ve lost in less than two months: John Ashbery, whose experimental style is often contrasted with Wilbur’s formalist approach, died on September 3.

Both Wilbur and Ashbery occupy important places in America’s poetic tradition. As our own Rob Casper told the Washington Post:

If Ashbery invented a whole new kind of poetry, Richard Wilbur reminded us of the enduring power of tradition: that poems about the natural world and about love, written in classical, traditional rhyme and meter, would continue to matter going forward into the future.

Wilbur’s inaugural reading took place in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium. Over the course of an hour Wilbur read more than twenty-five poems and translations, ranging from poems in his 1956 collection Things of This World (e.g., “Altitudes” and “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”)  to more recently written poems such as “Trolling for Blues” and “Hamlen Brook” that would be published the following spring in his Pulitzer Prize-winning New and Collected Poems.

The recording begins with an introduction by John Broderick, Assistant Librarian for Research Services. Broderick sets the stage for Wilbur with the following words:

Richard Wilbur’s poetry has been so excellent for so long that we have felt it was a decided deficiency that he had not been affiliated with the Library of Congress in a more formal way, and we’re delighted to have him with us this year.

Richard Wilbur is not easily pigeonholed.  He’s often characterized for qualities his writing has that are singularly lacking elsewherelearning, wit, urbanity, elegance. But those are not the sum of Richard Wilbur, as you will discover tonight if you don’t already know it.

Wilbur’s captivating reading is sprinkled with his own, frequently humorous, commentary on his poems. On “Lying”:

About this one I find myself always saying what my wife’s initial reaction was. I show everything to her first, and she said, “At last, you’ve done it. You’ve written a poem that’s unintelligible from beginning to end.”

On “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”:

I want to go a long way back now and read what I suppose is my anthology piece. A lot of people who have a particular poem which often turns up in anthologies come to hate that poem. I understand that Yeats didn’t want to hear a thing about “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” after a while. But I really like this one, so they must be right, the people who kindly find room for it.

To help you navigate the recording and skip to the parts that may most interest you, I’ve timestamped the recording below, indicating the times as which Wilbur begins reading or discussing the listed poem. I’ve also provided, when possible, links to where you can find the full text of each poem online:

Wilbur served one term as Poet Laureate, ending his duties in spring 1988. Regarding the attention brought to him by his appointment as Laureate, Wilbur told the Washington Post (“The Lyricist as Laureate; Poet Richard Wilbur Reflects on His New Post,” Oct. 6, 1987″):

Frankly, I’ve found it both delightful and harassing to get as much attention as I’ve gotten since April. There have been lots of letters from old schoolteachers and friends, that kind of thing. But what I’m really grateful for is not all the attention to me, but to poetry.

In a May 2004 video interview, Wilbur frankly reflected on his work as Laureate:

[My duties] were not very time-consuming reallyto pick out a few lecturers and introduce them when they came to Washington; to give a little advice as to what books the Library should acquire; to suggest that so-and-so should record his poems for the Library. All of that is not too exhausting…

I also ran around and gave readings where I was asked to go and I did quasi-diplomatic things. When some English poets would come and read at the auditorium I would try to be nice to them within my powers. Subsequent Laureates have given the position still more meaning that it ever occurred to me to give it.

Among the activities to which Wilbur alluded above, he introduced and read poems as part of the April 18, 1988, program An Evening of Poetry in Translation, which featured readings by Herbert Mason and Stephen Mitchell. He was interviewed for Grace Cavalieri’s Poet and the Poem radio series, and featured in a 30-minute videotaped interview titled A Conversation with Richard Wilbur, sold through the Library’s Sale Shop. He also appeared in a June 18, 1989, episode of The Writing Life, a “writer-to-writer talk show” produced by the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, and appeared in an episode of the PBS TV series Voices & Visions, a 13-episode series featuring major American poets and their work, where he discussed the work of Robert Frost.

To learn more about Wilbur’s life and writing, and read some of the many obituaries and remembrances published in the wake of his death, take a look at our Richard Wilbur resource guide.

Do you have a favorite Richard Wilbur poem? If so, let us know in the comments below.

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