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March 31, 2009

Richard Wilbur at Johns Hopkins

richard wilburAnyone who views Johns Hopkins as a campus full of eyes-to-the-ground engineers and scientists should have been at Richard Wilbur's poetry reading last night (thanks to Brigitte Warner and for this video). More than 200 students packed a lecture hall to hear the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate speak on topics ranging from late-night television to the hopes and fears we hold for our children.

Delivering the Turnbull Poetry Lecture, Wilbur, 88, didn't speak much about the work of the poet, or the purpose of poetry. He did say that poetry should move beyond "lilies and swans" to describe our fears -- and thus help to tame them. And he noted that his poetry is not very introspective or self-engaging. Throughout the evening, he was witty and humble.

Reading often from Collected Poems 1943-2004, he showed an expansive yet almost effortless range. He began with several riddles translated from Latin, noting that that form of poetry was once -- before being relegated to the nursery -- regarded highly because it relied on metaphors connecting diverse ideas. Other poems arose from the simple rhythms of life on his Massachusetts farm; here is "Crow's Nest":

That lofty stand of trees beyond the field, / Which in the storms of summer stood revealed

As a great fleet of galleons bound our way / Across a moiled expanse of tossing hay,

Full-rigged and swift, and to the topmost sail / Taking their fill and pleasure of the gale,

Now, in this leafless time, are ships no more, / Though it would not be hard to take them for

A roadtead full of naked mast and spar / In which we see now where the crow's nests are.

Posted by Dave Rosenthal at 10:54 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Marylandia


Richard Wilbur at Hopkins, 3/30/9
At 88, poet Richard Wilbur does NOT look his age. He read ( nite of 3/30) (at a Turnbull Lecture) to a packed auditorium in Mudd Hall at JHU (over 300?- a guess), mostly young w a spattering of oldsters- audience. Yeh- Clarinda Harriss from the local scene was there...David Bergman, Alan Salcman (ref- "The Baltimore Poetry Scene- 64-07 in Loch Raven Review #3-by Dave and Dan).

The Writing Seminar dons were there- Mary Jo Salter, Brad Leithauser John Irwin and Dave Smith- Eliot Coleman chair of the department. I (frogin bog- dave eberhardt) sat in the front row w Alan Reese- my esteemed publisher.

Hailing from Cummington, Mass., Wilbur is one of the most respected American poets- along w Bly, Collins, Barks, Snyder, Asberry. He struck me as wearing the mantle passed from...Robert Frost (W brings to mind Robt Frost- to me- his stuff almost all ways rhymes!!). He has met all the poetic greats of the 20th century and has survived them all! He has won all the prizes.

Bernstein used some of his lyrics for "Candide".

I could have listened to him read ALL NITE!!

His poetry is gentle, academic, meaningful.....he read funny poems but mostly poems from his Collected Poems- poems that not only went over my head but all the youngsters there as well- but, I found myself thinking- this was OLD SCHOOL- and STILL- everybody was listening. They knew (or some one had told them) they were in the company of a great poet.

To me, in the shifting sands of American poetry- Wilbur has remained a constant, good thing.

Wilbur has won the Pulitzer- was it? He spoke of various editors at the New Yorker Magazine and what they asked him to do. The guy has ARRIVED- he's 88, for God's sake.

Shorter poems you could maybe figure out- longer ones- you knew they were great just LISTENING to them.

I found myself thinking (did I say that before?):

One CAN b a poet and NOT end up in the ditch having died of an overdose.

But seriously- read his poems. He writes stuff that sticks in yr. mind (I mean "brain" of course)- not yr. craw. I heard go by me "summation of blue". (a phrase I would like to steal) ..and from long before when I had corresponded with him, I will never forget his poem- "Things of this World".

He proved at this reading that he is - simply- an unforgettable poet.

I wished there had been a ? and answer period- I would have liked to ask him about ego and money in relation to poetry. But- Wilbur is not a "confessional" poet- not of that school. He might have told me to keep my mouth shut!

Dear David:

just found your evocative post about this wonderful evening but my name ain't "Al"; you got it right in the LRR.

all my best,


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About the blogger
Dave Rosenthal came to The Baltimore Sun as a business reporter in 1987 and now is the Maryland Editor. He reads a wide range of books (but never as many as he'd like), usually alternating between non-fiction and fiction. Some all-time favorites: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; and anything by Calvin Trillin or John McPhee. He belongs to a book club with a Jewish theme.
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