College Honors Beloved Poet on 90th Birthday
By Megan Duff '14, Contributing Writer
On Wed., March 2, the College celebrated Richard Wilbur ’42, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, former U.S. Poet Laureate and current John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer at the College with a reading of his poetry on his 90th birthday. People packed into the Cole Assembly Room in Converse Hall for the reading.

Professor David Sofield, one of Wilbur’s colleagues, started off the event by reading “First Snow in Alsace,” “Winter Spring,” and “Still, Citizen Sparrow” to illustrate Wilbur’s varied themes throughout his works. After Sofield, a group consisting of students and faculty read a selection of Wilbur’s poetry as well as his translations. Wilbur himself rounded out the reading with a poem called “Out Here,” from his latest book, “Anterooms.”

Professors Ilan Stavans of the Spanish Department and Sofield of the English Department were in charge of organizing the celebration in honor of Wilbur’s 90th birthday, which happened to fall on March 1. The idea for the celebration came from Stavans, who wanted to hold the event in Wilbur’s honor.

“Turning 90 is no small feat. Turning 90 and being one of the most important American poets is reason to rejoice,” Stavans said. “A life devoted to making poetry last and to lasting poetry is a life worth living.”

Sofield recognized Wilbur’s importance to the College community and pointed out that by holding events like this one on campus, the community is showing that “at Amherst College, poetry is held in high regard, as it should be.”

Students were an integral part of the event, as they comprised 7 of the 14 readers. Among those readers were Max Kaisler ’11 and Christopher Spaide ’11. Kaisler, a student of Wilbur’s, read “A Riddle” and “In the Field” from the ex-Poet Laureate’s book, “Walking to Sleep.” Although she was “incredibly nervous” she enjoyed being able “to do something to honor Wilbur and his work.”

Spaide, another of Wilbur’s students, read “A Barred Owl” from his book “Mayflies,” as well as selections from two of Wilbur’s books for children: “The Disappearing Alphabet” and “The Pig in the Spigot” which contain some of Wilbur’s more humorous works. Spaide described the experience as “surreal.”

“[It] felt as if I was stealing a comedian’s best lines and using them right in front of him,” he said.

Amherst faculty played a major role in the event, with readings of Wilbur’s translations by Professor Catherine Ciepiela of the Russian Department and Laure Katsaros of the French Department. There were also readings by Professors Daniel Hall and William Pritchard of the English Department. President Tony Marx joined in as well, with a reading of Wilbur’s “Cottage Street, 1953” from his book “The Mind-Reader.” Marx, who first heard Wilbur read his poetry aloud when he was a student at Wesleyan University, described reading “Wilbur-to-Wilbur” as being among the most “amazing and bizarre moments of [his] time at Amherst”.

Faculty readings ended with Stavans, who recited Wilbur’s “The Proof” as well as his translation of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Everness,” both from “Walking to Sleep.” As a “tribute on [Wilbur’s] 90th birthday,” Stavans also wrote a new Spanish translation of “The Proof” to present to Wilbur at the celebration.

The reading ended on a comical note as Wilbur took the podium and cracked a joke about the Academy Awards before reading “Out Here,” an amusing piece about “my hicktown in Western Massachusetts,” as Wilbur put it fondly.

After he was finished reading, he uttered a quick “thank you” before stepping away from the podium to an affectionate standing ovation. Spaide summed up a mutual feeling of the event’s attendees in saying that “Wilbur out-read everyone who preceded him.” Following the reading, guests were invited to share some birthday cake with the poet, who blew out the candles with help from Marx.

Issue 18, Submitted 2011-03-09 02:50:40