Book Bag: “Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur” by Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg

Thursday, May 18, 2017


By Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg

University of Massachusetts Press


Richard Wilbur is one of the Valley’s artistic treasures. The Cummington poet, now 96, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a former U.S. Poet Laureate; he’s the recipient of numerous other awards for a body of work that includes translations of plays by 17th-century French playwrights such as Molière.

Now Wilbur, who came of age in the era of notable mid-20th-century U.S. poets such as John Berry, Robert Lowell and Delmore Schwartz, has earned his first biography. “Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur” takes a broad look at his life, career and writing. Wilbur, coauthors Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg say, has long “remained true to his own poetic identity, refusing to develop fashionable, and usually transitory, styles.” 

Robert Bagg is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Mary Bagg is a freelance editor. The married couple live in Worthington.

Their book comes 70 years after Wilbur published his first volume of poetry, “The Beautiful Changes,” at age 26. The title is drawn from a New Yorker review of the collection, which said, in part, “Let us watch Richard Wilbur. He is composed of varied ingredients.”

Wilbur, who grew up in North Caldwell, New Jersey, has a long connection to the Valley; he graduated from Amherst College in 1942, and he and his late wife, Charlee, moved to Cummington in 1969 from eastern Massachusetts. He would later teach at Smith and Amherst colleges. 

One of the interesting accounts in the biography concerns Wilbur’s study of Edgar Allan Poe’s work and life; he wrote a number of essays about Poe and once taught a seminar on him at Harvard University.

But Wilbur first read Poe’s stories during quiet interludes at the Battle of Cassino in Italy in WWII, a brutal, months-long fight in a devastated landscape that must have seemed a match for the macabre settings and dark themes of Poe’s tales.

It’s an episode worth noting because some saw Wilbur as a charter member of the “Greatest Generation”: a quiet hero and a calm and sober poetic voice whose work, some critics have said, was “merely accomplished or pleasing or elegant,” as the authors put it, rather than brilliant or emotionally charged.

“Many of his peers, suffering from mental illness and suicidal depression, focused their poetry on angst and despair,” the Baggs write. “[Wilbur] never felt an impulse to write confessional poetry; he sensed that the genre was undignified for a man who believes that complaining, by its nature, is a weakness.”

Yet other critics have found Wilbur’s poems filled with a “fierce intellectual energy,” the writers say. All told, they note, there has been “a striking diversity in the literary profession’s evaluation of his achievements,” despite his many awards. 

In addition, the authors write, Wilbur’s life has been mistakenly seen as calm, even blessed, even though he faced turmoil during the Vietnam War, when his antiwar views clashed with his veteran’s sense of duty and his sons were of draft age, and with the discovery that his youngest child, Aaron, was autistic.

By plumbing Wilbur’s unpublished journals, family archives and correspondence with other poets, as well as conducting interviews with the poet himself and members of his family, the Baggs have provided a full portrait of Wilbur and placed his work in the context of his life and times. It’s a profile of a decent man who, aside from penning verse noted for its “fluency, wit, and optimism,” has lived a life of accomplishment and grace.

As Wilbur once wrote in his journal, “I have noticed that I am happiest when taken out of myself, either by the desire to say or write or do something better than my ordinary lumpish self could do it, or by going out to others in aid or sympathy.” 

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.