Tuning Up - Winter 2024

Bicentennial Beginnings

Learning to write and learning to live, with Richard Wilbur as a guide

By Seth Lerer | January 4, 2024
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Write what you know, the high school guidance counselor said to us 50 years ago. Write about your passions and your loves, your books and your goals. I wrote about my love of the English language, about Beowulf and kennings, and about how I would try to capture something of these old sounds in my own poetry. I applied to six schools. Five thin letters came back.

The only college that accepted me was Wesleyan. In the early 1970s, it was a school in search of an identity, an old-boys’ place in a small Connecticut town that had decided to remake itself, opening its doors to women and recruiting African-American students. As a result, enrollment doubled. Meanwhile, a new generation of faculty showed up, most of them fresh from Yale, rich with the language of new literary theory. My freshman-year course catalog included such offerings as “Ouroboros: Themes of Self in Modern Literature” and “Landscapes of the Mind’s Interior.” Hayden White (long before he had achieved iconic status as a theorist of historical discourse) ran the Honors College, and he taught a course in which we students would be herded into vans, blindfolded, and driven out into the Connecticut woods. We would be left there, forced to get back to campus on our own. The course consisted of our stories of return. We all began to feel that the study of the humanities at the college level was an education in the art of estrangement.

There was, it being the early ’70s, an anarchic subversiveness to life in the classroom. We lived, still, in the memory of student uprisings, of the visit of the Grateful Dead a few years before, and of newfound sex. One of my teachers had just published a translation of Catullus’s poems that bristled with explicit, thrilling vulgarisms. Horace Gregory’s benign English version and the Loeb Library’s excised text—these were gone now, and we could read Catullus as if he were a playful, cursing, counterculture Yippie. My teacher reveled, for example, in exploring what Latin words such as irrumabo and pedicabo meant. It was rumored that outside of class, he offered demonstrations, but whether or not he did was not the point. Rather, he wanted us to see that words meant more than what we had long been told.

Underneath this skin of ’70s experimentalism and transgression, however, was the beating heart of an old New England college. For all the gestures toward deconstruction championed by the new arrivals, most of the teaching faculty remained New Critics, close readers of great texts. Creative writing still worked in the shadow of Robert Frost and the ideal of a New England pastoral. We had Wilbert Snow, our own white-haired sage, an 80-year-old poet and politician who could be found lunching at the student center. F. D. Reeve, himself a poet, was still riding on his reputation as Frost’s interpreter during an ill-fated Russian trip 10 years before. And there was Richard Wilbur.

By the time Wilbur came to Wesleyan in 1957, he had already written the libretto to Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, published verse translations of Molière, and won a Pulitzer Prize. I took his class in the fall of 1974. He would come to class a minute or so late, often in a cashmere sports jacket and a white turtleneck, with a large, well-mannered, and well-manicured dog beside him. He would then sit down and, without notes, speak to us about poetry, rising only occasionally to write a line or two on the blackboard. The dog would remain sitting there for the duration of class, a model of attention.

Wilbur’s tastes were, by our standards, ancient. One day, he wrote, from memory, some lines from a forgotten poet named Coventry Patmore. Since this was long before Wikipedia, we had no idea who Coventry Patmore was, or why Wilbur had chosen some lines of his to begin a class. If you Google him now, you find that Patmore was a minor Pre-Raphaelite who prefaced his collected poems of 1886 with the admission, “I have written little, but it is all my best.” Maybe that’s what Wilbur had in mind—to introduce us to a poet like himself, whose own reputation had been built on lapidary verses in thin volumes, and who, that fall, was writing a poem about a shallot that would soon be published in The Atlantic Monthly:

The full cloves
Of your buttocks, the convex
Curve of your belly, the curved
Cleft of your sex—

Out of this corm
That’s planted in strong thighs
The slender stem and radiant
Flower rise.

I remember all of this (I wrote down everything Wilbur said and did that term), and I think that his aim was to get us to write like that: brief verses with well-chosen words. The goal was to find aesthetic beauty in the otherwise ordinary.

One day, he gave us a translation exercise. He asked around and learned that none of us knew Italian, so he gave us a poem by Umberto Saba, “The Goat,” both in Italian and with a literal translation. He said: make a poem out of this. The poem begins, Ho parlato a una capra. We all came back the next week with poems that started with some version of, “I have spoken with a goat.” All, that is, except Dick Bernstein, with his big beard and his bare feet, who, if I remember correctly, actually stood up and began:

I’ve just rapped with a cat.
Blat.

Wilbur looked at him, one eye squinting under his still-blond hair, a vein in his neck barely twitching at the line of the turtleneck, the dog clearly unamused, and just said, “Thank you, Mr. Bernstein.”

He would come to class a minute or so late, often in a cashmere sports jacket and a white turtleneck, with a large, well-mannered, and well-manicured dog beside him. He would then sit down and, without notes, speak to us about poetry.

And so I thought: you can make a poem out of a shallot or a goat or a cove. You can take the ordinary and make it sublime. I decided to spend the rest of that school year trying to do the same. Sunrise, sunset, a great sandwich, or a blade of grass—any of these everyday things could be rendered eternal by language, rendered, that is, into a poem. I spent hours looking for such inspirations, walking corridors, standing in the rain, or doing crazy things just so I’d have the memory of having done them: holding a two a.m. mock bar mitzvah in the dorm, driving to Montreal for breakfast, staying up all night to read The Aeneid out loud in Latin.

The following spring, I became convinced that spending April 18, 1975, on the common in Concord, Massachusetts—remembering the ride of Paul Revere and the shots heard round the world—would be the moment that would make me a poet. I don’t remember how I planned the trip, only that I asked a classmate named Pam to go along. I cannot conjure up our friendship or why I asked her to accompany me, but somehow, Pam and I boarded a Peter Pan bus in Middletown, Connecticut, and made it to Concord on the evening of April 18. I do remember that she wore bell-bottom jeans and a white T-shirt with a sweater, and that I was dressed up in my tweed jacket and a button-down shirt. As we walked onto Concord common—already, shortly after sunset, filled with people playing guitars, having a picnic, dancing—we must have seemed like travelers from another time, beamed in to witness a great moment in history, except missing the date by 200 years.

There were some speeches. Someone showed up in a tricorn hat. I don’t think Pam and I said much to each other, but by 10 p.m. or so, we were both bored and hungry. Pam’s mother and stepfather lived somewhere in the Boston area, and she suggested that we crash with them and cadge a meal. We got up off the grass, and as we walked away, my hand found hers and our fingers interlocked. Like tendrils looking for a tree, I thought. At that moment, even though we’d never kissed, never talked romantically, never done a thing—at that moment, this experience was the most intimate I’d ever had, unspoken, unrequested, two hands in the aftermath of a great historical anticlimax.

We wound up, unannounced, at her house and never did see her parents. Pam let me sleep in the guest room, and she disappeared into what must have been her old room. The next morning, having showered and put on the same clothes from the day before, I went into the kitchen and rummaged for some breakfast. I didn’t see Pam that day—I have no memory of seeing Pam ever again—and I left the house, walking down streets I didn’t recognize in daylight. I put out my thumb, figuring that a guy in a tweed jacket could surely hitch a ride, and someone did indeed pick me up and take me to the train station. With what little cash I had, I bought a ticket to Hartford (a good half-hour’s ride from Middletown). I fell asleep on the train and woke up with the conductor shaking me at my stop.

I’d never been to Hartford, let alone the train station, and I walked around trying to figure out how, with a dollar and a half, I’d get back to Middletown. Finally, I persuaded a cab driver to take me to my dorm room, with the promise that when we arrived, I’d go inside and get my checkbook and write him a check for the fare. All that got done, and I prided myself with what a great story of return this would have made for Hayden White, and how the poem in my head—dreamt on the train, recited to myself in the cab—would please Richard Wilbur.

That afternoon, still in my tweed jacket, I wrote down that poem, which I called “Bicentennial”:

Emerson, obsessed with pageantry,
Saw revolution in sunrise,
Doctrine at dawn.

He saw himself enmeshed in memory
Of dead for liberty in Concord,
Crotch of history.

Lost in that mystic sentiment, and blinded
By that haze, he missed
The moment for the myth.

In the moment is the glory, in
The memory is the myth, in
The dream is history.

I read it out loud to myself a few times and then typed it up. It looked so clean on the good piece of bond paper, the ribbon from the typewriter, recently replaced, giving each letter a depth and heft that I could feel as I ran my fingers across the sheet. I typed up three or four more poems that day, ones I’d written in a class with Wilbur, folded the pages in thirds, and took them to the library, where I retrieved the current issue of the classiest-looking journal I could find, The Southern Review. Copying out the name and the address of the editor, I ran back to my room, typed up a cover letter and an envelope, put too many stamps on it, and mailed it.

Before classes were over that spring, I got a letter telling me that The Southern Review was going to run “Bicentennial” in its Spring 1976 issue and that I would receive a check for $15 upon publication. I floated out of the mailroom, walked up the hill, and stood facing the football field, the May breeze catching the letter in my hand and making it flutter like a wing.

A full year later, weeks before graduation, three copies of the Spring 1976 issue of The Southern Review appeared in my mailbox, along with the check. Fifteen dollars was a week of student groceries. A round of drinks for virtually everyone I knew. A roundtrip ticket to Concord. I sent the poem to Wilbur, then ensconced in his rural retreat in Cummington, Massachusetts, and he wrote back right away, letting me know how he “much liked the movement of ‘Bicentennial’ ”—such a Wilbur phrase, with its inverted word order and its alliterative push. Did he craft such sentences, or did he really think like that? And, rereading my poem, now, what made me think it literature? So full of adolescent overstatement. Who writes a poem with the word crotch in it? After more than 40 years of teaching, I can imagine how Wilbur must have reached deep to say something positive about such lines.

I graduated, went to Oxford, to Chicago, and to teaching jobs at Princeton, Stanford, and the University of California at San Diego. I wrote a dozen books. I won awards. You would think that all of this would have filled me with self-esteem. But there’s nothing quite like your first time.

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