Acclaimed Poet Richard Wilbur ’42 Dies at Age 96
Issue   |   Tue, 10/24/2017 - 20:22

Renowned poet and former John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer Richard Wilbur ’42 died on Oct. 14 after a lifetime of writing, reading and teaching. In a community-wide email, President Biddy Martin and Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein wrote that Wilbur, a two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient and U.S. Poet Laureate, was “a remarkable man whose decency and humanity are as memorable as his verse.”

Wilbur was born in New York City and raised in New Jersey before arriving at Amherst in 1938 and declaring a major in English. On campus, he pledged Chi Psi, managed The Amherst Student as chairman and wrote numerous poems under the guidance of English professors such as Theodore Baird, George Armour, George Roy Elliot and George Whicher.

After graduating, Wilbur enlisted in the U.S. Army for World War II. Upon returning from the war, Wilbur received a master’s degree from Harvard and published his first book of poetry, “The Beautiful Changes.” What followed was a prolific writing career in which he published over 30 works and won numerous awards, including the National Book Award for Poetry.

Before retiring from academic life, Wilbur taught for nearly 40 years at institutions such as Harvard, Wellesley and Smith. A longtime resident of Cummington, Massachusetts, he began visiting Amherst to read his poetry and teach. In 1989, he was named the Robert Frost Literary Fellow, and in 2008, he returned to teach in the position created for Frost and co-taught a course once a semester with Professor of English David Sofield, a good friend.

Wilbur was 87 years old when he began teaching at Amherst. He and Sofield often took their students out for lunch, and they both gave feedback on every student’s poetry.

“He was really smart and a very good teacher of poetry writing and a person with a vast literary store in his head, especially poetry,” Sofield said.

Ike Zhang ’16 took a poetry course with Sofield and Wilbur in his first year and remembers Wilbur as a “very hands-on, very engaged” teacher.

“He didn’t have to be — he was 93,” Zhang said. “He’d already had his glory and his status as a poet laureate and poet prizewinner, but he never let that slow him in terms of engaging with students.”

Wilbur always had a story to share, he added. “He was never lacking in terms of his humor and his wit,” Zhang said. “That came through his poetry, through his writing, through the way he spoke and the way he interacted.”

What set Wilbur apart from other famous American poets was his belief in and mastery of poetry in “traditional metrical and stanzaic and rhyming patterns,” said Professor of English William Pritchard, who met and graded papers for Wilbur while Wilbur was teaching at Wellesley and Pritchard was finishing graduate school at Harvard. “He was a superb performer, a wonderful reader, gifted with an excellent resonant and humorous voice,” Pritchard added.

Wilbur’s warmth and generosity is what Sofield will miss the most. A stranger could talk to Wilbur for 20 minutes and feel better at the end of it, he said. “He was a major yeasayer to life,” Sofield said. “He really believed that the glorious natural world that you and I lived in and he lived in and that everybody else lived in, at least during peacetime, was to be celebrated … He liked to affirm the world and the people in it.”

“He was a great man,” Sofield added. “That’s what he was.”

The college’s memorial service for Wilbur will take place in the spring.