On the evening of Friday, Feb. 2, a date some refer to as Groundhog Day, a small group of English professors, alumni and current students gathered in the Art History Auditorium of the Haggerty Art Village to celebrate the life of the recently deceased poet Richard Wilbur.
Wilbur’s poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” is taught in the Core curriculum as part of the lyric poetry portion of Literary Tradition II. He is also a popular choice among English majors for the Junior Poet project.
Dr. Andrew Moran, associate professor of English, began the evening by stressing that the event was a “celebration” and not a memorial or funeral service.
“We want to honor the poet and enjoy the poetry,” Moran said. “It’s poetry that’s been enjoyed by many.”
Wilbur was a decorated figure in American poetry, having been the poet laureate of the United States and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Poetry, among many other accolades.
But Wilbur wasn’t always praised.
“Critical opinion generally conformed to [Randall] Jarrell’s oft-quoted assessment that Mr. Wilbur ‘never goes too far, but he never goes far enough,’ ” Daniel Lewis wrote in The New York Times.
At his University of Dallas celebration, the praise for Wilbur was effusive. To begin the evening, Moran suggested Christian Wiman’s more recent tribute in The Times better captured Wilbur’s appeal.
“Wiman calls him ‘the poet of light,’ ” Moran said. “[He] points out that Wilbur was a poet who knew suffering as well as most do, especially in his old age, and yet he never stopped celebrating ‘the blind delight of being.’ ”
Wilbur’s unceasing celebration is appropriate for this time of year at UD, when classes have yet to overwhelm and students past and present gather in community for no reason other than “blind delight.”
The poems read matched the season; they were timely and thought provoking. The first poem was heard by the audience over the speakers in the auditorium, recorded by Miriam Kotsonis, ’76, who is the earliest known student to have chosen Wilbur for her Junior Poet project, all the way back in 1974.
“For Dudley” is an elegy about Dudley Fitts, famous for publishing translations of ancient Greek dramas with his former student at The Choate School, Robert Fitzgerald. UD students may recognize Fitzgerald as the translator of choice for the Aeneid as taught in Literary Tradition I.
The elegy refers to Fitts as “an exceptional man” and compares him to Achilles, but it is the poem’s last lines that hit home: “All that we do / Is touched with ocean, yet we remain / On the shore of what we know.” The rest of Wilbur’s celebration was an ocean of poetry, well-curated and beautiful.
Dr. Bernadette Waterman Ward, associate professor of English, read the second poem of the evening, “For the Student Strikers,” published in 1970 in the Wesleyan Strike News while Wilbur was a professor there and many students were protesting the Vietnam War.
The poem begins “Go talk with those who are rumored to be unlike you, / And whom, it is said, you are so unlike.” UD students who attend Groundhog are no strangers to talking with those both like and unlike themselves, but these lines seem increasingly relevant considering the difficulties faced by our school and our country.
The remaining readers met the high standard set by the first two readers in both selecting an appropriate poem for the occasion and presenting it with the sensitivity and profundity Wilbur’s difficult poetry demands.
Following Waterman Ward, poems were read by current students Jacqueline Condon, and Theresa Guin, alumna Maggie Krewet, and professors Dr. Robert Dupree, Dr. Greg Roper, Dr. Andrew Osborn and Moran. The evening concluded as it began, with a recording of Miriam Kotsonis reciting “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.”
By the end of the celebration, I felt like the fauns as they are described in Wilbur’s “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra:” “Reproving our disgust and our ennui / With humble insatiety.”
At UD, reading great poems with each other is as sacred a tradition as Groundhog Day. We find in Wilbur’s “For C.” further evidence of our insoluble community: “A passion joined to courtesy and art / Which has the quality of something made, / Like a good fiddle, like the rose’s scent, / Like a rose window or the firmament.”
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.”