By Katie Davern
Only a few weeks ago, Dr. Gregory Roper of the English Department received a response to a letter he had written to U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer-prize winner Richard Wilbur.
Roper, however, was not actually the first person from the University of Dallas community to write to him — this most recent exchange has been one of several between the poet and members of the UD community over the years. In fact, many students have written to him and received personal replies, and a few of them have even gotten to hear him speak and meet him in person. These communications speak to a special connection that UD shares with Wilbur’s poetry and with the poet himself.
After studying Wilbur’s poetry for the “Junior Poet” project — one of the large projects undertaken by English majors — alumna Amber Griggs, ’08, was the first person to write to the poet and receive a response back from him. According to Griggs, she wanted to write to him to let him know much she and other UD students admired his work.
“I just wanted to let him know that there’s a school in Texas where he’s a part of the Core, and that there’s a pocket of students that really appreciate him and his life and the work he’s done,” she said. “And I also just wanted to tell him how much joy he brought to my life.”
Griggs had absolutely no expectation of getting a response.
A few weeks later, however, she opened her mailbox to find a short letter, written on old type-writer, from the poet. Griggs started shaking and crying before she even opened it. The letter was simple and personal, and made her feel that he had read everything she had written to him and thought about it.
“I couldn’t believe it, because this was one of the most influential people I’ve ever studied at UD, and he’s like ‘The Writer’ in my mind,” Griggs said. “I was just thrilled to death.”
Maura Shea, now a high school English teacher, is another alumna who received a letter from Wilbur and was even able to meet him. Before her junior year, she was still undecided about who she wanted to study for her Junior Poet project, though she was considering Wilbur. In August of 2009, she wrote him asking if he had any advice for studying his poetry, hoping to find some sense of direction regarding which poet to choose. A week later she too found a type-written response in the mail, answering all the questions she had asked.
“My suggestion is that you have a look or two at one of my translations of 17th century French plays,” Wilbur advised her in the letter. “I think they inclined me to make my poems more dramatic, more expressive of single moods.”
Shea was stunned by the specificity and carefulness of his response.
“I guess I just wanted to hear his voice a little bit, to kind of see … if his voice is the same in his poetry as it is in real life. And it very much is,” she explained. “The letter is very direct, very simple, it’s written very beautifully, and there’s just a lot of humility there.”
At that point, Shea knew that she wanted to study Wilbur.
“When I got the letter, it kind of sealed the deal,” she said.
The spring after her Junior Poet semester, in March of 2010, she got to go listen to him read and discuss his poems at a Baylor University lecture. Shea and a group of other UD students drove down for the afternoon and were able to ask him questions. Shea emphasized how impressed she was by his humility.
“He wasn’t self-glorifying in any way,” she noted.
According to Shea, even his choice of poems was down to earth — he chose to read shorter, lesser-known poems. When she met him in person, he was not above poking fun at himself, cracking several self-deprecating jokes. Coming from a small, rather down-to-earth university like UD, Shea thinks that his humility is something UD students particularly appreciate, creating a sort of kinship with him.
Rigel Rillings, an alumnus from ‘08, also attended the conference at Baylor. He was not an English major, but wanted to study Wilbur for the Junior Poet project. When he heard that Wilbur would be speaking at Baylor, he jumped at the chance to go hear him.
One aspect of Wilbur that Rillings said he finds extraordinary, is the story of how he started writing poetry. Holed up in Italy during World War II with things crashing around him and surrounded by terrible tragedies, Wilbur knew he would “go crazy or go sane, and he decided to go with sanity,” according to Rillings. So he started to write.
According to Rillings, this clarity and sanity contrasts him with the World War I poets who came before him, whose poems were marked by the chaos and confusion around them.
Wilbur’s works fit well with the sensibilities of the Junior Poet project, as well as those of the university as a whole, according to Dr. Andrew Osborn. While most 20th century poets have completely eschewed the formal elements of poetry — such as meter, rhyme scheme, figuration, tropes and schemes — Wilbur has steadfastly kept them up. And since “J-Po” mainly aims to teach the formal analysis of poetry, Osborn said that he often encourages students who want to do a contemporary poet to turn to Wilbur.
One of Osborn’s main discoveries has been Wilbur’s emphasis on love. He believes Wilbur is “practicing what he preaches” when he writes back to students. According to Osborn, Wilbur could simply write a poem about love as his response.
“[However], the next best response is to make the personal touch of responding with a kind letter,” Osborn said. “There’s no substitute for that.”
So after seeing Wilbur’s reply to Griggs, and realizing the unique history that UD has with Wilbur, Roper and Osborn thought that it would be a good idea to invite him to come speak. In 2010, they, along with the provost at the time, Bill Berry, decided to draft a letter inviting him and informing him of the admiration that UD students and professors have for his poetry. But due to a mistake in the address, the letter never made it to him. A few years passed, with more students studying him for J-Po and falling in love with his poetry. Then, earlier this fall, with Obsorn back from Rome, the professors thought that they would try again. They revised their original letter a bit and sent it on its way.
A few weeks later, Roper received a short, hand-written note on stationary paper, in which Wilbur thanked him for the invitation, but said that he had to decline because he was getting too old to travel and speak; and that he was very glad that people here study his poetry. Though he was disappointed that Wilbur is unlikely to come, Roper was very touched by the simple letter.
“I was just charmed,” he said. “There was something very gentle and sweet about the letter that just charmed me. What’s really wonderful is that the really warm, generous spirit you see in the poems is confirmed in the man.” According to Roper, Wilbur did not have to reply, but seems to have done so because of his familiarity with UD and its students.
“It seems that he knows us, has affection for us and keeps us in mind,” Roper said.
At 93, Wilbur has indeed lived a long life. As Osborn noted, he already has two completed collections of poetry, but will have to have a third one since he has published more poems after those collections. Osborn explained that he knows of no other poet having three collected works.