Profiles: Contemporary Writers

Even as the canon of American literature expands, the editors of the Heath Anthology of American Literature recognize that members of the traditional canon continue to be important for students and contemporary writers to encounter. Richard Wilbur, whose well-crafted poetry has never followed such trends as free verse and highly personal expression, now claims a firm place within the canon. Rita Dove, whose poetry will be represented for the first time in the second edition of the Heath Anthology of American Literature, typifies the way in which the canon continues to grow. Both poets spoke with the Newsletter about their work and their views of the canon.

Richard Wilbur

Although his first collection of poems, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, was published in 1947, Richard Wilbur did not begin to receive wide recognition as a poet until 1957, when he received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Things of This World. Since then he also has been recognized with a 1989 Pulitzer Prize for New and Collected Poems and was named the second Poet Laureate of the United States, an honor he held for 1987-88.

Coming from a family that encouraged participation in the arts, Wilbur says he began to write poetry in earnest while he served in the 36th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army during World War Two. "I spent much of the war drumming my fingers on the table, waiting for something to happen, so I turned my attention to writing poems." After the war, he completed a master's degree in English at Harvard University and also began to publish his poems. "Since then," he observes, "I have spent most of my career trying to be a scholar and teacher, as well as writing poetry." He has taught English at Harvard, Wellesley College, Wesleyan University, and, until his retirement from teaching in 1986, at Smith College. He continues to write, dividing his time between homes in western Massachusetts and the Florida Keys.

Because Wilbur's poetry is characterized by well-wrought images and carefully crafted words, rhythms, and formal patterns, it is not surprising that he counts John Milton as one of the poets who has influenced him. As a scholar of the 17th century, Wilbur has taught Milton to students, but he also "takes excitement and nourishment from him." Other strong influences he claims are William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost.

"I find that the poetry I like best to read," he observes, "initially offers something I can sink my teeth into, as well as giving subsequent waves of understanding. In my own work, my references to poetic tradition help me say things more richly and clearly. It is as if I were having a conversation with the rest of poetry, a conversation which, I hope, other readers are able to listen in on.

"Recently, I was talking to an audience of freshmen at an elite college. I was disappointed to learn that none of them had heard of Milton's `Lycidas,' let alone read it. I don't recall if I had read `Lycidas' as an undergraduate, but at least I had heard of it and knew it had a significant place in poetic tradition."

Wilbur's sense of the poetic tradition extends to his view of the canon. "It is always good when good but neglected writers are discovered. For instance, when I was teaching I was glad when feminism made us look around and find neglected women writers. However, if the work is not good in and of itself, I don't think `neglected' and `minority' writers should be thrust into the curriculum. Multiculturalism can be subject to abuse."

Rita Dove

Like Richard Wilbur, poet Rita Dove has been strongly influenced by great poets. "As a child," she recalls, "I read my parents' anthology of `Best Loved Poems' and was especially influenced by the work of Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and Sara Teasdale. I think I read most of Shakespeare's tragedies during the summer I was 12. I didn't understand all of them, but I found his language amazing."

Despite childhood interests in physics and music, it was ultimately "the way words have a shape of their own" that drew Dove into writing poetry. "While I am writing I can discover something about myself and about the poem. Writing is not a rote enterprise; I'm always learning. As a poet, I get to not be a specialist, so then I am free to find out about science, or polar bears, or whatever interests me for my work."

Following studies as a Fulbright Scholar in Germany and completion of an MFA at the University of Iowa, Dove published her first collection of poems, The Yellow House on the Corner, in 1980. In 1987 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Thomas and Beulah, a sequence of poems about her grandparents' courtship, marriage, and life in Akron, Ohio. Her latest publication is a novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992).

As a child reading "Best Loved Poems," says Dove, "I wasn't aware of a lack of diversity in what I was reading, but I was conscious of having to play make-believe in order to peek into the mainstream. When I discovered the poetry of Langston Hughes, it was a true revelation to meet a poet whose experience as a black person spoke to mine.

"For a long time, I never thought I would be a writer, because to me, a writer was a white man with a long beard. But being influenced by the work of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Robert Hayden, as well as Hughes, helped me become a writer myself."

While the increasing diversity in the canon, which has so strongly influenced her own work, is "wonderful," Dove finds it "disconcerting to be thought of as part of the canon. I'm a person, not someone on Olympus. I feel as if the ivy is growing up my ankles as we speak about this!"

Dove also teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia and gives poetry readings around the country. When students respond to her work as something real, not written in an ivory tower, she feels she is bringing them closer to poetry. Students especially like Thomas and Beulah, she notes, and often write her letters to ask questions about the two, responding to them as real people. "Sometimes students will say to me, `I didn't like poetry, but we had to read yours for class and I really liked it.' This encourages me as a writer, and it is encouraging for poetry in general."

Contents, No. IX