Celebrating a sacred sense of wonder

Poet Richard Wilbur takes joy in putting the world into words.


May 13, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff

He is a Protestant poet, a lifelong Episcopalian who serves faithfully as a reader in his church. So what was Richard Wilbur doing on the stage at a Roman Catholic seminary this past week? Receiving an honorary degree.

It happened Thursday at the commencement for St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park, where Wilbur, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award and a former poet laureate of the United States, was proclaimed a Doctor of Divinity.

St. Mary's, the training ground for Baltimore's Catholic priests, chose to honor Wilbur because "he knows and speaks the language of liturgy and prayer."

Wilbur, 80, whose career spans four decades, sees himself as less of a spiritual sage than a poet who is simply employing his craft, describing his world with a sense of wonder.

"People have started calling me a religious poet, as probably I am. But I know that for me, poetry is much more inclined to praise than to prayer," he said at a reading Wednesday night at the College of Notre Dame. "What moves me continually to write is the wonder of common things seen as sharply as we can see them. That's where a lot of my poems come from. And I think I would fall mute if I couldn't celebrate."

For the Rev. Robert F. Leavitt, St. Mary's president and rector, a poet like Wilbur symbolizes a theological movement that is bubbling up in the Catholic Church.

It is a movement away from a rigid metaphysical system based on philosophical giants like Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas -- "which act as a kind of philosophical straitjacket on the imagination, even if doctrinally accurate," Leavitt says -- to a more literary, more biblical, more creative approach that gives theology "a lot more play and room."

"I think someone like Richard Wilbur, who is not explicitly trying to be a religious poet, is nevertheless giving people a sense of how you can speak about a religious dimension of life without a conceptual apparatus that's more classically defined," Leavitt says.

Wilbur's honor also highlights the mission of St. Mary's. For the past three decades, it has been educating non-Catholic ministers and laity in the Italian Renaissance citadel on Roland Avenue through the Ecumenical Institute of Theology, which offers degrees to students who study part-time. Last week, degrees were presented to 14 from St. Mary's Seminary and 34 from the Ecumenical Institute.

"For the past 32 years, we have had Protestant clergy and laity studying here quietly in the evenings, many of whom are pastoring churches in city, African Americans in particular," Leavitt says.

In a conversation prior to the commencement, Wilbur reflected on his life and how he has arrived at this unusual juncture.

He was born in New York, raised on a farm near Montclair, N.J. His family would attend the Episcopal Church in town -- at least when the weather wasn't spectacular.

"There was the factor of tennis," he recalled, explaining that there was a court on the farm that called his parents more persuasively than the Book of Common Prayer. When his parents took to the courts, a gardener would drive him to a nearby Baptist Sunday school, "where I learned all sorts of rousing hymns and had a good time." D

He can recall no great spiritual revelation or dramatic conversion. "I don't think I can outline a spiritual life story for myself," he says. "I've just always been in the Episcopal Church and felt good in it."

Wilbur studied literature in college. His education was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the Army as a cryptologist, but he continued his literary pursuits.

"When I was first starting in as a young writer, I didn't give a damn what was going on around me," he said. "I remember writing, sitting cross-legged in the corridor of a troop ship with people going past me. I was so excited and absorbed with what I was doing."

Wilbur recalled that toward the end of the war, while on leave in London, he heard about the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

"One of my fellow soldiers said to me, 'I'll give you 10 bucks if you can write a poem on that by the weekend,' " he says. "I said, 'Keep your money. It's too big a subject.' "

"It took me until 1959 to find a way of addressing the horror and dread of nuclear war," he says. In that poem, "Advice to a Prophet," Wilbur speaks of annihilation as the unthinkable:

Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,

The long numbers that rocket the mind;

Our slow unreckoning hearts will be left behind,

Unable to fear what is too strange.

Throughout his body of work, Wilbur has been a strong proponent of the poetic conventions of rhyme and meter, as opposed to free verse. Wilbur is also noted for his translations of Moliere and Racine, and wrote the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" -- a lucrative sidelight he admits put his children through college.

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