Richard Wilbur's Remarkable Sleight Of Hand

Oct 18, 2017

He took the familiar and transformed it into something full of possibility.

Over his long life, Richard Wilbur was a writer of immense achievement.

But in these parts, he also was our neighbor. For decades, Wilbur lived in Cummington and many of us were fortunate to talk with him on occasion and hear him read his remarkable verse. We were lucky, too, to become acquainted with his character: his generosity and sly humor.

New England appears often in Wilbur’s poetry. Images of the last rays of sunlight on field-stone, the dirge of crickets in autumn, and forgotten snow shovels leaning against farmhouse doors in July.

For many years, I taught a seminar on Emily Dickinson in Dickinson’s house in Amherst. We always had the same activity for the final class. Two by two, students would climb through the attic up to the tiny cupola that crowns the house.

The views from the top were breathtaking, and students were eager to point out familiar sites: Amherst College buildings, the hazy blue line of the Pelham Hills.

After taking in the view, I’d ask one student to read Wilbur’s poem, "Altitudes." It's about that very spot and what Dickinson may have seen when she, too, looked around.


The cupola at Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Credit Michael Medeiros / Emily Dickinson Museum
A view from inside the the Dickinson House cupola.
Credit Michael Medeiros / Emily Dickinson Museum

In the middle lines, Wilbur writes:

Think of her climbing a spiral stair,
Up to the little cupola with its clear

 Small panes, its room for one
Like the dark house below, so full of eyes

In mirrors and of shut-in flies,
This chamber furnished only with the sun

Is she and she alone,
A mood to which she rises, in which she sees
Bird-choristers in all the trees
And a wild shining of the pure unknown.

After reading the verse, students always fell strangely silent. The view that had looked so recognizable to them a minute before had shifted. That change was Wilbur’s sleight of hand: 

I think the students fell silent for a reason. I think they simply wanted to linger a while, and look at the world through Richard Wilbur’s eyes—a world they now saw anew and as if for the first time.

Poet Richard Wilbur died Saturday at age 96. For many years, he lived in our area and taught at Amherst College, his alma mater. Journalist and an author Martha Ackmann remembers teaching one of her favorite Wilbur poems. Her new book on Emily Dickinson will be published next year.