Richard Wilbur

Poetry and Happiness

Excerpt from “Poetry and Happiness” (1966), reprinted from Claims for Poetry, edited by Donald Hall (University of Michigan Press, 1982):

The poet…is born, it appears, with a stronger-than-usual need for verbal adequacy, and so he is always mustering and reviewing his vocabulary, and forearming himself with terms he may need in the future. I recall the excitement of a poet friend when he discovered in a mushroom guide the word ‘duff,’ which signifies ‘decaying vegetable matter on the forest floor.’

He was right to be excited, I think. Duff is a short, precise word which somehow sounds like what it means, and it is a word that poets must often have groped after in vain. My own recent discovery of that kind is the term for the depression in the center of one’s upper lip. It had annoyed me, on and off, for many years that I had no word for something that was literally under my nose; and then at long last I had the sense to enquire of a dentist. He told me that he word is ‘philtrum,’ deriving from the Greek word for ‘love-potion,’ and implying, I should think, that the upper lip is an erogenous zone.

Photo from book cover of Conversations with Richard Wilbur, edited by William Butts (University Press of Mississippi, 1990)


Richard Wilbur (March 1, 1921 - October 14 2017) was U.S. Poet Laureate from 1987 - 1988 and won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry twice, in 1957 and 1989. Other honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, the Frost Medal, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and a National Medal of Arts. Wilbur is the author of eleven books of poems, including Things of This World (1956), and New and Collected Poems (1988), two collections of prose, and several children's books. He also translated Molière, Jean Racine, and Pierre Corneille from French to English. Wilbur taught at Wellesley College, Wesleyan University and Smith College. To read more about this author, see also: Grace Cavalieri's Interview with Richard Wilbur.