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The Poet At Age 82

May 2024
1min read

Richard Eberhart,” says his fellow poet James Dickey, “is the most giving of all poets. The wonderful thing about his work and about him is the spontaneous unasked and unasking bestowal of himself to whoever wishes it.” Eberhart is one of a handful of renowned living American poets. He has won most of the prizes—Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Bollingen Prize in Poetry—and he holds one of the fifty chairs in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Born in 1904, he is still writing, still teaching. He went to high school in Austin, Minnesota, then to the University of Minnesota. After the death of his mother, he transferred to Dartmouth College, from which he was graduated in 1926. Academia is his natural habitat. He took a second B.A. degree at St. John’s College, Cambridge, then did graduate work at Harvard. For nine years he was a master at St. Mark’s School in Southboro, Massachusetts (“a fancy Episcopal school for boys—my best pupil was Robert Lowell”). He has taught English and poetry at the University of Washington, University of Connecticut, Wheaton College, Princeton, and Dartmouth, and is currently teaching a term a year at the University of Florida.

Dartmouth is his home. That is where he taught for many years; where he succeeded Robert Frost as distinguished poet-in-residence; and where the whole community recently celebrated Richard Eberhart Day. He and his wife, Betty, live informally in a rambling white house on the bank of the Connecticut River in Hanover.

Richard Eberhart is a producer. He has produced two children—now grown with children of their own—twenty-five volumes of poetry, a volume of verse plays, and an anthology with Seiden Rodman, War and the Poet . In World War II he served in the Naval Reserve as an aerial gunnery instructor. “I taught tens of thousands of Americans to shoot from airplanes the .50-caliber Browning machine gun,” he says sadly. “All too soon their names came back on the death lists.” That experience brought forth one of the most powerful of his best-known poems, “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment,” which begins:

You would think the fury of aerial bombardment Would rouse God to relent; the infinite spaces Are still silent. He looks on shockpried faces. History, even, does not know what is meant.

He makes eighty-two look easy. Several years ago he published his twentyfifth book, The Long Reach , and gave poetry readings around the country. Among his collected poems, published in 1984 by Oxford University Press, is “The Rape of the Cataract,” which derives from the incidents recounted in this story. I recently chatted with him over tea by his wood stove. His rosy cheeks, white hair, and pointed eyebrows give him a pixie look, and he seems younger than his years. Richard Eberhart considers the writing of poetry a mystery. He lights his pipe, leans back in the wicker chair, pats his stomach, and says with a cherubic smile, “Isn’t it strange I’m still writing poetry? But then there’s Robert Frost. He was still writing poetry—important poetry—at eighty-nine when he died. So you never know.”

—Nardi Reeder Campion

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