B. 1921 D. 2017
Not a graceful mind... a mind of grace, an altogether different and higher thing.- Theodore Roethke
About Richard Wilbur
Richard Wilbur (1921 – 2017) is perhaps best known as the second person to hold the position of US Poet Laureate (1987-88), and was also the recipient of laurels including the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award and the Chevalier, Ordre National des Palmes Academiques. His Collected Poems, spanning sixty years, appeared in 2004, and he was also the author of prose pieces and children's poems, a translator of Racine and Moli?re, and Bernstein's librettist for the musical version of Voltaire's Candide.
His formal mastery is widely acknowledged; Slate describes him as "the author of a half-dozen of the most perfectly made poems of the 20th century", while Anthony Hecht points to his "superb ear (unequalled, I think, in the work of any poet now writing in English) for stately measure, cadences of a slow, processional grandeur, and rich, ceremonial orchestration". These formal effects are made resounding in his rich and authoritative voice.
A Wilbur poem is written to resonate with universal experience – he writes that "the poet speaks not of peculiar and personal things, but of what in himself is most common, most anonymous, most fundamental, most true of all men." So, in 'A Barred Owl', "the wakened child" from the first stanza who is scared by the eponymous bird becomes, in the second stanza, "a small child" as the poem moves into a universal sense from the owl's call. Simultaneously, the poem's awareness of the owl moves from the ominous cry to both a domesticated, safer interpretation and an admission of the darker, natural violence.
Whether it is nature, as here, or in 'Mayflies', or in Wilbur's observations of town life and recollections of childhood, it is this universal kernel of an experience that he aims to tease out. 'Transit', for example, finds the poet stunned by a moment of beauty as a woman leaves her home, and, wishing that moment frozen, finds his surroundings, buildings, even the sun collaborating in that wish. His openness to the things of the world is best expressed in his own description of what he might be (from 'Mayflies'): "one whose task is joyfully to see".
His recording was made on 11 June 2001 in Amherst, Massachusetts, and was produced by Bart Feller.
1957 Pulitzer Prize, The Things of this WorldPrize website
1989 Pulitzer Prize, New and Collected PoemsPrize website
1956 National Book Award The Things of this WorldPrize website
1957 Edna St Vincent Millay Award The Things of this WorldPrize website
2003 Wallace Stevens AwardPrize website
1996 Robert Frost Medal, Poetry Society of AmericaPrize website
1971 Bollingen PrizePrize website
1994 National Arts Club medal of honor for literaturePrize website
2006 Lilly AwardPrize website