Image by Caroline Forbes

Richard Wilbur

b. 1921

Not a graceful mind... a mind of grace, an altogether different and higher thing. - Theodore Roethke

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About Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur (b. 1921, New York) is perhaps best known as the second person to hold the position of US Poet Laureate (1987-88), and is also the recipient of laurels including the Pulitzer Prize, 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 is also the author of prose pieces and children's poems, a translator of Racine and Moliére, 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.

Additional material and useful links

From the Poetry Foundation's Archive: Richard Wilbur

Former Freight Hopper Makes Good

Richard Wilbur on meeting Frost, writing in foxholes, and falling in and out of fashion.

Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur talks about his translation of Mallarme's 'The Tomb of Edgar Poe.'

The Cold War to Global Warming

What Richard Wilbur saw when he saw it coming

Selected bibliography

Anterooms: New Poems and Translations Houghton Mifflin...

More OppositesCengage Learning, 1991

Richard Wilbur In Conversation with Peter Dale, Between...

Collected Poems, 1943-2004, Harcourt Brace 2004 /...


Mayflies, Harcourt Brace 2000 / Waywiser Press 2004


The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces, 1963-1995, Harcourt...

New and Collected Poems, Harcourt 1988 - out of print

The Mind-Reader, Harcourt Brace 1976 - out of print

Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations, Harcourt...

Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems, Harcourt Brace...

Things of This World, Harcourt Brace 1956 - out of print

Ceremony and Other Poems, Harcourt Brace 1950 - out of...

The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, Harcourt Brace...

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