Books Chapter & Verse

Remembering poet Richard Wilbur, 'heir to Robert Frost'

Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin once described Wilbur as 'a poet for us all, whose elegant words brim with wit and paradox.'

Richard Wilbur, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and U.S. poet laureate often called an heir to Robert Frost, died Saturday night in Belmont, Mass. He was 96.

Mr. Wilbur was “a poet’s poet,” a formalist whose penchant for classical styles and old-fashioned meter earned him many admirers – as well as national recognition. While many of his contemporaries were trying out modern trends – avant-garde, confessional, or self-dramatization, Wilbur resisted. Critics called his work overly formal, ornate, even baroque.

But more widely, Wilbur’s work has been praised.

“Richard Wilbur reminded us of the enduring power of tradition: that poems about the natural world and about love, written in classical, traditional rhyme and meter, would continue to matter going forward into the future," Robert Casper, head of the Library of Congress’s Poetry and Literature Center, once said.

In announcing Wilbur as poet laureate in 1987, Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin described him as "a poet for us all, whose elegant words brim with wit and paradox. He is also a poet's poet, at home in the long tradition and traveled ways of the great poets of our language. His poems are among the best our country has to offer."

He received a Pulitzer Prize in 1957, as well as a National Book Award for his collection, “Things of This World,” and a Pulitzer in 1988 for his work “New and Collected Poems.”

Wilbur is also known for his translations, especially of Moliere, Racine, and other French playwrights. And, inspired by his four children, he even wrote a few witty children’s books.

Richard Purdy Wilbur was born in New York in 1921, into a literary family – his grandfather and great-grandfather were editors, and his father was a portrait artist. He grew up in rural New Jersey, in a Colonial-era stone house on 400 acres of land, a rich environment for a young poet. When Wilbur was a teenager, his first poem, about a nightingale, was published in a magazine. He was paid $1.

He enlisted as a cryptographer in the Army, and served in the 36th infantry in World War II, which took him to Africa, and the front lines in southern France and Italy. He used to jot down verse in spare moments as a practical means of remembering his experience.

"In a foxhole, you can write a poem, but you cannot paint a picture," he once said.

After the war, Wilbur studied at Amherst College and Harvard University. He worked for decades as an English professor, including at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He was also chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, a post he held for more than 30 years.

In 1942, Wilbur married Charlotte Ward, with whom he had four children.

Citing his Christian faith, the LA Times described him as having an exceptional disposition, for a person in his profession. “Handsome and athletic into his 90s, with a warm, clear voice ideal for readings, he had an unusual quality for a major poet: happiness.”

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