Richard Wilbur is one of the finest American poets alive today. He also happens to be an excellent translator. Supposing the human race kicks around for another few centuries, he will most likely be read by your remotest descendants alongside Frost, Eliot, Stevens, Bishop and the whole gang of 20th century writers.
If you have never read or listened to one of his poems, your life—I'm sorry to say—is incomplete.
Don't worry! You can easily get your life back on track by clicking one of these links of Wilbur reading his poetry:
"A Storm in April"
"A Barred Owl"
For extra credit, here is an example of his excellent work as a translator:
"A Prayer to Go to Paradise with the Donkeys (by Francis Jammes)"
If you wish, you can read the poems as you listen. Just click the "Read" link below the video.
A brief biography
He was born in 1921, he became poet laureate in 1987, and at the time of writing, he is 88 years old and lives in Massachusetts.
Somewhere in between there, he grew up on a farm in New Jersey, which perhaps contributed to his sense of appreciation for natural beauty and gave him an awareness of the cycles of change in nature. He enlisted during WWII and served as a cryptographer and as an infantryman. Wilbur says that these two roles were formative for his poetry because, as a cryptographer, there was always a sense of riddle and of surprise and discovery when it came to enemy code-breaking which is like the sense of surprise and discovery that one should get from poetry. His cryptography work may have also been an influence in his eventually becoming a translator. Wilbur says that being an infantryman involves a lot of waiting around for something to happen. He used that time to read books of poetry—mostly the poetry of Poe and Hopkins which he carried with him in a pouch in his pack where his discarded gas mask was supposed to go. He began to write his own poetry too, which he later typed up on the cryptography machines and sent to family and friends.
In addition to Hopkins and Poe, whom he read during the war, Wilbur has been greatly influenced by the poetry of Emily Bishop, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens. He knew these poets personally during his early career and you can see that he often wrote with one or more of these poets in mind, conversing with them, so to speak, in his own poetry.
He was also great friends William Carlos Williams despite their vastly different views on poetics. Williams was a champion of free verse, while Wilbur continued to be a formalist even when writing in form and meter fell out of style in his day.
In his youth, Wilbur recalls having read Edward Lear, Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, and later having read T.S. Eliot and the poetry of James Joyce.
- The Beautiful Changes, and Other Poems (1947)
- Ceremony, and Other Poems (1950)
- A Bestiary (1955)
- Things of This World (Harcourt, 1956) Pulitzer Prize for Poetry 1957 National Book Award 1957
- Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems (1961)
- Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (1969)
- The Mind-Reader: New Poems (1976)
- New and Collected Poems (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988) Pulitzer Prize for Poetry 1989
- Mayflies: New Poems and Translations (2000)
- Collected Poems, 1943–2004 (2004)
- Anterooms, 2011
- Responses: Prose Pieces, 1953–1976 (Harcourt, 1976)
- The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces, 1963–1995 (Harcourt, 1997)
- Moliere, The Misanthrope: Comedy in Five Acts, 1666
(also see below; produced in Cambridge, MA, by the Poet’s Theatre,
October 25, 1955; produced off-Broadway at Theatre East, November 12,
1956), Harcourt, 1955.
- Moliere, Tartuffe: Comedy in Five Acts, 1669
(also see below; produced in Milwaukee, WI, at Fred Miller Theatre,
January, 1964; produced on Broadway at ANTA Theatre, January 14, 1965),
- Moliere, The School for Wives: Comedy in Five Acts, 1662 (produced on Broadway at Lyceum Theatre, February 16, 1971 ), Harcourt, 1971.
- Moliere, The Learned Ladies: Comedy in Five Acts, 1672 (produced in Williamstown, MA, at the Williamstown Festival Theatre, 1977), Harcourt, 1978.
- Moliere, The School for Husbands, Harcourt, 1992.
- Moliere, The Imaginary Cuckold, Dramatists Play Service, 1993.
- Moliere, Amphitryon, Dramatists Play Service (New York City), 1995.
- Moliere, Don Juan, Dramatists Play Service (New York City), 1998, published as Don Juan: Comedy in Five Acts, 1665, Harcourt, 2001.
- Jean Racine, Andromache: Tragedy in Five Acts, 1667, Harcourt, 1982.
- Racine, Phaedra, Harcourt, 1986.
- Baudelaire, L’invitation au voyage, or Invitation to the Voyage: A Poem from the Flowers of Evil, 1854, Little, Brown (Boston), 1997.
- Voltaire, Candide: A Comic Operetta Based on Voltaire’s Satire
(musical; based on adaptation by Lillian Hellman; music by Leonard
Bernstein; produced on Broadway at Martin Beck Theatre, December 1,
1956; produced on the West End at Saville Theatre, April 30, 1959),
Random House, 1957.
- (Self-illustrated) Opposites: Poems and Drawings (children’s poems), Harcourt, 1973. Harcourt (New York City), 1982.
- (Self-illustrated) More Opposites (children’s poems), Harcourt, 1991.
- A Game of Catch, illustrations by Barry Moser, Harcourt, 1994.
- Runaway Opposites, selections illustrated by Henrik Drescher, Harcourt, 1995.
- The Disappearing Alphabet (children’s fiction), illustrated by David Diaz, Harcourt (San Diego), 1998.
- The Pig in the Spigot (children’s fiction), illustrated by J. Otto Seibold, Harcourt (San Diego), 2000.
On his work:
To give you a feel for Wilbur's poetics, I'll talk about his poetry at the level of the poem, his thoughts on form, his surprising use of images, what he believes poetic diction can can accomplish, and finally, how the voice of his poems is often the result of a tension between what is fitting and what seems unsuitable to a particular occasion.
Wilbur says that he undertakes each poem as an attempt to exhaust the subject at hand and he does not try to write poems in sequences or poems that interact with each other in elaborate ways. He has written and translated a number of riddles, perhaps trying to elevate a once-noble form that has fallen to the level of the nursery-rhyme in public consciousness. As he mentioned in a recent interview, he believes that great poetry can have an aspect of riddle, especially when it helps to give one a greater understanding of the things of this world:
"Aristotle says that the essential poetic gift is for metaphor. And if
that's the essential poetic gift, then a kind of impatient abstraction
that rises above this world and its things is not the essential poetic
move. Poetry is concerned with things, and with making them vivid, and
what metaphor does is to render some part of the world more vivid by
comparing it– sometimes violently– to something else. That's certainly
what happens in the riddle, which Aristotle describes as "dark
metaphor." You go into it a little puzzled, but when you come out it's
like you've come to. You say "Ah-ha! This is that." Of course you don't
in a literal way believe this is that, but it makes the thing under
consideration far more solid and it gives you a more intense and
surprised perception of the interlaced objective world, of things as
Wilbur mastered a style early on, a style that creates sophisticated and intelligent poems that rely on rhyme, meter, wordplay, ambiguity, and paradox—poems that jive well with the New Critics' insistence on close reading and staying within the boundaries of a single text.
He continued to write in this style even when formal poetry fell out of fashion and Beat, free verse, and confessional poetry became the new formulas for artistic expression and critical acceptance. During this time, formalist poets like Wilbur were seen by some as irrelevant or even ideologically at odds with cultural progress. In the more extreme version of the latter view, poets who wrote in inherited forms were seen as the upholders or continuators of a repressive patriarchical regime that needed to be toppled. Eventually, in the 80s or 90s, the pendulum swung back again and the new avant-garde turned away from free verse to writing adventurously in traditional meters and forms—the very thing that Wilbur had been doing all along.
In Wilbur's view, form, whether inherited or invented, is not to be employed in poetry merely for its own sake, but for what it contributes to the meaning of the poem. Form and meter are always at their finest when they are in creative tension with the ideas and feelings that the words communicate. He claims that he does not set off from the start to write in any particular form or meter—he makes the choice within the first few lines of a new poem. For him, some ideas just won't fit in the container of a sonnet or a villanelle and that each form has a particular aptitude for certain turns of thought. To quote again from that recent interview, he shows that formalism need not be thought of as such a conservative poetic move:
"It seems to me that formalism is a dreadful title for what I do. It
sounds very glum-making, doesn't it? I was just pointing out to a
friend of mine that, in the dictionary, "formalism" and "formaldehyde"
are very close; and I'm afraid a lot of people think of form that way.
I have no interest at all, really, in meter, per se, or in rhyme
patterns, or in received forms. It's all in what you do with them, or
indeed against them. The great poets have always been violators of
meter. A sonnet of John Milton's is likely to overrun the pattern at
every point; something like his "On the Late Massacre in Piedmont"
scarcely has anything in it which one could regard as formally tidy. It
overruns the quatrain divisions and rips into the rhyme scheme with an
appropriate violence. And I have the same attitude toward form. I think
what you do with meter is not obey it but violate it."
Wilbur reaches far and wide to different literary traditions, different cultures, and even from shared, common experiences to find surprising, novel images and conceits to work in his poetry. He tends to use images that seem at once completely unexpected and completely apt.
One of my favorite images in his poetry is a "merry-go-round ring." I feel like I should explain, for the sake of those with lousy childhoods, that when riding some merry-go-rounds, you would try to reach and grab from a ring-dispenser, hoping to grab the shiny brass ring which gave you a special prize of a free ride.
This image appears in a poem called, "A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness", a poem that contends the sacred is found not in abstractions but in the tangible things of this world. At one point in the poem, the speaker describes how early painters experimented with different ways of representing the sacred in art. In iconography, halos of all different shapes and varieties adorned the heads of holy figures:
And all shinings need to be shaped and borne.
Think of those painted saints, capped by the early masters
With bright, jauntily worn
Aureate plates, or even
The image of a saint wearing his halo like a wide-brimmed hat tipped back on his head is pretty funny to me. But whether the halo is a disk-like "aureate plate" or a circlet-like "merry-go-round ring," the tangibility of the light is the striking feature of this metaphor. I like the image of the ring specifically because the intellects questing for an abstract expression of divinity, portrayed as "the tall camels of the spirit" in this poem, follow the sun round and round the earth endlessly, never able to reach the thing they strive for. The merry-go-round ring, by comparison, is so thingy, so innocent, and so full of delight (pun intended).
The purpose of Diction
Wilbur believes that one of the functions of poetry is that it can take stale words and clichéd language back to their original, organic meanings. It refreshes tired language by reminding us what is actually meant by the words we say. In a poem called "Seed Leaves," he describes a new green shoot taking shape and growing, the final word of the poem is ramify. As Wilbur explains in the linked video, he has taken this word, which has become lingo for "get a lot more complicated," back to its 'root' meaning, which is "to branch from a stem or form new shoots."
Conversely, he likes to take modern words that are foreign to poetic diction and he tries to incorporate them into his poetry, to give them a sort of poetic birth. He said that he was once very pleased with himself when he managed to convincingly use the phrase "reinforced concrete" in a poem.
The speaker's voice in Wilbur's poems ranges from oratorical to conversational, elegiac to whimsical—and often within the confines of a single poem. Wilbur always plays on the boundaries of what is appropriate to the lyrical occasion, adding what seems like extraneous or incongrous sentiment and somehow making it all work out in the end.
"The Death of a Toad" is a great poem to turn to for an example of this feat. The first line of the poem establishes a somewhat reserved, conversational voice in colloquial language: "A toad the power mower caught / Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got...." You won't fail to notice the change in voice looking at the last stanza which describes the toad's mock-heroic death: "Toward misted and ebullient seas and cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia's emperies."
While this particular poem was criticized by Randall Jarrell as "just an excuse for poetry," I think he fails to pick up on the fact that Wilbur has a serious purpose in speaking this way. Mixing these two voices lends dignity to the mundane (and, cosmologically speaking, trivial) death of a frog and yet manages to temper the severity of senseless death with a touch of humor, warmth, and humanity.