Throughout his writing career Richard Wilbur has emphasized the importance of meter and form in the poem. In a 1995 interview, for example, he argued that "in free verse one loses all sorts of opportunities for power, emphasis, and precision, especially rhythmic precision." On the other hand "meters and forms" are for a poet "instruments or contraptions which heighten and empower his words - underlining the shape and steps of the argument, giving it an appropriate music, honing the colloquial movement, hitting the important words hard, changing the utterance in every way." Wilbur's output has been variously seen as a major achievement despite taking a direction abandoned after the 1950s by many of his contemporaries, or as the work of a poet who is elegant but essentially minor, despite his unquestioned craftsmanship. In this latter view Wilbur's poetry is limited in its development and scope. What has been universally praised is his skill as a translator in his versions of plays by Molière and Racine, particularly in his translations of The Misanthrope (1955) and Tartuffe (1963).
Wilbur was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Amherst College in 1942, and entered the army, where he first began writing verse seriously. He received an MA from Harvard in 1947 and in the same year published his first book, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems. This was followed by Ceremony and Other Poems in 1950 and Things of This World (1956) - which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. All three contributed to place Wilbur's reputation in the 1950s on a level with Robert Lowell's. Meanwhile Wilbur taught at Harvard until 1954, moved on to teach at Wellesley, and then at Wesleyan University. From 1977 to 1986 he was writer in residence at Smith College. At Wesleyan he played a central role in founding the Wesleyan University Press poetry series, which since 1959 has been important in supporting the work of many emerging and established poets.
In Wilbur's poetry the independent existence of things in the world is important, but his vision is also one that emphasizes the spiritual and imaginative quality that engagement with those things can produce. In his well-known "Love Calls Us To the Things of This World" the speaker awakens to the sound of pulleys sending full laundry lines out into the morning air, but while the laundry consists of "bed-sheets," "blouses," and "smocks," the items are also imagined as "angels." As James Longenbach has written of this poem, "Wilbur's point is that a devotion to laundry alone - to the world's sensual pleasures, physical and linguistic - may be as world-denying as the most ascetic spirituality." The parallels in this image to the wit of seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry are a feature of Wilbur's verse, and illustrate his affinities with the poetry and criticism of T. S. Eliot and of the major New Critical poets of the 1940s. "A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness" takes its title from a Meditation of Thomas Traherne's and similarly explores the very full world of spirit and grace that surrounds the world of objects. The language here and in Wilbur's verse generally is at once precise, carefully crafted, and accessible, a poem's use of allusion always maintaining a careful balance with its grounding in the everyday.
Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems (1961) was followed by Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (1969), which was awarded the Bollingen Prize. Wilbur had already won a Bollingen translation prize for his Tartuffe. The Mind-Reader: New Poems appeared in 1976 and a New and Collected Poems in 1988 (which won him his second Pulitzer). Mayflies: New Poems and Translations (2000) collects Wilbur's poems of the 1990s. His publications also include editions of poems by Shakespeare and Poe, and books of verse for children. His collections of prose essays include pieces on such contemporaries as Elizabeth Bishop and John Ciardi. Among the other honors that have recognized his achievement have been two Guggenheim Fellowships, and his being named the second Poet Laureate of the United States in 1987, following Robert Penn Warren.
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