Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Wilbur too mild for some critics

NEW YORK • He was not often the toast in uppity poetry circles, but Richard Wilbur's meticulous, urbane poems earned him two Pulitzer Prizes and selection as the United States' poet laureate.

Last Saturday, he died in Belmont, Massachusetts. He was 96.

Across more than 60 years as an acclaimed American poet, Wilbur followed a muse who prized traditional virtuosity over self-dramatisation. Hence he often found himself out of favour with the literary authorities who preferred the heat of artists such as Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsburg.

He received his first Pulitzer in 1957, and a National Book Award as well, for Things Of This World.

The collection included A Baroque Wall-Fountain In The Villa Sciarra, which poet-critic Randall Jarrell called "one of the most marvellously beautiful, one of the most nearly perfect poems any American has written".

By the early 1960s, however, critical opinion generally conformed to Jarrell's oft-quoted assessment that Wilbur "never goes too far but he never goes far enough".

Typical of complaints in this vein was a review by Herbert Leibowitz of Wilbur's collection The Mind-Reader in The New York Times of June 13, 1976: "While we acknowledge his erudition and urbanity, we regretfully liken his mildness to the amiable normality of the bourgeois citizen."

But there were many on the other side who objected to the notion that Wilbur's poems were somehow unimportant because they were pretty. He sailed on regardless of which way the wind blew.

He won a second Pulitzer in 1988 for New And Collected Poems; became the second poet laureate of the US, succeeding Robert Penn Warren, in 1987-88; and won many other awards over the years, including the US$100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2006 when he was 85.

In all, he produced nine volumes of poems and several children's books, which he himself illustrated.

He was also an esteemed translator of poems and other works from the French, Spanish and Russian repertoire, including the plays of Moliere and Racine.

Wilbur was born in New York City on March 1, 1921.

When he was two, his family moved to rural North Caldwell, New Jersey. Roaming the woods with his younger brother, he absorbed lessons of the natural world that would later fit easily into his poems.

He went to Amherst College in 1938, where he contributed poems, essays and cartoons to the campus newspaper and magazine.

In 1942, he got married and earned his bachelor's degree. It seemed to him that he might become a journalist and write poems as a diversion.

First, though, there was the war. He had wanted to serve as an Army cryptographer, but was denied clearance because his leftist views had raised suspicion of "disloyalty".

It was at Harvard, where he went for graduate studies after the war, that he began to see poetry as a vocation. His first collection, The Beautiful Changes, came out in 1947 when he finished his master's degree.

He became an assistant professor at Harvard in 1950 and taught for four years, the start of an academic career that included 20 years at Wesleyan University and 10 years at Smith.

He finally went home to teach at his alma mater, Amherst, which honoured him on his 90th birthday with readings of his poems and translations.

Beside his sons Christopher, Nathan and Aaron, Wilbur is survived by a daughter, Ellen; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His wife, Charlotte, died in 2007.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2017, with the headline 'Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Wilbur too mild for some critics'. Print Edition | Subscribe