Wilbur, Richard (Purdy) 1921-
WILBUR, Richard (Purdy) 1921-
PERSONAL: Born March 1, 1921, in New York, NY; son of Lawrence Lazear (a portrait artist) and Helen Ruth (Purdy) Wilbur; married Mary Charlotte Hayes Ward, June 20, 1942; children: Ellen Dickinson, Christopher Hayes, Nathan Lord, Aaron Hammond. Education: Amherst College, A.B., 1942; Harvard University, A.M., 1947. Politics: Independent. Religion: Episcopal. Hobbies and other interests: Tennis, herb gardening, walking.
CAREER: Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Society of Fellows, junior fellow, 1947-50, assistant professor of English, 1950-54; Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, associate professor of English, 1955-57; Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, professor of English, 1957-77; Smith College, Northampton, MA, writer-in-residence, 1977-86; Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Poet Laureate of the United States, 1987-88. Lecturer at colleges, universities, and Library of Congress. U.S. State Department cultural exchange representative to the USSR, 1961. Military service: U.S. Army, Infantry, 1943-45; became staff sergeant.
MEMBER: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (president, 1974-76; chancellor, 1976-78), American Academy of Arts and Sciences, PEN, Academy of American Poets (chancellor emeritus), Dramatists' Guild, Modern Language Association (honorary fellow), American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, Authors League of America, Century Club, Chi Psi.
AWARDS, HONORS: Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, Poetry magazine, 1948, 1978; Oscar Blumenthal Prize, Poetry magazine, 1950; M.A., Amherst College, 1952; Guggenheim fellowships, 1952-53, 1963; Prix de Rome fellowship, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1954; Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, 1957; Pulitzer Prize for poetry and National Book Award for poetry, both 1957, for Things of This World; Boston Festival Award, 1959; Ford Foundation fellowship for drama, 1960; Melville Cane Award, 1962; corecipient, Bollingen Prize for translation, Yale University Library, 1963, for Tartuffe, and for poetry, 1971, for Walking to Sleep; Sarah Josepha Hale Award, 1968; Creative Arts Award, Brandeis University, 1971; Prix Henri Desfeuilles, 1971; Shelley Memorial Award, 1973; Book World's Children's Spring Book Festival award, 1973, for Opposites: Poems and Drawings; PEN translation prize, 1983, for Moliere: Four Comedies; St. Botolph's Club Foundation Award, 1983; Drama Desk Award, 1983; Chevalier, Ordre des Palmes Academiques, 1983; named Poet Laureate of the United States, Library of Congress, 1987-88; Taylor Poetry Award, Sewanee Review and University of the South, 1988; Bunn Award, 1988; Washington College Literature Award, 1988; National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, 1988, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, 1988, and Pulitzer Prize for poetry, 1989, all for New and Collected Poems; St. Louis Literature Award, 1988; Gold Medal for Poetry, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1991; Edward MacDowell medal, 1992; National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature, 1994; National Medal of the Arts, 1994; PEN/Manheim Medal for Translation, 1994; Milton Center Prize, 1995; Academy American Achievement Award, 1995; Robert Frost Medal, Poetry Society of America, 1996; T. S. Eliot Award, 1996; recipient of numerous honorary degrees, including L.H.D., Lawrence College (now Lawrence University of Wisconsin), 1960, Washington University, 1964, Williams College, 1975, University of Rochester, 1976, Carnegie-Mellon University, 1980, State University of New York, Potsdam, 1986, Skidmore College, 1987, and University of Lowell, 1990; Litt.D., Amherst College, 1967, Clark University, 1970, American International College, 1974, Marquette University, 1977, Wesleyan University, 1977, Lake Forest College, 1982, Smith College, 1996, and Sewanee University, 1996.
The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, Reynal, 1947.
Ceremony and Other Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1950.
A Game of Catch (first published in New Yorker, 1953), illustrations by Barry Moser, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1994.
Things of This World: Poems (also see below), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1956.
Poems, 1943-1956, Faber (London, England), 1957.
(With Robert Hillyer and Cleanth Brooks) Anniversary Lectures, U.S. Government Printing Office (Washington, DC), 1959.
Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1961.
Loudmouse (juvenile), illustrated by Don Almquist, Collier (London, England), 1963, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1982.
The Poems of Richard Wilbur, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1963.
(Translator) Philippe de Thaun, The Pelican from a Bestiary of 1120 (poem), privately printed, 1963.
Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1969.
Digging to China: Poem (Child Study Association book list; first published in Things of This World), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1970.
(Self-illustrated) Opposites: Poems and Drawings (children's poems), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1973.
Seed Leaves: Homage to R. F. (poem), limited edition, David R. Godine (Boston, MA), 1974.
Responses: Prose Pieces, 1953-1976, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1976, expanded edition published by Story Line Press (Ashland, OR), 2000.
The Mind-Reader: New Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1976.
Seven Poems, Abbatoir Editions, 1981.
(Translator) The Whale and Other Uncollected Translations, BOA Editions, 1982.
New and Collected Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1988.
Conversations with Richard Wilbur, edited by William Butts, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1990.
(Self-illustrated) More Opposites (children's poems), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1991.
Runaway Opposites, selections illustrated by Henrik Drescher, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1995.
(Translator) Baudelaire, L'invitation au voyage, or Invitation to the Voyage: A Poem from the Flowers of Evil, 1854, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1997.
The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces, 1963-1995, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1997.
Mayflies: New Poems and Translations, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2000.
Opposites, More Opposites, and a Few Differences (contains Opposites and More Opposites), edited by Diane D'Andrade, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2000.
The Pig in the Spigot (children's fiction), illustrated by J. Otto Seibold, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2000.
Poems and Poetics, The Library of America (New York), 2003.
Collected Poems, 1943-2004, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2004.
(Translator) 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 (New York, NY), 1955.
(Lyricist, with John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, and Leonard Bernstein) 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 (New York, NY), 1957.
(Translator) 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), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1963.
(Translator) Moliere, The Misanthrope [and] Tartuffe, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1965.
(Translator) Moliere, The School for Wives: Comedy in Five Acts, 1662 (produced on Broadway at Lyceum Theatre, February 16, 1971), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1971.
(Translator) Moliere, The Learned Ladies: Comedy in Five Acts, 1672 (produced in Williamstown, MA, at the Williamstown Festival Theatre, 1977), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1978.
(Translator) Jean Racine, Andromache: Tragedy in Five Acts, 1667, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1982.
(Translator) Moliere: Four Comedies, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1982.
(Translator) Jean Racine, Phaedra, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1986.
(Translator) Moliere, The School for Husbands (also see below), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1992.
(Translator) The Imaginary Cuckold (also see below), Dramatists Play Service, 1993.
(Translator) Moliere, The School for Husbands & Sganarelle, or The Imaginary Cuckold, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1994.
(Translator) Moliere, Amphitryon, Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1995.
(With Louis Untermeyer and Karl Shapiro) Modern American and Modern British Poetry, revised abridged edition, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1955.
A Bestiary (anthology), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1955.
(And author of introduction and notes) Edgar Allan Poe, Complete Poems, Dell (New York, NY), 1959.
(Editor, with others) Major Writers of America, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1962.
(With Alfred Harbage, and author of introduction) William Shakespeare, Poems, Penguin (New York, NY), 1966, revised edition published as Shakespeare, the Narrative Poems and Poems of Doubtful Authenticity, 1974.
(And author of introduction) Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, David R. Godine (Boston, MA), 1974.
(And author of introduction) Witter Bynner, Selected Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1978.
(Contributor) Gygory Kepes, editor, The New Landscape in Art and Science, Paul Theobald, 1955.
Poems (recording), Spoken Arts, 1959.
(Contributor) Don C. Allen, editor, The Moment of Poetry, Johns Hopkins Press (Baltimore, MD), 1962.
(Author of foreword) Rollie McKenna, A Life in Photography, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
Also recorded Richard Wilbur Reading His Own Poems, for Caedmon, and additional readings for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, Library of Congress. Translator of The Funeral of Bobo, by Joseph Brodsky, for Ardis. Work represented in anthologies. Contributor of critical reviews to periodicals. General editor, "Laurel Poets" series, for Dell; former member of poetry board, Wesleyan University Press.
SIDELIGHTS: Richard Wilbur "is a poet for all of us, whose elegant words brim with wit and paradox," announced Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin when the poet succeeded Robert Penn Warren to become the second poet laureate of the United States. Elizabeth Kastor further quoted Boorstin in her Washington Post article: "He is also a poet's poet, at home in the long tradition of the traveled ways of the great poets of our language. . . . His poems are among the best our country has to offer." The second poet laureate has won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his collection Things of This World: Poems in 1957 and a second Pulitzer for New and Collected Poems, among other numerous awards for his poetry. His translations of French verse, especially Voltaire's Candide and the plays of Moliere and Jean Racine, are also highly regarded by critics; his translation of Moliere's Tartuffe won the 1971 Bollingen Prize.
The son of a commercial artist, Wilbur was interested in painting as a youth; but he eventually opted to pursue writing as his avocation, a decision he attributes to the influence of his mother's father and grandfather, both of whom were editors. As a student, Wilbur wrote stories, editorials, and poems for his college newspaper and magazine, but, as the poet commented in Twentieth-Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature: "It was not until World War II took me to Cassino, Anzio, and the Siegfried Line that I began to versify in earnest. One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one's world somehow gets out of hand." Witnessing war firsthand has had a major effect on Wilbur's poetry. "Many of his first poems had a common motive," wrote Richard L. Calhoun in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "the desire to stress the importance of finding order in a world where war had served as a reminder of disorder and destruction."
Because of this motivation, Wilbur's first collection, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, contains "more poetic exercises on how to face the problems of disorder and destruction than laments over the losses occasioned by the war," noted Calhoun. The poems in this book, according to Donald L. Hill in his Richard Wilbur, also demonstrate "a pervasive good humor, a sweetness of spirit, unusual among the major poets of the century." This approach that Wilbur uses in his poetry has caused some critics of his early work to charge the poet with avoiding tragic themes by covering them with purely aesthetic verse. James Dickey, for example, wrote in his book, Babel to Byzantium, that one has "the feeling that the cleverness of phrase and the delicious aptness of Wilbur's poems sometimes mask an unwillingness or inability to think or feel deeply; that the poems tend to lapse toward highly sophisticated play." John Reibetanz speculated in Modern Poetry Studies that this is because "for Richard Wilbur, the sights offered by World War II contradict and threaten his most basic beliefs, as we can infer them from his writings: that love is more powerful than hatred; that nature is a source of values and of reassurance; and that there is a strong creative urge in both man and nature which constantly seeks and finds expression in images of graceful plenitude." "But in the 1940's," Reibetanz concluded, "the utter disparity between what he saw and what he wished to see made him run for cover."
The explanation for his choice of subjects and preference for a light-hearted tone in his poetry is, in Wilbur's view, not so much a matter of running from reality as it is a matter of affirming a philosophical conviction. "I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy," he explained in an interview with Peter Stitt in the Paris Review, "that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good. I am perfectly aware that I say this in the teeth of all sorts of contrary evidence, and that I must be basing it partly on temperament and partly on faith, but that's my attitude." Robert B. Shaw commented in Parnassus: Poetry in Review that while "it is true that some of Wilbur's earlier poems veer with disconcerting abruptness from the naturalistic to the esthetic. . . . He has never, in fact, avoided negative subject matter as completely as some critics have charged." The critic later asserted that several poems in his third collection, Things of This World, deal directly with humane and political issues.
While Wilbur obdurately composed reflective, optimistic poetry, using traditional patterns of rhyme and meter, the changing poetic movements that flowed by him caused his image to change over the years. "His poetry was judged too impersonal for the early 1960s," testified Calhoun; "it was not politically involved enough during the literary protests against the war in Vietnam in the later 1960s, and, in the 1970s, not sufficiently postmodernist." Calhoun did note that Wilbur's poems of the 1960s show experimentation, "but in comparison with what other poets, Robert Lowell and John Berryman for example, were doing by 1961, the experimentation is comparatively minor." His skill at using rhyme and meter is acknowledged among critics like London Magazine reviewer Roy Fuller, who believed that "Wilbur is excellent at inventing stanza forms, and his stanzas rhyming in pairs are particularly effective." "His intricately patterned poems reflect the discovery of patterns of natural beauty," added Shaw.
Wilbur's insistence on formalism, critics soon found, was naturally suited to his work in translating French poetry and plays. Speaking of his "tactful, metrical and speakable translation of verse drama," Hudson Review critic Alan Shaw commented: "Wilbur's [translations] are almost the solitary example of this kind in English. And it is precisely, I think, because he has stood somewhat apart from the tradition on English-language poetry in this century . . . that he has been able to achieve this." He concluded that "Richard Wilbur's translations of classic French drama are among the undiscovered treasure of our recent literature." The expertise and importance of the poet's translations of plays by Moliere, Voltaire, and Racine have been little questioned by reviewers. "The rendition [of Moliere's The Misanthrope], delightful and literate, made Moliere accessible for the first time to a wide American audience and was the start of a lucrative sideline for the poet," wrote David H. Van Biema in People. Compared to other translators, Saturday Review contributor John Ciardi believed that "instead of cognate-snapping, as the academic dullards invariably do, [in his translation of The Misanthrope] Wilbur has found English equivalents for the turn and nuance of the French, and the fact that he has managed to do so in rhymed couplets that not only respect themselves as English poetry but allow the play to be staged . . . with great success is testament enough."
Analyzing the laureate's book New and Collected Poems, Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Joshua Odell believed these newer poems "clearly show a continued evolution in style from an ornate elegance found particularly in Wilbur's first collection, The Beautiful Changes, toward a simple, direct and crisp verse." Still, poems like those in The Mind-Reader manage "to stand up against every kind of poetic chic," according to Bruce Michelson in Southern Review. And as some critics have noted, the changes in Wilbur's poetry have not affected the basic philosophy his verses have always shown. "He seems to be seeking even firmer and more affirmative statements of the need for order and responsibility; and his tone in the later poems is more confident, more self-assured," asserted Calhoun. This is a need that Wilbur feels all poets should attempt to meet in their work. In his book, Responses: Prose Pieces, 1953-1976, the laureate declared: "Every poet is impelled to utter the whole of the world that is real to him, to respond to that world in some spirit, and to draw all its parts toward some coherence."
In addition to his adult-oriented poetry, Wilbur has also published a number of works for children. These include a trio of word-play books devoted to synonyms and antonyms: 1973's Opposites, 1991's More Opposites, and 1995's Runaway Opposites. Self-illustrated, these books offer amusing poems devoted to words with opposite meanings. Another of Wilbur's works for children is A Game of Catch, first published in the New Yorker in 1953 and reprinted as a separate volume in 1994. The story revolves around three boys and a seemingly innocuous game of catch. When two of the boys refuse to let the third boy play, the outsider climbs a tree and turns the tables on his adversaries using mind games.
Released in 1997, The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces 1963-1995 contains a variety of essays by Wilbur that Barbara O'Hara described for Library Journal as "thoughtful, engaging, and persuasive." Mary Maxwell wrote for Boston Review that readers "may be surprised by melancholy undercurrents swelling below the book's expectedly sane and sunny acumen." While a Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that "[Wilbur] writes unerring prose even when his muse is out of town." He wrote another children's title, The Disappearing Alphabet, in 1998, with illustrations by David Diaz. The book contains twenty-six poems, one for each letter, on what would happen if each one letter of the alphabet did not exist. A critic for Kirkus Reviews wrote that the book is "an enchanting picture book. . . . [A] sly and beautiful upending of the world of letters." Jennifer M. Brabander of Horn Book noted that "Wilbur's poems are filled with small, satisfying surprises." The reviewer for Publishers Weekly called the work an "inventively witty book" with "plenty of brain-tickling words to grow on and a plethora of visual puns." David Sacks of the New York Times wrote of the book: "The overall result is charming."
Another volume of poetry and translations was released in 2000, titled Mayflies: New Poems and Translations. It was his first book of poetry since his 1989 title New and Collected Poems, and it reinforced his standing as an exceptional poet. Not only does it contain Wilbur's original poetry, it also holds a few of his translations of poetry by such poets as Moliere and Dante. Ray Olson, describing Wilbur as "a sublime formal poet," wrote for Booklist that "this is the work of a master." Echoing that sentiment, a critic for Publishers Weekly related: "Wilbur remains America's reigning master of poems in traditional forms, creating flawless, balanced, charming, and even profound couplets, sonnets, sapphics, and intricately custom-made stanzas." Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner of Christian Century wrote that Wilbur "is arguably America's greatest living poet."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bixler, Francis, Richard Wilbur: A Reference Guide, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1991.
Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Supplement: Modern Writers, 1900-1998, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 3, 1975, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 9, 1978, Volume 14, 1980, Volume 53, 1989.
Cummins, Paul F., Richard Wilbur: A Critical Essay, Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI), 1971.
Dickey, James, Babel to Byzantium, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1968.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning, A Reader's Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1995.
Hill, Donald L., Richard Wilbur, Twayne (New York, NY), 1967.
Hougen, John B., Ecstasy within Discipline: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur, Scholars Press, 1994.
Hungerford, Edward, editor, Poets in Progress, Northwestern University Press, 1962, new edition, 1967.
Jarrell, Randall, Poetry and the Age, Knopf (New York, NY), 1953.
Jarrell, Randall, The Third Book of Criticism, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1969.
Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, Twentieth-Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature, H. W. Wilson (New York, NY), 1942.
Michelson, Bruce, Wilbur's Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1991.
Nemerov, Howard, editor, Poets on Poetry, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1966.
Rosenthal, M. L., The Modern Poets, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1965.
America, October 15, 1994, p. 18.
Booklist, November 15, 1998, Michael Cart, review of The Disappearing Alphabet, p. 585; March 1, 2000, Ray Olson, review of Mayflies: New Poems and Translations, p. 1190.
Boston Review, summer, 1998, review of The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces, 1963-1995.
Christian Century, May 24, 2000, Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner, review of Mayflies, p. 607.
Hollins Critic, April, 1977.
Horn Book, September-October, 1998, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of The Disappearing Alphabet, p. 618.
Hudson Review, summer, 1969; summer, 1987.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1998, review of The Disappearing Alphabet.
Library Journal, April 15, 1997, Barbara O'Hara, review of The Catbird's Song, p. 83.
London Magazine, July, 1957.
Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1983; April 18, 1987; October 13, 1987.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 31, 1988; October 9, 1988.
Modern Poetry Studies, Volume 2, numbers 1 and 2, 1982.
Nation, November 3, 1956.
National Review, September 2, 1988.
New Republic, June 5, 1976; March 24, 1982, Brad Leithauser, "Reconsideration: Richard Wilbur—America's Master of Formal Verse," pp. 28-31.
New York, February 13, 1995, p. 102.
New Yorker, December 12, 1994, p. 122.
New York Times, January 28, 1983; April 18, 1987, Irvin Molotsky, "Richard Wilbur Is Named Nation's Poet Laureate," p. 26; March 14, 1999, David Sacks, review of The Disappearing Alphabet, p. 30; April 16, 2000, David Kirby, review of Mayflies.
New York Times Book Review, December 14, 1969; December 26, 1982; April 18, 1987; May 29, 1988; August 27, 1995, p. 27.
Paris Review, winter, 1977.
Parnassus: Poetry in Review, spring-summer, 1977.
People, October 5, 1987.
Publishers Weekly, August 2, 1991, p. 60; March 13, 1995, p. 68; February 10, 1997, review of The Catbird's Song, p. 72; August 17, 1998, review of The Disappearing Alphabet, p. 70; February 7, 2000, review of Mayflies, p. 69.
Saturday Review, August 18, 1956.
School Library Journal, September, 1992, p. 272; April, 1994, p. 132; May, 1995, p. 117.
Sewanee Review, spring, 1978.
Shenandoah, fall, 1965.
Southern Review, summer, 1973; April, 1975, Raymond Oliver, "Verse Translation and Richard Wilbur," pp. 318-330; July, 1979.
Southwest Review, summer, 1973.
Time, November 19, 1984.
Times (London, England), July 15, 1989.
Times Literary Supplement, May 20, 1977; September 15-21, 1989, p. 999.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), July 24, 1988.
Twentieth Century Literature, winter, 1995, Philip White, "'Walking to Sleep' and Richard Wilbur's Quest for a Rational Imagination," pp. 249-265.
Variety, January 3, 1994, p. 58; May 30, 1994, p. 58; February 16, 1995, p. 82.
Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1990, Peter Harris, "Forty Years of Richard Wilbur: The Loving Work of an Equilibrist," pp. 412-425.
Wall Street Journal, April, 2000, p. W10.
Washington Post, July 25, 1976; October 6, 1987.*