Remembering Richard Wilbur

Celebrating the life and work of the remarkable poet, translator, and children's author.
Photograph of Richard Wilbur sitting in front of bookshelves in a suit.

Richard Wilbur was known for being one of the greatest formal poets of American poetry since the 1940s, publishing his first book of poetry just after serving in World War II. He described the influence of his experiences in war on his poetry: “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.” Despite the horrors and atrocities of the modern world, Wilbur sought to keep a positive outlook on humanity in his poetry. “I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy,” he explained in a Paris Review interview, “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.” His Collected Poems (2004) introduced his wide range of poems again to a broad audience. James Longenbach wrote in Slate that “Wilbur’s poems matter not because they may or may not be stylish at any given moment but because they keep the English language alive: Wilbur’s great poems feel as fresh—as astonishing, as perplexing, as shocking—as they did 50 years ago.”

Wilbur was also a distinguished translator, especially of French verse drama and poetry, whose translations of Racine, Voltaire, and Moliere received the near-universal critical praise that is extremely rare. He was also a gifted writer for children, and his children's books explore the odd nature and lighter side of language with wit, humor, and surprise. He served as the second US poet laureate won virtually every award available to an American poet, including the National Book Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Frost Medal, the Aiken Taylor Award, two Bollingen Prizes, the T.S. Eliot Award, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the Prix de Rome Fellowship, and the Poetry Foundation's Ruth Lilly Prize.

This selection of poems, articles, and audio recordings showcase Wilbur's lasting legacy to American poetry.