© Image by Caroline Forbes

Richard Wilbur

(b. 1921)

"Not a graceful mind... a mind of grace, an altogether different and higher thing."
- Theodore Roethke

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These poems come from a special recording for the Poetry Archive:

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Select bibliography

  • The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, Harcourt Brace 1947 - out of print
  • Ceremony and Other Poems, Harcourt Brace 1950 - out of print
  • Things of This World, Harcourt Brace 1956 - out of print
  • Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems, Harcourt Brace 1961 - out of print
  • Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations, Harcourt Brace 1969
  • The Mind-Reader, Harcourt Brace 1976 - out of print
  • New and Collected Poems, Harcourt 1988 - out of print
  • More OppositesCengage Learning, 1991
  • The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces, 1963-1995, Harcourt 1997 - out of print
  • Mayflies, Harcourt Brace 2000 / Waywiser Press 2004
  • Richard Wilbur In Conversation with Peter Dale, Between the Lines 2000
  • Collected Poems, 1943-2004, Harcourt Brace 2004 / Waywiser Press 2005
  • Richard Wilbur Reading from his Poems, The Poetry Archive 2005
  • Anterooms: New Poems and Translations Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
Richard Wilbur (b. 1921, New York) is perhaps best known as the second person to hold the position of US Poet Laureate (1987-88), and is also the recipient of laurels including the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award and the Chevalier, Ordre National des Palmes Academiques. His Collected Poems, spanning sixty years, appeared in 2004, and he is also the author of prose pieces and children's poems, a translator of Racine and Moliére, and Bernstein's librettist for the musical version of Voltaire's Candide.

His formal mastery is widely acknowledged; Slate describes him as "the author of a half-dozen of the most perfectly made poems of the 20th century", while Anthony Hecht points to his "superb ear (unequalled, I think, in the work of any poet now writing in English) for stately measure, cadences of a slow, processional grandeur, and rich, ceremonial orchestration". These formal effects are made resounding in his rich and authoritative voice.

A Wilbur poem is written to resonate with universal experience - he writes that "the poet speaks not of peculiar and personal things, but of what in himself is most common, most anonymous, most fundamental, most true of all men." So, in 'A Barred Owl', "the wakened child" from the first stanza who is scared by the eponymous bird becomes, in the second stanza, "a small child" as the poem moves into a universal sense from the owl's call. Simultaneously, the poem's awareness of the owl moves from the ominous cry to both a domesticated, safer interpretation and an admission of the darker, natural violence.

Whether it is nature, as here or in 'Mayflies', or in Wilbur's observations of town life and recollections of childhood, it is this universal kernel of an experience that he aims to tease out. 'Transit', for example, finds the poet stunned by a moment of beauty as a woman leaves her home, and, wishing that moment frozen, finds his surroundings, buildings, even the sun collaborating in that wish. His openness to the things of the world is best expressed in his own description of what he might be (from 'Mayflies'): "one whose task is joyfully to see".

His recording was made on 11 June 2001 in Amherst, Massachusetts, and was produced by Bart Feller.

Richard Wilbur's Favourite Poetry Sayings:

"You can't pray a lie." - Huckleberry Finn


1957 Pulitzer Prize, The Things of this World

1989 Pulitzer Prize, New and Collected Poems

1956 National Book Award The Things of this World

1957 Edna St Vincent Millay Award The Things of this World

2003 Wallace Stevens Award

1996 Robert Frost Medal, Poetry Society of America

1971 Bollingen Prize

1994 National Arts Club medal of honor for literature

2006 Lilly Award

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