Richard Wilbur obituary

US poet laureate, translator and Pulitzer prizewinner with the ability to touch unsettling truths beneath the surface in his work

In 1957, when he won the Pulitzer prize for his third book of poetry, Things of This World, Richard Wilbur, who has died aged 96, was clearly one of the leading young poets in the US. He combined seemingly casual elegance with painstaking craft, and his ability to touch unsettling truths beneath the surface made him heir apparent to Robert Frost. Tall, handsome and as graceful as his poetry, Wilbur might have been cast as a poet by Hollywood. That his reputation never matched that of his mentor Frost was not due to any failing in his work, but to the times in which he lived.

Wilbur’s ascent coincided with a sea change in the landscape of American poetry, a reaction to the academic strictness of “new criticism” in the 1950s, and to the highly structured poetry that it prescribed. The poet Donald Hall said: “The typical ghastly poem of the 50s was a Wilbur poem not written by Wilbur.” In this context, Wilbur’s extraordinary ability became somehow a liability. Even while praising a Wilbur poem as “the most nearly perfect any American has written”, Randall Jarrell complained that his poems “compose themselves into a little too regular a beauty”.

The Beats and Black Mountain poets offered a more direct, less formal alternative, and by the 60s even the poetic establishment became dominated by “confessional” poetry, and spawned whole generations of earnest, writer’s workshop verses. Thus, although Wilbur was to serve as US poet laureate (1987-88), his poetry never assumed the sort of centrality in American culture that saw Frost reading at President John F Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration.

In the 30 years following his Pulitzer, Wilbur produced only five more collections, one of which, Walking to Sleep (1969), won the Bollingen prize; he received his second Pulitzer for New and Collected Poems (1988). He also established himself as Molière’s finest translator with seven plays, starting with his rhymed English version of The Misanthrope (1955). That led to him writing the lyrics for the 1956 Leonard Bernstein/Lilian Hellman comic opera Candide. In the 80s he moved on to Racine, translating Andromache and Phaedra.

He translated poetry from languages he did not speak, including that of the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and the Bulgarian Valeri Petrov. He wrote five children’s books, including the award-winning Loudmouse (1963), some of which he illustrated himself, and published two collections of prose.

Wilbur was born in New York, to which his father, Lawrence, had moved from Nebraska to pursue a career as a commercial artist and portrait painter. His mother, Helen (nee Purdy), came from a family of New York journalists. He grew up on a farm in West Caldwell, New Jersey. In 1942 he graduated from Amherst College, Massachusetts, where he edited the paper, and married his university sweetheart, Charlotte Ward, whose grandfather had been Frost’s first publisher.

He joined the army intending to serve as a cryptographer, but his leftwing political background created a suspicion of “disloyalty” and he was transferred to the infantry. He fought at Anzio and Monte Cassino, in France and Germany, reaching the rank of staff sergeant.

After the second world war ended he gained an MA at Harvard, where he was appointed to a junior fellowship, assisting the pioneering American studies scholar FO Matthiessen and the literary critic IA Richards. It was there he met Frost, whose work became an important influence. Like Frost, Wilbur had a deep sense of nature, and a gift for seeing human life reflected in the natural world.

After Harvard, he taught briefly at Wellesley College, then for 20 years from 1957 at Wesleyan University, where he helped found the university publisher’s excellent poetry series. As a former student, I can testify to his dedication, and the kindness with which he provided serious criticism of even the most banal and awkward attempts at poetry. His teaching, whether of influences as obvious as Frost, Wallace Stevens or EE Cummings, or more distant, such as George Herbert or Gerard Manley Hopkins, was based on an ability to dissect the inner workings of both poem and poet.

Despite his celebrity and his patrician grace, he was remarkably attuned to his students. His 1970 poem For the Student Strikers was written for the unofficial newspaper produced at Wesleyan during the strike in protest against Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and the jailing of the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale. Wilbur had not lost touch with his own student radicalism. After leaving Wesleyan in 1977, he served as writer-in-residence at Smith College for 10 years before retiring. He continued to write, and in 2006 was awarded the Ruth Lilly poetry prize for his lifetime achievement.

Few modern poets have focused so intensely on the way sorrow and joy, tragedy and wonder, combine in the richness of life. No other poet’s writing seems to celebrate and enjoy life more. Wilbur’s 2000 collection Mayflies contained the stunning poem This Pleasing Anxious Being, first published in the New Yorker in 1998.

It is a meditation on life and memory – as if he were writing his own, elegant epitaph. The poem’s third section recalls a seven-year-old, wrapped in blankets, in the back seat of a Buick being driven through a storm to Christmas with relatives. It is 1928; his mother leans out the window to wipe snow off the windscreen, and through the child’s “half-closed eyes” the “dark hood of the car” suggests and recalls his life to come. Those eyes “might foresee”

The steady chugging of a landing craft

Through morning mist to the bom- barded shore,

Or a deft prow that dances through the rocks

In the white water of the Allagash,

Or, in good time, the bedstead at whose foot

The world will swim and flicker and be gone.

Charlotte died in 2007. Wilbur is survived by his daughter, Ellen, and his sons, Christopher, Nathan and Aaron.

• Richard Purdy Wilbur, poet and translator, born 1 March 1921; died 14 October 2017


Michael Carlson

The GuardianTramp

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