The huge, comprehensive edition of Richard Wilbur’s Collected Poems represents the work of some sixty years. In addition to his most recent poems, it includes seventeen previous collections, five children’s books, and translations from several languages. Over the length of his distinguished career, Wilbur has also published two books of literary essays and has translated the plays of Molière and Racine to high praise. For his accomplishments, he has been honored with a National Book Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, the Bollingen Translation Prize, and many other prestigious awards.
The critic Peter Stitt described him as standing apart from his literary age in at least three ways. Wilbur, he wrote, “exhibits a classic, objective sensibility in a romantic, subjective time; he is a formalist in the midst of relentless informality; and he is a relative optimist among absolute pessimists.” I agree with that, except for one minor quibble. All poets, if they are any good, tend to stand apart from their literary age. They either linger in the past, advance into some imaginary future, or live in some version of the present that is altogether their own. What is interesting about Wilbur is how faithful he has been over a lifetime to what may appear to some as a very odd choice.
The recognition came early to Wilbur with the publication of his first book of poems in 1947. With the exception of Robert Lowell, who was four years older and already had a small reputation, most of the poets of his generation, including such diverse figures as Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Denise Levertov, Louis Simpson, and Richard Hugo, were barely known to the poetry-reading public. Eventually, they all became the distinctive poets we know them to be, while often modifying or radically altering the poetry they were writing—but not Wilbur. One could shuffle his poems, disregarding the order in which they first appeared, and mixing the earliest with the latest work, without confusing or displeasing the reader. The same cannot be said of any other poet of this period. Most of them would now and then go out on a limb and do something completely unpredictable and risky. Needless to say, I’m exaggerating. Wilbur’s later poems are plainer and a little more personal, but are in truth not that different from his earliest ones. Unlike others, he has been happy to work within an older and well-established poetic tradition over these many years.
“It was not until World War II took me to Cassino, Anzio, and the Sieg-fried Line,” Wilbur later said, “that I began to versify in earnest.” Earlier he had thought of a career in journalism since his mother’s father and grandfather had been newspaper editors. He was born in 1921 in New York City. His father, Lawrence Wilbur, was a painter. He graduated from Amherst College in 1942. While still a student, he spent his summers hitchhiking and riding the rails around the country. His mother encouraged him to …