Richard Wilbur has translated poems and plays from the French, Russian, Spanish, and Italian. His translations of Old English include parts of the epic Beowulf. One Russian poet whose work Wilbur has translated into English is Joseph Brodsky, and Brodsky, in turn, has translated Wilbur’s work into Russian. These two poets are similar in their use of rhyme and meter—aspects of poetry that are difficult to translate. Wilbur’s translation of Brodsky’s “The Funeral of Bob” appears in both New and Collected Poems and Brodsky’s A Part of Speech.
Robert Frost (1874–1963) was a major influence on Wilbur. Like Wilbur, Frost was from a New England family and drew inspiration from that area of the country. The poets share an attention to detail in nature and the use of formal rhyme and meter. Frost has many books; one to start with is his Selected Poems.
Another poet who has retold a well-known narrative in a shorter poem is Denise Levertov (1923–1998), whose “A Tree Telling of Orpheus” describes a scene from the ancient Greek myth. Orpheus played such enchanting music on his lyre that, according to the legend, trees pulled up their roots in order to follow him and listen. In this poem, one of the trees tells what happened. “A Tree Telling of Orpheus” appears in Levertov’s Relearning the Alphabet, first published by New Directions in 1966.
Wilbur also wrote books for children, including Opposites: Poems and Drawings, which he illustrated himself. These riddle-like poems, based on a wordplay game he played with his children when they were young, are in the form of question and response, such as: “What’s the opposite of two? A lonely me, a lonely you.” Wilbur went on to write More Opposites and Runaway Opposites, which has collage illustrations by Henrik Drescher.
As a young man teaching at Harvard after World War II, Richard Wilbur knew many of the prominent poets of his generation. Among his contemporaries, Wilbur says it was Elizabeth Bishop who most influenced him—by teaching him “the joy of putting a poem together.” The critic M. L. Rosenthal notes the shared qualities of Wilbur and Bishop, describing their poems as having “elegance, grace, precision, quiet intensity of phrasing.” Bishop’s poetry is widely anthologized, but all her work can be found in The Complete Poems, 1927–1979.