Richard Wilbur Wilbur, Richard (Vol. 9)

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Wilbur, Richard (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wilbur, Richard 1921–

Wilbur is an American poet, critic, and editor. His poetry is distinguished by its formal, academic style, its structural elegance warmed by wit and vitality. Wilber received the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. (See also CLC, Vols. 3,6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Wilbur's verse, like that of Stevens, is charged with responsiveness to the lustres and tones of a physical world most happily furnished, and shows him alert to less perceptible matters. His scenes are alive with light, be it the light coined by "the minting shade of the trees" that shines on clinking glasses and laughing eyes, or one of a wintrier brightness. He manipulates his stanzas with musicianly effects. His poetry engages the eye, the ear, the mind. More often and more intimately than that of Stevens, it speaks of human things. Wilbur's poems are not similarly weakened by abstract meditations, yet for all their wit and their athleticism, they lack the infectious hilarity, as also the grandeur, of Stevens' major structures. (p. 284)

Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright © 1963 by Babette Deutsch; 1963 by Doubleday; reprinted by permission of Babette Deutsch), revised edition, Doubleday, 1963.

[Wilbur] has exquisite control of verbal patterns, the sounds of words, the rhythms of speech; he has intelligence, learning, and moral wisdom. But to these he must still add something like the ambition and self-assurance of his inferiors.

The truth is that Mr. Wilbur has never allowed his gifts the freedom they deserve. He has shortened the leash whenever the creatures ran too near the onlooker…. [His] brilliant descriptive powers are never stretched so far as to indulge the poet at the risk of tiring the reader. Perhaps they might be. Mr. Wilbur's humour (two attempts at satire fail) irradiates his wit and word play. In 'Seed Leaves', a poem that Herrick could not improve, it gives the most benign humanity to the birth of a plant. But sometimes wit should run wild. These hints are not meant to say that the poet should transform himself into another person. Rather they mean he should be more himself. He should let his audience find him whoever he decides to be. (p. 580)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 21, 1971.

Richard Wilbur's celebrated panache has carried him to most of our poetry prizes but not, I think, all the way to Parnassus. He is a bell too conscious of its clapper, clapper-happy. Pert but proper, always safe rather than sorry, his poetry is completely without risks, a prize pupil's performance. His ideas are always cut exactly to the size of his poems; he is never puzzled. And the ideas are all sentiments, aware of their potential high-minded emotional value and determined to snuggle into it.

In [The Mind-Reader] Wilbur deplores poets who reject "fictive music" to "confess"—he is one of those who patronize Sylvia Plath, a sure sign of moral complacency…. But, less helpless than most poets if less free, she wrote with a shattering originality beside which Wilbur's lines appear fusty, and safe as gingersnaps. Wilbur attacks her Achilles' heel while hardly noticing the winged foot. (p. 21)

The long title poem of the new volume is the fictive confession of a mind-reader who has "the burden" of being ceaselessly usurped by "the world."… How he would like to become fuddled enough to escape his "gift"! You know right off that it is all about being a poet—you know and do not care, for Wilbur himself cheats quite a lot. His conception is self-congratulatory and too simple and he himself has been usurped not by the world but by English poetry, whose familiar rhythms and diction—"crenellate shade," "plaints"—he relies on instead of invention. (p. 22)

Calvin Bedient, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 5, 1976.

Richard Wilbur knows his own temptations; to write...

(The entire section is 3,156 words.)