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Richard Wilbur (1921–2017) was an American poet and literary translator who held a significant place in the American poetic landscape, especially in the 20th century. He was admired for his formalist style and commitment to tradition, at a time when many of his contemporaries were turning towards free verse and experimental styles. Wilbur's work is marked by its technical rigor, ethical concerns, and an optimistic perspective on human existence.

Literary Background and Early Influences:

Wilbur was born in New York City and attended Amherst College before serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. His exposure to the realities of war provided a bleak backdrop that contributed to the gravitas and depth of his later work. After the war, he completed his Master's degree at Harvard University, where he was influenced by the New Critics, particularly their emphasis on the formal elements of poetry.

Poetic Schools and Movements:

Richard Wilbur is often associated with the New Formalists, a group of poets who maintained a commitment to traditional poetic forms and techniques. In this, he stands apart from the dominant movements of his time, such as the Beat Generation, the Confessional poets, and the Black Mountain School, all of which frequently employed free verse and focused on subjectivity and emotional intensity.

Phases and Themes in Poetic Oeuvre:

*Early Phase: Wilbur's debut collection, "The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems" (1947), showcased his skill with form and meter. The poems are characterized by their meticulous structure and often deal with the beauty of everyday life.

*Middle Phase: This period saw the publication of "Things of This World" (1956), which won the Pulitzer Prize. The poems from this period continue to display his formal mastery but delve deeper into themes of mortality and existential concerns.

*Later Phase: In his later years, Wilbur's work, such as "New and Collected Poems" (1989), continued to explore the enduring themes of nature, human relationships, and the role of the artist, albeit with a matured vision that often employed humor and wit.


Wilbur’s influence is somewhat complicated. While not as revolutionary as figures like Allen Ginsberg or Sylvia Plath, he nonetheless had a significant impact on American poetry, especially among those who value formal mastery and intellectual rigor. His translations of Molière plays are also considered definitive and are frequently performed.


Over his long career, Wilbur received numerous awards and honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry, for "Things of This World" in 1957 and "New and Collected Poems" in 1989. He also served as the second Poet Laureate of the United States from 1987 to 1988.


Richard Wilbur stands as a figure of continuity in 20th-century American poetry, maintaining a commitment to form and an optimistic humanism even as the literary landscape around him underwent significant shifts. His body of work serves as a testament to the enduring value of technical mastery and thematic depth. While perhaps not as groundbreaking as some of his contemporaries, Wilbur’s poetry offers a balanced, thoughtful perspective that has earned him a secure place in the American canon.

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