The Elegant Craftsmanship of Richard Wilbur

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Few poets in the 20th century encapsulated the balance of form and freedom, tradition and innovation, quite like Richard Wilbur. With a style that is both meticulous and free-flowing, Wilbur’s poetry serves as a bridge, connecting classical poetic traditions to the evolving nuances of the modern age. Throughout his life, he continually demonstrated an ability to weave complex themes into structured forms without losing the essence of his message.

Richard Wilbur, born in 1921, was part of a generation of poets that sought meaning in a world recovering from the devastations of two World Wars.

Yet, unlike many of his contemporaries who leaned into the avant-garde or the abstract, Wilbur retained a certain faithfulness to structure. His poems often employed traditional forms such as sonnets or rhymed stanzas, but they never felt outdated. Instead, they shimmered with clarity, precision, and contemporary resonance.

One of the defining aspects of Wilbur’s work is his profound observation of the natural world. He saw beauty in the everyday – a fluttering bird, the play of light on water, or the delicate petals of a flower.

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These weren’t just aesthetic appreciations; for Wilbur, nature was a mirror reflecting deeper truths about existence and the human spirit. His poems frequently take on an almost meditative quality, urging the reader to pause, observe, and contemplate.

Language, in Wilbur’s hands, was both a tool and a playground. He was a master of wordplay, effortlessly employing puns, allegory, and alliteration. Yet, his use of language was never gratuitous.

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Every word, every syllable had a purpose. In “The Writer,” one of his most celebrated pieces, Wilbur speaks of his daughter, locked in her room, laboring over her typewriter. Through intricate metaphor and symbolism, he encapsulates the struggles and hopes of the creative process, drawing parallels between his daughter’s journey and that of a trapped starling attempting to find freedom. It’s a powerful commentary on the challenges and rewards of artistic endeavor.

Beyond his original compositions, Wilbur was also known for his brilliant translations, especially of French literature. His renditions of Molière’s plays are particularly noteworthy. In these translations, he managed to preserve not just the meaning of the original text, but its rhythm, humor, and spirit. This ability to bridge cultures, to bring the essence of a 17th-century French play to 20th-century America, is a testament to his linguistic prowess and deep understanding of the universality of human emotions.

As with many poets, Wilbur’s life wasn’t devoid of criticism. Some critics felt his adherence to form and his optimistic outlook were out of step with the times, especially during the tumultuous mid-20th century marked by the Vietnam War, civil rights battles, and societal upheaval. Where poets like Allen Ginsberg or Sylvia Plath were channeling the raw, sometimes chaotic spirit of the age, Wilbur’s work was seen by some as too polished, too restrained.

Yet, this criticism misses the essence of Wilbur’s genius. In a world marked by chaos, he found order. In an age of disillusionment, he found beauty. His wasn’t a naive optimism, but a conscious choice to seek light in the darkest corners, to find harmony amidst discord.

Richard Wilbur passed away in 2017, leaving behind a legacy of poems that are both timeless and timely. His work reminds us of the power of observation, the joy of linguistic play, and the profound depths that can be plumbed within the constraints of form. In an age of tweets and sound bites, Wilbur’s dedication to craft feels almost revolutionary. His poetry invites us to slow down, to savor each word, and to find meaning in the world around us. In the end, Richard Wilbur’s greatest gift might be his ability to show us the extraordinary in the ordinary, urging us to look closer, think deeper, and appreciate the beauty that’s always within reach.

Cite this page

The Elegant Craftsmanship of Richard Wilbur. (2023, Aug 29). Retrieved from

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