Richard Wilbur, an American poet and translator whose precise, rhythmic verse — employing classical forms in an era when experimental works and free-flowing confessionals reigned supreme — earned him two Pulitzer Prizes and a reputation as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, died Oct. 14, at a nursing home in Belmont, Mass. He was 96.
The cause was not immediately known, said a son, Chris Wilbur.
Mr. Wilbur, a former Army infantryman who devoted himself to poetry after returning from World War II, was among the most prolific poets of his generation. A devotee of classical rhyme and meter, his work retained a sense of orderly elegance through the rise of confessional poets such as Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, and in contrast to the often esoteric work of avant-garde writers like John Ashbery, who died last month at age 90.
"If Ashbery invented a whole new kind of poetry," said Robert Casper, head of the Library of Congress's Poetry and Literature Center, "Richard Wilbur reminded us of the enduring power of tradition: that poems about the natural world and about love, written in classical, traditional rhyme and meter, would continue to matter going forward into the future."
In an email, the Irish poet Paul Muldoon described Mr. Wilbur as “the single greatest technician in American poetry of the last 70 years,” adding: “It was a technique perfectly at the service of tenderness and terror.”
Mr. Wilbur published his first book, “The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems,” in 1947, rendering his war experiences in a formal style that some critics derided as overly ornate and borderline baroque.
Within a decade, however, he had refined his voice, stripping away some of its poetic excesses. He won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1957 for “Things of This World,” which drew its title from one of Mr. Wilbur’s most widely anthologized poems.
The poem, "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," began with a heavenly vision inspired in part by the "Confessions" of St. Augustine:
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
It was one of many poems that demonstrated Mr. Wilbur's deep-rooted belief that the universe was, as he put it in a 1977 interview with the Paris Review, "full of glorious energy . . . and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good."
“My feeling,” he continued, “is that when you discover order and goodness in the world, it is not something you are imposing — it is something that is likely really to be there, whatever crumminess and evil and disorder there may also be. I don’t take disorder or meaninglessness to be the basic character of things.”
In a sign of Mr. Wilbur’s stature in American poetry, he was appointed the second U.S. poet laureate, following Robert Penn Warren, in 1987. (The Library of Congress had previously named consultants in poetry.) Two years later, he received his second Pulitzer Prize, for “New and Collected Poems.”
His work extended well beyond that of sonnets and sapphics, to include acclaimed translations of the French playwrights Molière and Racine and the poets Baudelaire and Brodsky. He contributed lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 operetta “Candide,” and — inspired by the births of his four children — even dabbled in children’s books, writing whimsical verses (“What is the opposite of soup? / It’s nuts”) and books of pun-filled wordplay, including “Opposites,” a 1973 picture book that he illustrated himself.
"Throughout his career Wilbur has shown, within the compass of his classicism, enviable variety," The Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda wrote in 2004, reviewing a new collection of Mr. Wilbur's poetry.
“His poems describe fountains and firetrucks, grasshoppers and toads, European cities and country pleasures. All of them are easy to read, while being suffused with an astonishing verbal music and a compacted thoughtfulness that invite sustained reflection. Besides, they are so beautiful one simply wants to go back to them again and again.”
Richard Purdy Wilbur was born in New York on March 1, 1921, to a literary family that included a grandfather and great-grandfather who worked as editors. His father was a portrait artist.
Known to his friends as Dick, he graduated from high school in Montclair, N.J., and received a bachelor’s degree at Amherst College in 1942, before enlisting as a cryptographer in the Army. He served in Africa, southern France and Italy during World War II, a period that he said led him to “versify in earnest.”
“One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand,” he told the biographical source Twentieth-Century Authors.
After graduating from Harvard University with a master’s degree in 1947, Mr. Wilbur worked for many years as an English professor, including a two-decade stint at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. In 1961, he was named chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, a position he held for more than 30 years.
His wife of 64 years, the former Charlotte Ward, died in 2007. Survivors include four children, Ellen Wilbur of Cambridge, Mass., Chris Wilbur of Arlington, Mass., Nathan Wilbur of Newburyport, Mass., and Aaron Wilbur of Wakefield, Mass.; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
His books were, in the eyes of some critics, too orderly — well balanced in each line, showing the hand of a true literary craftsman, yet displaying little in the way of heart and emotion. Mr. Wilbur, literary critic Randall Jarrell wrote in an oft-cited review of his second collection, “Ceremony and Other Poems” (1950), “never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.”
In part, the criticism seemed a result of Mr. Wilbur’s writing in an explosive literary era, with one set of poets becoming increasingly political during the antiwar movement of the 1960s, and another set embracing obscurity in the experimental movement known as postmodernism.
Mr. Wilbur’s works earned near-unanimous praise in recent years, when he published collections such as “Mayflies” (2000) and “Anterooms” (2010), both of which featured new poems alongside translations.
By then, he had six decades’ experience in what he described as a slow and even arduous act, a process of thinking on the page in which a poem sometimes took years to coalesce.
“I think inside my lines,” he wrote in one 1966 essay describing his craft, “and the thought must get where it can amongst the moods and sounds and gravitating particulars which are appearing there.”
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