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Richard Wilbur obituary

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US poet laureate, translator and Pulitzer prizewinner with the ability to touch unsettling truths beneath the surface in his work

In 1957, when he won the Pulitzer prize for his third book of poetry, Things of This World, Richard Wilbur, who has died aged 96, was clearly one of the leading young poets in the US. He combined seemingly casual elegance with painstaking craft, and his ability to touch unsettling truths beneath the surface made him heir apparent to Robert Frost. Tall, handsome and as graceful as his poetry, Wilbur might have been cast as a poet by Hollywood. That his reputation never matched that of his mentor Frost was not due to any failing in his work, but to the times in which he lived.

Wilbur’s ascent coincided with a sea change in the landscape of American poetry, a reaction to the academic strictness of “new criticism” in the 1950s, and to the highly structured poetry which it prescribed. The poet Donald Hall said, “the typical ghastly poem of the 50s was a Wilbur poem not written by Wilbur”. In this context, Wilbur’s extraordinary ability became somehow a liability. Even while praising a Wilbur poem as “the most nearly perfect any American has written,” Randall Jarrell complained that his poems “compose themselves into a little too regular a beauty”.

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