In an appraisal of Richard Wilbur published last year, critic Adam Kirsch compared the poet to his contemporary, Randall Jarrell. Jarrell, who served stateside during World War II, nonetheless wrote "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," among the most tersely grim verses to emerge from the war: "When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose." Wilbur, by contrast, Kirsch noted in The New Yorker, was a front-line infantryman in Europe who in one instance recalled his war experience by reflecting on the tranquility of K.P. in "Potato": "All of the cold dark kitchens, and war-frozen gray / evening at window; I remember so many / Peeling potatoes quietly into chipt pails."
Indeed, if Wilbur lives a career paradox as both one of America's most venerated poets and among its most underestimated, one reason might be his temperament. The poet, born in 1921, has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and was the U.S. poet laureate in the 1980s. Yet praise for his indisputably well-crafted work is often dampened by charges of "formalism and apolitical timidity," according to the University of Illinois' "Modern American Poetry" Web site. "Among minor poets he is allowed to be the most major, but among major poets he is not even the most minor." Jarrell himself wrote that Wilbur "never goes too far, but he never goes far enough."
Following last year's publication of his Collected Poems 1943-2004 (Harcourt), Wilbur's legacy is yet incomplete. Moreover, Wilbur himself continues to write, and to read his work out loud, as he will Wed., Oct. 5, kicking off the season for the International Poetry Forum.
For Wilbur's many admirers, it's an auspicious event. "Richard Wilbur is arguably the best poet writing in American today," says Michael Simms, who runs Pittsburgh-based poetry specialist Autumn House Press. "He is above the fads and styles that tend to dominate the yada-yada-yada of contemporary poetry."
Simms recalls taking a workshop with Wilbur more than 30 years ago, as an English major at Southern Methodist University. "It was instrumental in my becoming a poet."
Indeed, Wilbur's temperament (Kirsch considers him a Transcendentalist) is also part of his enduring appeal. While the verse of mid-century contemporaries explored madness, alcoholism and angst, Wilbur's best-known poems include "Love Calls Us to the Splendor of the World."
The headline on Kirsch's New Yorker piece was "Get Happy." "That's to [Wilbur's] credit, in my view," says Simms. "Wilbur writes about beauty and what it means to be alive in the world and paying attention."