Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet Richard Wilbur Dies At 96

Oct 16, 2017
Originally published on October 16, 2017 6:17 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The poet Richard Wilbur died over the weekend. He was 96. Wilbur has been both praised and criticized for his classical approach to poetry, but he earned just about every honor a poet could receive, including being named the second United States poet laureate. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this remembrance.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Richard Wilbur won his first Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1957 for his collection "Things Of This World." The title comes from one of his more famous poems "Love Calls Us To The Things Of This World." It's a riff on cities and religion, on beauty and laundry.

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RICHARD WILBUR: (Reading) 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.

LIMBONG: Here's Wilbur on NPR in 1988.

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WILBUR: I do think it's almost always true that a poem begins when two things, perhaps an inner thing and an outer thing which hadn't been together before, suddenly converge and feel as if they wanted to make something new.

LIMBONG: Richard Wilbur was born in New York City in 1921. When he was an infantryman in World War II, he wrote poems for his wife and friends to calm his nerves. When he got back, a buddy sent his poems to a publishing house that asked if he had more for a book. Wilbur took the job of poet seriously, but he had a sense of humor. He wrote children's books and a poem about a firetruck.

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WILBUR: Right down the shocked street with a siren blast that sends all else skittering to the curb, redness, brass, ladders and hats hurl past, blurring to sheer verb.

LIMBONG: Richard Wilbur was not only a poet. He also translated classic plays from French and even wrote lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's opera "Candide."

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "CANDIDE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Cunegonde, singing) And yet of course I rather like to revel - ha, ha.

LIMBONG: Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "CANDIDE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Cunegonde, singing) I have no strong objection to champagne - ha, ha. My wardrobe is expensive as the devil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.