March 1, 1921
Richard Purdy Wilbur is an American poet and literary translator. He was appointed the second Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1987, and twice received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, in 1957 and again in 1989.
Wilbur was born in New York City and grew up in North Caldwell, New Jersey. He graduated from Montclair High School in 1938, having worked on the school newspaper as a student there. He graduated from Amherst College in 1942 and then served in the United States Army from 1943 to 1945 during World War II. After the Army and graduate school at Harvard University, Wilbur taught at Wesleyan University for two decades and at Smith College for another decade. At Wesleyan, he was instrumental in founding the award-winning poetry series of the University Press. He received two Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry and, as of 2011, teaches at Amherst College. He is also on the editorial board of the literary magazine The Common, based at Amherst College. He married Charlotte Hayes Ward in 1942 after his graduation from Amherst; she was a student at nearby Smith College.
When only 8 years old, Wilbur published his first poem in John Martin's Magazine. His first book, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, appeared in 1947. Since then he has published several volumes of poetry, including New and Collected Poems (Faber, 1989). Wilbur is also a translator, specializing in the 17th century French comedies of Molière and the dramas of Jean Racine. His translation of Tartuffe has become the standard English version of the play, and has been presented on television twice (a 1978 production is available on DVD.)
Continuing the tradition of Robert Frost and W. H. Auden, Wilbur's poetry finds illumination in everyday experiences. Less well-known is Wilbur's foray into lyric writing. He provided lyrics to several songs in Leonard Bernstein's 1956 musical, Candide, including the famous "Glitter and Be Gay" and "Make Our Garden Grow." He has also produced several unpublished works such as "The Wing" and "To Beatrice".
His honors include the 1983 Drama Desk Special Award for his translation of The Misanthrope, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award, both in 1957, the Edna St Vincent Millay award, the Bollingen Prize, and the Chevalier, Ordre National des Palmes Académiques. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1959. In 1987 Wilbur became the second poet, after Robert Penn Warren, to be named U.S. Poet Laureate after the position's title was changed from Poetry Consultant. In 1989 he won a second Pulitzer, this one for his New and Collected Poems. On October 14, 1994, he received the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton. In 2006, Wilbur won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. In 2010 he won the National Translation Award for the translation of The Theatre of Illusion by Pierre Corneille.