Richard Wilbur

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Richard Purdy Wilbur (born 1 March 1921) 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.


Nijinsky hadn't the words to make the laws
For learning to loiter in air; he merely said,
"I merely leap and pause."
  • Hebetude. It is a graph of a theme that flings
    The dancer kneeling on nothing into the wings
    And Nijinsky hadn't the words to make the laws
    For learning to loiter in air; he merely said,
    "I merely leap and pause."
    • "Grace" in The Poems of Richard Wilbur (1963)
  • Try to remember this: what you project
    Is what you will perceive; what you perceive
    With any passion, be it love or terror,
    May take on whims and powers of its own.

    Therefore a numb and grudging circumspection
    Will serve you best — unless you overdo it,
    Watching your step too narrowly, refusing
    To specify a world, shrinking your purview
    To a tight vision of your inching shoes,
    Which may, as soon as you come to think, be crossing
    An unseen gorge upon a rotten trestle.
    • "Walking to Sleep" (1969)
  • What you hope for
    Is that at some point of the pointless journey,
    Indoors or out, and when you least expect it,
    Right in the middle of your stride, like that,
    So neatly that you never feel a thing,
    The kind assassin Sleep will draw a bead
    And blow your brains out.
    • "Walking to Sleep" (1969)
  • What is the opposite of two? A lonely me, a lonely you.
    • "Opposites" (1973)
  • In each art the difficulty of the form is a substitution for the difficulty of direct apprehension and expression of the object. The first difficulty may be more or less overcome, but the second is insuperable; thus every poem begins, or ought to, by a disorderly retreat to defensible positions. Or, rather, by a perception of the hopelessness of direct combat, and a resort to the warfare of spells, effigies, and prophecies. The relation between the artist and reality is an oblique one, and indeed there is no good art which is not consciously oblique. If you respect the reality of the world, you know that you can approach that reality only by indirect means.
    • As quoted by John Gery in Ways of Nothingness: Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry (1996)
  • A thrush, because I'd been wrong,
    Burst rightly into song
    In a world not vague, not lonely,
    Not governed by me only.
    • "Having Misidentified a Wild-Flower"
  • Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
    They are not only yours
    ; the beautiful changes
    In such kind ways,
    Wishing ever to sunder
    Things and things' selves for a second finding, to lose
    For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.
    • "The Beautiful Changes"

National Book Award Acceptance Speech (1957)[edit]

Full text online
  • When a poet is being a poet — that is, when he is writing or thinking about writing — he cannot be concerned with anything but the making of a poem. If the poem is to turn out well, the poet cannot have thought of whether it will be saleable, or of what its effect on the world should be; he cannot think of whether it will bring him honor, or advance a cause, or comfort someone in sorrow. All such considerations, whether silly or generous, would be merely intrusive; for, psychologically speaking, the end of writing is the poem itself.
  • It is true that the poet does not directly address his neighbors; but he does address a great congress of persons who dwell at the back of his mind, a congress of all those who have taught him and whom he has admired; that constitute his ideal audience and his better self. To this congress the poet speaks not of peculiar and personal things, but of what in himself is most common, most anonymous, most fundamental, most true of all men. And he speaks not in private grunts and mutterings but in the public language of the dictionary, of literary tradition, and of the street. Writing poetry is talking to oneself; yet it is a mode of talking to oneself in which the self disappears; and the products something that, though it may not be for everybody, is about everybody.
  • Writing poetry, then, is an unsocial way of manufacturing a thoroughly social product. Because he must shield his poetry in its creation, the poet, more than other writers, will write without recognition. And because his product is not in great demand, he is likely to look on honors and distinctions with the feigned indifference of the wallflower. Yet of course he is pleased when recognition comes; for what better proof is there that for some people poetry is still a useful and necessary thing — like a shoe.

The Beacon[edit]

  • Founded on rock and facing the night-fouled sea
    A beacon blinks at its own brilliance,
    Over and over with cutlass gaze
    Solving the Gordian waters ...
  • The beacon-blaze unsheathing turns
    The face of darkness pale
    And now with one grand chop gives clearance to
    Our human visions . . .

Love Calls Us To The Things Of This World[edit]

  • 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.
  • Now they are rising together in calm swells
    Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
    With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing...
  • The soul shrinks
    From all that it is about to remember,
    From the punctual rape of every blessed day
    And cries,
    "Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
    Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
    And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."
  • The soul descends once more in bitter love
    To accept the waking body

A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness[edit]

  • The tall camels of the spirit
    Steer for their deserts, passing the last groves loud
    With the sawmill shrill of the locust, to the whole honey of the
    Sun. They are slow, proud,
    And move with a stilted stride
    To the land of sheer horizon...
  • O connoisseurs of thirst,
    Beasts of my soul who long to learn to drink
    Of pure mirage, those prosperous islands are accurst
    That shimmer on the brink
    Of absence; auras, lustres,
    And all shinings need to be shaped and borne.
  • Wisely watch for the sight
    Of the supernova burgeoning over the barn,
    Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts, the spirit's right
    Oasis, light incarnate.

The Pardon[edit]

  • My dog lay dead five days without a grave
    In the thick of summer, hid in a clump of pine
    And a jungle of grass and honey-suckle vine.

    I who had loved him while he kept alive
    Went only close enough to where he was
    To sniff the heavy honeysuckle-smell
    Twined with another odor heavier still
    And hear the flies' intolerable buzz.
  • Well, I was ten and very much afraid.
    In my kind world the dead were out of range
    And I could not forgive the sad or strange
    In beast or man.
  • Last night I saw the grass
    Slowly divide (it was the same scene
    But now it glowed a fierce and mortal green)
    And saw the dog emerging.
  • I started in to cry and call his name,
    Asking forgiveness of his tongueless head.
    ... I dreamt the past was never past redeeming:
    But whether this was false or honest dreaming
    I beg death's pardon now. And mourn the dead.

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