Richard Wilbur 1921–2017

Richard Wilbur (March 1, 1921–October 14, 2017), eminent poet and former professor of English, passed away on Saturday, October 14, at the age of 96. Wilbur was a member of Wesleyan University’s faculty from 1957–1977. During his two decades at Wesleyan, he received the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for Things of This World (1956), was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and instrumental in the founding of the renowned Wesleyan University Press poetry series.

In 1958, Wilbur proposed the idea of a poetry list to then director Willard Lockwood. He noted that while some fifty university presses were turning out poetry criticism, there seemed to be little opportunity for poets to publish original work. In 1959, four auspicious volumes—by James Wright, Barbara Howe, Hyam Plutzik, and Louis Simpson—marked a new direction in American poetry. The next decade saw work of such poets as John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Marge Piercy, Donald Justice, Philip Levine, Charles Wright, James Tate, and Ellen Bryan Voigt on the Wesleyan list. The original guidelines for our poetry program stated, “There re no restrictions on form or style. The single criterion of acceptance is excellence.”

Over his long and distinguished career as a poet and translator, he was appointed as national poet laureate, received two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Medal of the Arts, two Guggenheim Fellowships, the T.S. Eliot Award, and the Frost Medal, among others. His work as a poet and teacher has touched many.

Read obituaries for Wilbur at New York TimesThe GuardianThe Washington Post, and NPR.

Read his poem, “For the Student Strikers,” here.
This poem was written by Wilbur in 1970, for publication in Wesleyan’s school newspaper.