When I saw that Slate was running something about the great Richard Wilbur, my first reaction was, "Oh shit, Richard Wilbur died!" I was glad to be wrong. Seemingly out of the blue, James Longenbach decided to give an appreciation of my favorite poet. Longenbach considers Wilbur's undeserved reputation as a reactionary (which was news to me), but also gives an alert reading of his work:
Even if Wilbur sometimes championed formalist poetry at the expense of free verse, his poems never congratulate themselves for their achievement. All of his great poems, in fact, are about living in ambiguity, about negotiating what might appear to be mutually exclusive alternatives–heaven and earth, elegance and violence, the thinking mind and the brute fact of the world. Unlike other poets who write in complicated stanzas and rhyme schemes, Wilbur never displays poetic form as an image of moral goodness. "There's nothing essentially good about a meter," he once remarked, and his poems remind us that all linguistic effort, whether we call it formal or free, is an attempt to make meaning of a world in which we are not inevitably at home. This is why Wilbur's poems feel playful when they're most serious. They live in their linguistic action; they don't want to offer the last word.