"If you had to put all your money on one living poet whose work will be read in a hundred years, Richard Wilbur would be a good bet." These were the words of Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry Magazine, in announcing Wilbur as this year's winner of the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Lilly, the great-great-granddaughter of Eli Lilly and heir to his pharmaceutical fortune, established the prize in 1986 to honor living American poets "whose lifetime accomplishments warrant exceptional recognition." (In 2002 Lilly made a $100 million gift to Poetry Magazine, which had rejected several of her own poems in the '70s. It is the largest donation ever to an institution devoted to poetry.) Previous Lilly Prize winners include Philip Levine, Hayden Carruth, W. S. Merwin, Maxine Kumin and, last year, C. K. Williams.
The 85-year-old Wilbur, who lives in Cummington, Mass., is a World War II veteran, the second poet laureate of the U.S. (following Robert Penn Warren) and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. "In a time when, in pursuit of a greater freedom of expression, many modern poets have dispensed with traditional verse forms and techniques," says the poet Sara Henderson Hay in her introduction to this Wilbur reading (1:25:46, MP3) at the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh, "Mr. Richard Wilbur demonstrates the fact that conventionality in form is not synonymous with conventionality of content." To my mind, the highlight of the recording comes in the 38th minute with Wilbur's reading of "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," a beautiful poem that takes place, he tells the audience, as "you're waking up and looking out your window and there's the first laundry of the day and what has wakened you is the squeak of the pulleys of the laundry lines."
-- Ira Boudway