The three have not only achieved long and distinguished careers as American poets and critics. They've also given American audiences a varied collection of French literature, expanding the understanding of French culture.
Beginning in the 1950s, Wilbur gained renown as the leading translator of classical French theater, including plays by Moliere, Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille.
As poet/critic Dana Gioia noted in an essay on Wilbur's career, the Pulitizer Prize-winning poet began translating Moliere in an effort to improve his craft after an unsuccessful effort to write English verse plays for the Poets' Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Instead of an original Wilbur work, the theater produced Wilbur's translation of Moliere's "The Misanthrope," which gained popularity in theaters across the country, leading to a Moliere revival.
Wilbur also finished the lyrics for Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," a long-troubled Broadway production that Wilbur is credited with saving. While not initially popular, the work's music has gained increasing critical recognition.
Gioia also notes that Wilbur's poetry collections include a significant selection of poetry translations from Italian, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Latin, Hungarian and Anglo-Saxon.
Ashbery, who died about a month before Wilbur at age 90, translated a variety of French poetry and prose, collected in two volumes late in his career. Ashbery received critical acclaim several years ago for a new translation of Rimbaud's "Illuminations," the first in decades. His rendering of Rimbaud's key work revealed new undercurrents of meaning.
Howard, still active at age 88, has also received praise for his translations of French works, his most famous a new edition of Baudelaire's "Fleurs du Mal." His extensive French translations range from the work of 1960s theorists to classic novels. Howard's translation of Stendhal's "The Charterhouse of Parma" stands out as one of my favorite books.
Wilbur's work has given American theater lovers an appreciation of Moliere and other French playwrights as masters comparable with Shakespeare and Marlowe. Ashbery and Howard have shown the depth and power of French writers.
A Wilbur, Ashbery and Howard have shown new American audiences why French literature is essential to our culture.