W.S. Merwin is arguably the most influential American poet of the last half-century – an artist who has transfigured and reinvigorated the vision of poetry for our time. While he has long been viewed in the States as an essential voice in modern American literature, his poetry has been unavailable in Britain for over 35 years.
This new selection covers over five decades of his poetry, from The Dancing Bears (1954) to Present Company (2005). Most of the book is drawn from his major American retrospective, Migration, winner of the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry. It was followed in 2009 by The Shadow of Sirius, which won him a second Pulitzer Prize, and then by The Moon Before Morning (2014) and Garden Time (2016).
Merwin’s poetry has moved beyond the traditional verse of his early years to revolutionary open forms that engage a vast array of influences and possibilities. As Adrienne Rich wrote of his work: ‘I would be shamelessly jealous of this poetry, if I didn’t take so much from it into my own life.’
His recent poetry is perhaps his most personal, arising from his deeply held beliefs. Merwin is not only profoundly anti-imperialist, pacifist and environmentalist, but also possessed by an intimate feeling for landscape and language and the ways in which land and language interflow. His latest poems are densely imagistic, dream-like, and full of praise for the natural world.
'The work of more than five decades, gathered from 15 volumes, is here compressed into a selection that is more luminous than voluminous. Bulk is not Merwin's style. A fastidious, elegant writer, he is a calligrapher of consciousness, a fine penman aware that he is writing not on parchment but in water… Merwin is the unmistakable heir of the Emerson and Whitman who so ecstatically hymned flux. Like them he wonders constantly at how "all that I did not know went on beginning around me"; and like them he possesses a rare gift for pristine sensation. Yet between him and them there is a difference, evident from the minor key of his psalms, written as they mostly are in what can only be called the "passing tense". That difference is the measure of the history of the American century and of the present American world. As much American Noah as American Adam, post-modern Merwin is aware of launching a porous ark of language. Behind even his most serene raptures lies always the quiet imagination of apocalypse: "I hope I make sense to / you in the shimmer / of our days while the world we / cling to in common is // burning." To which one can only gratefully answer: yes, indeed, this volume does make very good sense.' - M. Wynn Thomas, Guardian
‘The intentions of Merwin’s poetry are as broad as the biosphere yet as intimate as a whisper. He conveys in the sweet simplicity of grounded language a sense of the self where it belongs, floating between heaven, earth, and the underground’ – Peter Davison, Atlantic Monthly
‘He has attained – more and more with every collection – a wonderfully streamlined diction that unerringly separates and recombines like quicksilver scattered upon a shifting plane, but remains as faithful to the warms and cools of the human heart as that same mercury in the pan-pipe of a thermometer’ – James Merrill
W.S. Merwin talks about writing poetry and about meeting Ezra Pound when he was 18 and still at college and Pound was in the psychiatric ward at St Elizabeth's Hospital. He then reads 'Late Spring', a poem included in his Bloodaxe Selected Poems. This film is from the Academy of American Poets DVD The Poet's View: Intimate Profiles of Five Major American Poets, which features Kay Ryan, John Ashbery, Louise Glück, Anthony Hecht and W.S. Merwin: