W.S. Merwin (1927-2019)

W.S. Merwin (1927-2019)

We are very saddened by the news of W.S. Merwin's death at his home on the Hawaiian island of Maui. He was 91, and died in his sleep earlier today.

W.S. Merwin was arguably the most influential American poet of the last half-century – an artist who transfigured and reinvigorated the vision of poetry for our time. An essential voice in modern American literature, he was United States Poet Laureate in 2010-11.

Merwin’s poetry moved beyond the traditional verse of his early years to revolutionary open forms that engage a vast array of influences and possibilities, and famously eschewing punctuation. 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 later poetry was perhaps his most personal, arising from his deeply held beliefs. Merwin was 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, In his later years he lived on the Pacific island of Maui, tending to his writing and to his garden of rare and endangered palm trees. The poems written there, including those in his last three collections, The Shadow of Sirius (2008/2009), The Moon Before Morning (2014) and Garden Time (2016), are densely imagistic, dream-like, and full of praise for the natural world.

He received most of the principal prizes in American poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the Bollingen Prize and the Tanning Prize and a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. Bloodaxe published his Selected Poems in 2007, prior to which his poetry had been unavailable in Britain for over 35 years. As well as being an internationally renowned poet, Merwin was the author of many classic translations, including editions of Neruda, Dante, The Song of Roland, The Poem of the Cid, and (from Bloodaxe) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His last three Bloodaxe collections were all Poetry Book Society Recommendations.

Born in New York City in 1927, the son of a Presbyterian minister, he grew up in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. He entered Princeton at the age of 16 on a scholarship, leaving for a year towards the end of the war to serve in the Navy before declaring himself a conscientious objector, which earned him incarceration in the psychiatric ward of a naval hospital.

Returning to Princeton, he studied with John Berryman and R.P. Blackmur along with his roommate Galway Kinnell and best friend James Merrill, and also began visiting Ezra Pound at St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington where Pound been confined at the end of the war, their friendship offering another strand of literary apprenticeship.

From 1949 to 1952 he worked as a tutor in France, Majorca and Portugal, and for several years afterwards he made the greater part of his living from translating from French, Spanish, Latin and Portuguese. He moved to Spain with his first wife Dorothy Jeanne Ferry, meeting Dido Milroy, later to become his second wife, while staying with Robert Graves on Majorca where he tutored Graves’s son. His first collection, A Mask for Janus, was selected by W.H. Auden for publication in the Yale Younger Poets series in 1952. In London his friends included Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. He moved to New York City in 1968, leaving Dido in France, and achieved wider public recognition then for the poetry he wrote against the Vietnam War. 

In the late 1970s he moved to Hawaii to study Buddhism, and later married his third wife Paula Schwartz in 1983. She was to become his amanuensis in his late 80s when he lost his sight, dictating the poems of his final collection Garden Time for her to write down, also assisting him in co-founding the Merwin Conservancy on Maui. Paula Merwin died from cancer in 2017.

William Stanley Merwin, born 30 September 1927, New York City, died 15 March 2019, Maui, Hawaii.

The Merwin Conservancy has collated personal and public tributes to him on this webpage.

A tribute in The Guardian can be read here.

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
from Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2007)

W.S. Merwin

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:


[15 March 2019]

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