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W. S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin is a prolific, leading American writer whose poetry, translations, and prose have won praise over seven decades. His first book, A Mask for Janus (1952), was chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Though that first book reflected the formalism of the period, Merwin eventually became known for an impersonal, open style that eschewed punctuation. Writing in the Guardian, Jay Parini described Merwin’s mature style as “his own kind of free verse, [where] he layered image upon bright image, allowing the lines to hang in space, largely without punctuation, without rhymes … with a kind of graceful urgency.” Although Merwin’s writing has undergone stylistic changes through the course of his career, a recurring theme is man’s separation from nature. The poet sees the consequences of that alienation as disastrous, both for the human race and for the rest of the world. Merwin, who is a practicing Buddhist as well as a proponent of deep ecology, has lived since the late 1970s on an old pineapple plantation in Hawaii which he has painstakingly restored to its original rainforest state.

Merwin was born in New York City in 1927 and raised in New Jersey and Scranton, Pennsylvania, the son of a Presbyterian minister. Of his development as a writer, Merwin once said, “I started writing hymns for my father almost as soon as I could write at all, illustrating them… But the first real writers that held me were not poets: Conrad first, and then Tolstoy, and it was not until I had received a scholarship and gone away to the university that I began to read poetry steadily and try incessantly, and with abiding desperation, to write it.” Merwin attended Princeton University and studied with R.P. Blackmur and John Berryman. After graduating in 1948, he continued as a post-graduate student of Romance languages and eventually traveled through much of Europe, translating poetry and working as a tutor, including for the son of poet Robert Graves. Merwin’s early collections—especially A Mask for Janus—reflect the influence of Graves and the medieval poetry Merwin was translating at the time…

In 1976 Merwin moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism. He eventually settled in Maui and began to restore the forest surrounding his former plantation. Both the rigor of practicing Buddhism and the tropical landscape have greatly influenced Merwin’s later style. His next books increasingly show his preoccupation with the natural world. The Compass Flower (1977), Opening the Hand (1983), and The Rain in the Trees (1988) “are concerned not only with what to renounce in the metropolis but also what to preserve in the country,” noted Ed Hirsch in the New York Times. Many of the poems in the last volume “immerse themselves in nature with a fresh sense of numinousness,” said Hirsch, while also mourning the loss of that nature to human greed and destruction. Merwin has continued to produce striking poems using nature as a backdrop. The Vixen (1996), for instance, is an exploration of the rural forest in southwestern France that Merwin called home for many years. Poet-critic J. D. McClatchy remarked in the New Yorker that “the book is suffused with details of country life—solitary walks and garden work, woodsmoke, birdsong, lightfall.”

But Merwin’s later poetry doesn’t merely describe the natural world; it also records and condemns the destruction of nature, from the felling of sacred forests to the extinction of whole species. Migration: New and Selected Poems (2005) exposes Merwin’s evolution as a stylist over half a century but also shows, as Ben Lerner noted in his review of the volume for Jacket, that “Merwin … is an unwaveringly political poet … [he] not only tracks the literal impoverishment of our planet, but he makes it symbolize the impoverishment of our culture’s capacity for symbolization.” Migration was awarded the National Book Award for poetry…

Merwin has won most awards available to American poets, including the Bollingen Prize, two Pulitzer Prizes, the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, a Ford Foundation grant, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the PEN Translation Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. He has also been awarded fellowships from The Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Merwin is a former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and two-time U.S. poet laureate (1999-2000, 2010-2011).

Merwin was once asked what social role a poet plays—if any—in America. He commented: “I think there’s a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there’s still time. I think that’s a social role, don’t you? … We keep expressing our anger and our love, and we hope, hopelessly perhaps, that it will have some effect. But I certainly have moved beyond the despair, or the searing, dumb vision that I felt after writing The Lice; one can’t live only in despair and anger without eventually destroying the thing one is angry in defense of. The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us. And you know, in a way, if you don’t pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness.” (Poetry Foundation, truncated)

This poem is dedicated to all the writers out there and everyone who reverences books! Especially those belonging to someone they loved. I have an inheritance from my dad, too. One is his “Song and Service Book for Ship and Field: Army and Navy” and the other is his bronze covered New Testament, both of which he carried during his time as a medic in WWII. His faith was always an inspiration to me. They were the first things of his I took when he passed away… 

You can’t see it very well in this picture, but the cover of the New Testament is engraved with “May God Bless You.” 



At my elbow on the table
it lies open as it has done
for a good part of these thirty
years ever since my father died
and it passed into my hands
this Webster’s New International
Dictionary of the English
 of 1922
on India paper which I
was always forbidden to touch
for fear I would tear or somehow
damage its delicate pages
heavy in their binding
this color of wet sand
on which thin waves hover
when it was printed he was twenty-six
they had not been married four years
he was a country preacher
in a one-store town and I suppose
a man came to the door one day
peddling this new dictionary
on fine paper like the Bible
at an unrepeatable price
and it seemed it would represent
a distinction just to own it
confirming something about him
that he could not even name
now its cover is worn as though
it had been carried on journeys
across the mountains and deserts
of the earth but it has been here
beside me the whole time
what has frayed it like that
loosening it gnawing at it
all through these years
I know I must have used it
much more than he did but always
with care and indeed affection
turning the pages patiently
in search of meanings


Picture Source: The Merwin Conservancy