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W.S. Merwin

Appointed United States Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress in 2010, William Stanley Merwin has a career that has spanned six decades. A poet, translator, gardener and environmental activist, Merwin has become one of the most widely read and honored poets in America.

“Mr. Merwin…gives a quiet weight to every word he touches and to the things those words name. He has received plenty of literary honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award. There is something especially fitting about this new appointment. The humans in Mr. Merwin’s poems take their bearings from the natural world, one that is often embattled….Mr. Merwin is a laureate for our times, and we look forward to his tenure.”
—The New York Times, July 3, 2010

Born September 30, 1927, in New York City, William Stanley Merwin was the son of a Presbyterian minister, for whom he began writing hymns at the age of five. He was raised in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and attended Princeton University on a scholarship. As a young man, Merwin went to Europe and developed a love of languages that led to work as a literary translator. Over the years, his poetic voice has moved from the more formal to a more distinctly American voice. As the Atlantic Monthly says, “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.”

He has lived in Majorca, London, France and Mexico and several places in the United States, as well as Boston and New York. In 1976, Merwin moved to Hawaii to study with Robert Aitken, a Zen Buddhist teacher. He married Paula Dunaway, in 1983, and settled on Maui. For nearly 30 years, they have lived in a home that he designed and helped build, surrounded by acres of land once devastated and depleted from years of erosion, logging and toxic agricultural practices. Merwin has painstakingly restored the land into one of the most comprehensive palm forests in the world. He continues to live, write and garden in Hawaii.

“[His book of collected poems] Migration shows W.S. Merwin to be an artist who has never ceased to challenge himself and his readership.” — Library Journal

In addition to the appointment as U.S. Poet Laureate in 2010, W.S. Merwin has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the Bollingen Prize, the Tanning Prize, the Lilly Prize and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. His Migration: New and Selected Poems won the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry and Present Company, which closely followed it, earned him the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress.

Merwin has also translated both Dante’s Purgatorio and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for which he won the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Gold Medal for Poetry and the Academy of American Poets’ Howard Morton Landon Translation Prize. In 1999, W.S. Merwin was named Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress for a jointly-held position along with poets Rita Dove and Louise Glück. He has been honored as laureate of the Struga Poetry Evenings Festival in Macedonia, receiving the international poetry award, the Golden Wreath Award. He received the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his most recent collection, The Shadow of Sirius, widely praised as one of his finest books and lauded by one reviewer as “the irreducible essence of his art.” The Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement will be awarded to Merwin in November 2010

His first book, A Mask for Janus, was chosen by W.H. Auden in 1952 for the Yale Younger Poets series. His book of poems The Carrier of Ladders was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1970. His other books of poems include The Drunk in the Furnace, The Moving Target, The Lice, Flower & Hand, Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, The Compass Flower, Feathers from the Hill, Opening the Hand, The Rain in the Trees, Travels, The Vixen, The Lost Upland, Unframed Originals, The Folding Cliffs, The River Sound, The Pupil, a translation of Dante’s Purgatorio and his critically-lauded translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His prose includes The Mays of Ventadorn, as part of the National Geographic Directions series, The Ends of the Earth (essays), and a memoir entitled Summer Doorways (Shoemaker & Hoard). Recent reissues of his books include The First Four Books of Poems, Spanish Ballads (Copper Canyon Press), his translations of Jean Follain’s poems Transparence of the World, and Antonio Porchia’s Voices, as well as The Book of Fables (Copper Canyon), a reissue of two previously published books The Miner’s Pale Children and Houses & Travelers. His more recent poetry collections include Present Company (Copper Canyon, 2005), which won the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, Migration: Selected Poems 1951-2001 (Copper Canyon, 2005), which won the National Book Award, The Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon, 2009), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (his second Pulitzer), and The Moon Before Morning (Copper Canyon, 2014). In the last year, he’s published two books; a photo book featuring Merwin’s essays and poems about his palm forest called What is a Garden? (University of South Carolina Press, 2016), and a new book of poems, Garden Time (Copper Canyon, 2016). (The Merwin Conservancy)

This poem made my heart ache. I feel I was like that with my mom sometimes after my dad died. Some regrets just stick with you… (I actually didn’t realize this poem was his friend speaking about himself and Merwin just agreeing. At one point Merwin tried to interject his own thoughts about the last time he saw his father, but his friend rolled right on. I had to hear Merwin read it to figure that out.)



My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father’s hand the last time

he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

oh yes I say

but if you are busy he said
I don’t want you to feel that you
have to
just because I’m here

I say nothing

he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don’t want to keep you

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do



Picture Source:Library of Congress