NEW YORK — W.S. Merwin, a prolific and versatile poetry master who evolved through a wide range of styles as he celebrated nature, condemned war and industrialism and reached for the elusive past, died Friday. He was 91.
A Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate, Merwin completed more than 20 books, from early works inspired by legends to fiery protests against environmental destruction and the conflict in Vietnam to meditations on
age and time.
Like his hero, Henry David Thoreau, he was inspired equally by reverence for the planet and anger
He died in his sleep at his home on the Hawaiian island of Maui, according to publisher Copper Canyon Press and the Merwin Conservancy, which the poet founded.
Merwin received most every honor a poet could ask for — more, it turned out, than he desired.
Citing the Vietnam War, he declined a Pulitzer in 1971 for “The Carrier of Ladders,” saying he was “too conscious of being an American to accept public congratulation with good grace, or to welcome it except as an occasion for expressing openly a shame which many
Among other awards he accepted: a National Book Award for “Migration” in 2005, a Pulitzer in 2009 for “The Shadow of Sirius,” and such lifetime achievement honors as the Tanning Prize, the Bollingen Prize and a gold medal from the arts academy. He was chosen the country’s poet laureate in 2010 and served a single one-year term.
The changes in his work were no more dramatic than the changes in his life, which spanned continents and religious faiths. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he was raised in the urban East during the Great Depression, spent years as a young man in France, Mexico, Spain and England and lived his final decades as a Buddhist in a solar-powered house he designed on an old pineapple plantation on Maui.
William Stanley Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. He soon moved to Union City, New Jersey, living for years on a street now called “W.S. Merwin Way,” then to
He would try to memorize scripture he heard his father recite and fairy tales his mother toll him. By age 13, he was already composing hymns.
He received a scholarship from Princeton University, becoming the first family member to attend college, and began meeting some of the great poets of the present and future. Galway Kinnell was a classmate at Princeton, and John Berryman a teacher.
After graduating, he lived in Spain and tutored the son of Robert Graves. In London, he became close with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and was torn by the collapse of their marriage. Merwin’s then-wife, Dido Merwin, would allege that Plath had a crush on him.
In Washington, D.C., when he was 18, Merwin had a memorable encounter with Ezra Pound, whom he visited at a psychiatric hospital. Pound urged Merwin to write 75 lines a day (advice he did not follow), warned him he didn’t have enough experience to write great poetry and advised him to learn another language as a way of better mastering English. Merwin would translate more than 20 books by other poets, from languages ranging from Sanskrit to Swedish.
Merwin’s promise was obvious. His first collection, “A Mask for Janus,” was selected by W.H. Auden for the coveted Yale Series of Younger Poets competition and was published in 1952. Throughout the 1950s, he wrote poems and plays, including a verse production of “Rumpelstiltskin.”
In the ’60s, Vietnam and urbanization darkened his vision. “I/can hear the blood crawling over the plains,” he wrote in “The Child.”
Merwin examined his own mind in “Plane” and found it “infinitely divided and hopeless/like a stockyard seen from above.” In the 1970s, he settled permanently in Hawaii and studied under the Zen Buddhist master Robert Aitken. Divorced years earlier from Dorothy Jeanne Ferry and from Dido Milroy, he married his third wife, Paula Schwartz, in a Buddhist ceremony in 1983. Paula died in 2017.
Merwin’s work became sparer, rooted in the Hawaiian landscape and his personal past A poem from 2010, “By the Front Door,” is a three-line tribute to simple wonder: “Rain through the morning/and in the long pool an old toad singing/happiness old as water.” His poem “Thanks” is another ode to the natural world:
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you