William Meredith 1919-
(Full name William Morris Meredith) American poet, critic, dramatist, and editor.
Respected for his mastery of poetic forms, including the villanelle, sestina, ballad, and sonnet, Meredith writes controlled, well-crafted poems that incorporate his observations on such topics as nature, death, love, art, daily life, and the chaotic aspects of modern existence. His unobtrusive rhyme schemes and metrical patterns evoke a sense of serenity, gentle humor, and quiet contemplation.
Meredith was born on January 9, 1919, in New York City and raised in Darien, Connecticut. He attended Princeton University, receiving his degree in 1940; after graduation, he became a reporter for the New York Times. Encouraged by the poets Allen Tate and Muriel Rukeyser, Meredith began to write poetry. He served as Navy pilot during World War II, stationed first in the Aleutians and then in the Hawaiian Islands. The verse he wrote during these years was published in his first collection, Love Letter from an Impossible Land, in 1944. After the war, he became an instructor at Princeton from 1946 to 1950. He accepted a position as associate professor of English at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, but in 1952 he was called back to duty as a pilot in the Korean War. In his two years of service, he was awarded two Air Medals. Since 1955 he has held a teaching position at Connecticut College, becoming a full professor in 1964. From 1964 through 1989 he was chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, currently serving the academy as a chancellor emeritus. In 1988 Meredith received a Pulitzer Prize for his collection, Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems. He received the 1980 International Vaptsarov Prize in Poetry, and in 1989 was awarded a senior fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts.
Meredith's first collection, Love Letter from an Impossible Land, was chosen by Archibald MacLeish to be published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets. In many of his early poems, Meredith employs imagery and themes drawn from his experiences as a naval aviator during World War II and the Korean conflict. While also reflecting this background, his next three volumes, Ships and Other Figures, The Open Sea and Other Poems, and The Wreck of the Thresher and Other Poems, evince his thematic interest in nature, art, and family life. In Earth Walk: New and Selected Poems, Hazard, the Painter, and The Cheer, Meredith adopted a more colloquial and conversational tone in his observations on nature and personal experience. His 1987 collection, Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems, contains pieces from Meredith's seven previous volumes of poetry along with eleven new poems, providing an overview of the poet's career. Among the new poems in the volume, several recall events Meredith witnessed in his travels. The title poem of this collection concerns the poet's heart surgery and convalescence, and “Talking Back (To W. H. Auden)” and “The American Living-Room: A Tract” reflect his continuing attention to art and ordinary life.
Meredith is often classified with contemporary poets such as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Theodore Roethke. He is praised for his use of formality and restraint, and some reviewers assert that his poems are academic and meditative. His use of forms such as the villanelle, sestina, and the sonnet provoke debate amongst commentators as to the relevance and power of his work. His poems utilizing imagery from his experience as a Navy pilot in World War II are considered his most resonant and honest verse. Yet critics acknowledge that Meredith's poetry has matured throughout the years, and his contribution to twentieth-century American poetry has been influential and significant.
Love Letter from an Impossible Land 1944
Ships and Other Figures 1948
The Open Sea and Other Poems 1958
The Wreck of the Thresher and Other Poems 1964
Winter Verse 1964
Earth Walk: New and Selected Poems 1970
Harzard, The Painter 1975
The Cheer 1980
Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems 1987
Effort at Speech 1997
Reasons for Poetry, and The Reason for Criticism (lectures) 1982
Poems Are Hard to Read (criticism) 1991
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SOURCE: “The Muted Lyrics of William Meredith,” in The Princeton University Library Chronicle, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Autumn, 1963, pp. 73-85.
[In the following essay, Ludwig offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Meredith's poetry.]
In his third and most recent volume of verse, William Meredith devotes a deft villanelle called “Trees in a Grove” to “five things put in mind by sycamores.” First, he thinks of “a sad bald-headed man / In a pepper-and-salt tweed suit who knew the trees.” In the second verse, he recalls
I was seven the summer that I first got hold Of the white pied spicy word of sycamore, The age when children will incant new names. That night I dreamt I was a flying man And could escape the backyard of our suburb By saying sycamore, rise through the trees.
It may be pushing the dream too far to say that Meredith has turned it into reality, but to anyone reading his collected poems, particularly in chronological order, the thought may well occur. For it is clear that the war years spent as a Navy pilot left him with images and memories that have helped him escape his suburb and have permeated his poetry for almost two decades: the open sea, the authority of clouds, starlight, the sky as only a pilot can know it, the Aleutians, the carrier, the battlewagon, and the ubiquitous trees.
Meredith called his first collection of verse...
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SOURCE: “William Meredith: ‘All of a Piece and Clever and at Some Level, True’,” in Alone with America: the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950, Thames and London, 1965, pp. 318-26.
[In the following essay, Howard praises the restraint and tone of Meredith's early verse.]
“Art by its very nature asserts at least two kinds of good—order and delight.” So William Meredith, in his introduction to a selection from Shelley, a poet who interests this decorous American for his patience with established verse forms, being “otherwise impatient of everything established.” Meredith's declension of order and delight as versions of the good, a paring susceptible of a whole range of inflections, from identity to opposition, is the generating trope of his own poetry, its idiopathy or primary affection.
In his four books of poems, even in his translations of Apollinaire,1 a curious restraint, a self-congratulatory withholding that is partly evasive and sly, partly loving and solicitous, testify, like so many essays in emphasis, to the war between delight and order, and yet to the necessity of divising them in each other: if order is not found in delight, the world falls apart; if delight is not taken in order, the self withers. Success, for Meredith, is provisional—he does not ask more.
In 1944, Archibald MacLeish, inheriting the...
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SOURCE: “A Poet on the Painter,” in New York Times Book Review, September 21, 1975, p. 39.
[In the following essay, Brinnin provides a positive assessment of Hazard, The Painter.]
Unlike most collections of poems, this one has a named hero and an overt subject. The hero is an aging liberal, a painter called Hazard; the subject is Hazard's attempt somehow to maintain himself as one who “participates in the divinity of the world.” But we meet him at a bad time, when his hopes are dashed, his guard down. While the newly victorious Nixon gang is putting it together and the kid next door with her Rolling Stones on stereo is getting it together, Hazard is trying simply to keep it together. Work at his easel should help, but even that has hit a bad patch—for two years now “he has been painting, in a child's palette /—not the plotted landscape that holds dim / below him, but the human figure dangling safe, / guyed to something silky, hanging there, / full of half-remembered instruction / but falling, and safe.” This surrogate man in midair neither splashes down into legend like Icarus nor lands on his feet behind enemy lines. His mortal trouble is that he's “safe”—in two-car creature comforts, an enduring marriage and the restraints of his own good nature.
“The political references in the poem,” says the author in a foreword, “date it like the annual...
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SOURCE: “The Language of the Tribe: William Meredith's Poetry,” in Southwest Review, Vol. 67, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 1-17.
[In the following essay, Herrington categorizes Meredith's verse as meditative poetry.]
To know what is possible, and to do that.
From his first book, Love Letters from an Impossible Land—Archibald MacLeish's 1944 choice for the Yale Younger Poets Series—to The Cheer (1980), the poetry of William Meredith has been characterized by a recognizable presence. The voice you hear is that of a poet in doubt neither about the human place in the universe nor about his privilege as a poet to strengthen that position by careful attention. Essentially classical in its celebration of the limits of human knowledge, the consolation of friendship and love, the bafflement of death, the poetry is primarily meditative in method. At his best, Meredith considers an object, a scene, or a situation and moves, in the words of his friend and mentor Robert Frost, from “delight to wisdom.”
Certainly the poetry of William Meredith has those qualities of directness of language and sense of the speaker's identity which Louis Martz in his book The Poetry of Meditation says are the marks of the meditative poem. Martz's study of seventeenth-century religious poetry as a poetry rooted in the art of meditation...
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SOURCE: An interview with William Meredith, in Poems are Hard to Read, The University of Michigan Press, 1991, pp. 215-38.
[In the following interview, originally published in Paris Review in 1985, Meredith discusses his creative process, his opinions of other contemporary poets, and influences on his work.]
[Hirsch]: You've said that you average about six poems per year. Why so few?
[Meredith]: Why so many? Ask any reviewer. I remember a particularly wicked review of Edna St. Vincent Millay whose new poems weren't as good as they should have been: “This Millay seems to have gone out of her way to write another book of poems.” You're always afraid of that. That could be said, I believe, of certain people's poems. So I wait until the poems seem to be addressed not to “Occupant” but to “William Meredith.” And it doesn't happen a lot. I think if I had a great deal more time it would happen more often because I would get immediately to the typewriter. But it might happen eight times a year instead of six—not much more than that. I'll say this because it may be interesting or important: I think it is because poetry and experience should have an exact ratio. Astonishing experience doesn't happen very often. Daily experience is astonishing on a level at which you can write a poem, but astonishing experience would be the experience which is not astonishment of...
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SOURCE: “In Charge of Morale in a Morbid Time,” in Compulsory Figures: Essays on Recent American Poets, Louisiana State University Press, 1992, pp. 171-89.
[In the following essay, Taylor surveys the defining qualities of Meredith's poetry.]
The Wreck of the Thresher, published in 1964, was the book that most firmly established the nature and strength of William Meredith's poetry. It seems now to have been the culmination of a development in certain directions from which the poet has since swerved, though not unrewardingly. The poems in it reveal unobtrusive mastery of craft traditionally conceived; there are not many sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, or other insistent evidences that the poet is comfortable in formal cages; but beneath the steady, honest lines, with their sometimes unpredictable rhyme schemes, there is a sense of assurance that for Meredith, form is a method, not a barrier. In its range of subject, tone, and mode, the book consistently offers the voice of a civilized man, a man with good but not exclusive manners, engaged in encounters with matters of inexhaustible interest.
This style did not come quickly to Meredith—not that his debut was inauspicious: his first book, Love Letter from an Impossible Land, was chosen by Archibald MacLeish in his first year as editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Here were a number of accomplished poems,...
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SOURCE: A foreword to Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems by William Meredith, Triquarterly Books, 1997, pp. xiii-xvi.
[In the following essay, Collier determines the major influences on Meredith's work.]
What separates William Meredith from other poets of his generation, such as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Howard Nemerov, and James Merrill, is his belief that “poetry and experience should have an exact ratio.” For him this ratio speaks to the seriousness of the lyric. In a Spring 1985 Paris Review interview he says, “I wait until the poems seem addressed not to ‘Occupant’ but to ‘William Meredith.’ And it doesn't happen a lot.” John Crowe Ransom and Philip Larkin are the poets Meredith invokes in praise of his parsimonious muse. Nevertheless, Effort at Speech is strong evidence that in a lifetime of writing Meredith had the luck of generous visits from his muse. His first book, Love Letter from an Impossible Land (1944), was chosen by Archibald MacLeish for the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize. In his foreword MacLeish points to an aspect of Meredith's poems that rings true throughout his oeuvre and stands as much for the man as for the work: “[The poems] give the sense of having seen, of having been present, which a man's face sometimes gives, returning. They have the quality of reticence and yet of communication, almost unwilling communication.”...
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