William Morris Meredith was born on January 9, 1919, in New York City and spent his childhood in Darien, Connecticut. He attended the Lenox School in Massachusetts and then Princeton University, where he received a B.A. and graduated magna cum laude in 1940. Until 1941, he worked as a copy boy, then reporter, for The New York Times. During World War II, Meredith was first a private in the United States Army Air Corps, then a Navy pilot. In 1944, Love Letter from an Impossible Land was published while Meredith was a lieutenant. After the war, he became a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, then an instructor in English and a resident fellow in creative writing at Princeton University. Ships and Other Figures, published by Princeton University in 1948, is largely a product of his time at this university. During the Korean War, he served as a carrier pilot, was promoted to lieutenant commander, and received two Air Medals.
Meredith’s association with Connecticut College began in 1955 and continued, with a few interruptions for visiting professorships, until 1983, when he retired following a severe stroke that required months of rehabilitation. Meredith composed a significant body of creative work. Moreover, he wrote in other genres, was afforded many honors, and taught at a variety of institutions, including the University of Hawaii, Middlebury College, Bread Loaf, and Carnegie-Mellon University. He served as a member of the Connecticut Commission of the Arts and as director of the Humanities Upward Bound Project for Connecticut College. Meredith died near his home in Connecticut on May 30, 2007.
William Morris Meredith is described in a biographical essay by his longtime companion, Richard Herteis, as an “extraordinarily humane” man, a man of great civility and generosity, and a poet and teacher of immense energy. An honors graduate of Princeton University in 1940, Meredith joined the Army Air Corps in 1941 and transferred to the Navy in 1942, where he served as a pilot in the Pacific theater. College friends helped him assemble his first collection of poems, Love Letter from an Impossible Land, which was selected by Archibald MacLeish for the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1943. This volume and his next two collections, Ships and Other Figures and The Open Sea, contain what some consider to be among the best war poems in English.
Meredith reenlisted during the Korean War in 1952 and served until 1954 as a pilot (he recorded thirty-two night landings on aircraft carriers). He was awarded two air medals and reached the rank of lieutenant commander. Between 1955 and 1983, when he suffered a nearly fatal stroke that left him partially paralyzed and with severely limited capacity to speak and write, he devoted himself to teaching and writing. At Connecticut College in New London he ran the Upward Bound program for about ten years and championed the cause of disadvantaged black students. He is described as having had a “legendary” impact as a teacher.
One scholar has defined Meredith’s major theme as “the efforts of the imagination and intellect to order the chaos of the self and the world, to overcome the resistance of life and experience to significance and form.” Strongly influenced by such poets as W. H. Auden, Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur, and Muriel Rukeyser, Meredith remained something of a formalist throughout his career, but he moved increasingly in the direction of a personal idiom and conversational voice that has been depicted as “playful, even chatty sometimes.” In 1964 he published his translations of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Alcools: Poems, 1898-1913 and was named a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In his foreword to the 1970 collection Earth Walk: New and Selected Poems Meredith describes himself as preferring “poems that engage mysteries I still pluck at the hems of, poems that are devious in ways I still like better than plainspokenness.”
Meredith’s earlier style, which has been described as allusive, impersonal,...
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