Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 740
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...
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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, and sometimes intellectually abstruse, moved with The Open Sea and The Wreck of the Thresher toward conversational ease and some relaxation of form. One scholar suggests that Meredith had begun to “locate threats to the rationally controlled in a more ordinary, domestic world, and in himself” and “to entertain the claims of the nonrational.” More colloquial usage and an increasing use of humor make the poems published between 1970 and 1988 more accessible for most readers. This is especially obvious in the sixteen-poem sequence, Hazard, the Painter, a seriously playful take on the American artist (or poet) at middle age in a time of cultural, national, and personal decline. The character bears comparison with John Berryman’s autobiographical character Henry, which may reflect the close friendship between Berryman and Meredith.
Meredith received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1972 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975, and in 1978 he began a two-year stint as the Library of Congress (LC) poet, a post that has since become identified as the national poet laureateship. As LC poet in the pre-glasnost era Meredith promoted the cause of several Bulgarian poets, as well as preparing translations of their work. Known all his life for his great humanity and kind support for such writers as Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Robert Penn Warren, Meredith also has a degree of reservation and urbanity that sets him apart. He made his home on thirty acres along the Thames River in Connecticut; until his death in 1995 the poet James Merrill, a friend since their teenage years and a fellow opera lover, lived just across the river.
Merrill won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977, and Meredith won the same prize in 1988 for Partial Accounts, which combines ninety-three poems from his earlier collections (through The Cheer, 1980) with eleven new poems. This collection includes most of the work from the earlier collection Earth Walk. Never a prolific poet, Meredith has remained a meticulous master of the craft. Partial Accounts includes two villanelles, one newly composed and one from the 1958 volume, and two in the almost equally challenging sestina form, one dating from 1958 and the other from 1988, that involve ingenious alterations of the fixed form.