William Stanley Merwin was born in New York City on September 30, 1927, and grew up in Union City, New Jersey (where his father was a Presbyterian minister), and in Scranton, Pennsylvania. From his own account, his parents were strict and rather cheerless. His earliest poems, written as a child, were austere hymns for his father. He received his bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University in 1947. In 1947, he married Dorothy Jeanne Ferry, the secretary to a Princeton physicist. While at Princeton, he was befriended by the critic R. P. Blackmur and became very interested in the work of Ezra Pound. Like Pound, he was a student of romance languages and began to value translation as a means of remaking poetry in English. As a student, he even grew a beard in imitation of Pound and eventually went to visit Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital. In 1949, he followed Pound’s example and left the United States to become an expatriate. His sojourn was to last some seven years. From 1949 to 1951, he worked as a tutor in France and Portugal. In 1950, he lived in Mallorca, Spain, where he was tutor to Robert Graves’s son, William. Graves’s interest in myth became one important influence on the younger poet. In Europe, he met Dido Milroy, whom he married in 1954; they would separate in 1968. After that he made his living for several years by translating from French, Spanish, Latin, and Portuguese. From 1951 through 1953, he worked as translator for the BBC’s Third Programme. During 1956 and 1957, Merwin was playwright-in-residence for the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in 1962, he served as poetry editor for The Nation. He was an associate at the Théâtre de la Cité in Lyons, France, during 1964-1965. In 1971, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his collection The Carrier of Ladders.
In 1976, Merwin moved to Hawaii to study Buddhism. There he met Paula Schwartz; they were married in 1983. Merwin has made Maui his home base, traveling to the mainland United States to lecture and give readings. He has become an ecological advocate, lending his support to Hawaii’s environmental movement.
William Stanley Merwin is one of America’s most outstanding twentieth century poets. He grew up in Union City, New Jersey, and in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Merwin wrote his first verses at age five—hymns for his father’s congregation.
Because what he was writing at the age of eighteen did not seem significant to Merwin, he began translating the work of other poets. At the age of twenty, he received his B.A. in English from Princeton University and then did a year of graduate study there in modern languages. From 1949 to 1956, he lived in Europe, writing and tutoring, among others, the son of the British poet Robert Graves. He also translated Spanish and French classics for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Third Programme. He returned to the United States to become playwright-in-residence at the Poet’s Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and, later, poetry editor for The Nation. He also edited West Wind: Supplement of American Poetry for the London Poetry Book Society in 1961. Merwin was an associate of the Théâtre de la Cité, in Lyons, France, from 1964 to 1965. Back in the United States in the late 1960’s, Merwin spent his time writing, giving poetry readings, and collecting an impressive number of grants and awards.
More mystical than surreal, Merwin’s writing contains symbolic word clusters that use language in a new way. References to beginning and ending, island and sea, door and wall, and stone and earth appear repeatedly. Concerned with the use of language, Merwin laments, in “Losing a Language” (from The Rain in the Trees), “many of the things the words were about/ no longer exist/ the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree/ the verb for I.” Unlike Walt Whitman, who “heard America singing,” Merwin hears America dying. In the midst of that demise, his work probes the themes of isolation and identity.
Acclaim came to Merwin with his first volume, A Mask for Janus. It was selected for the Yale University Younger Poets series by W. H. Auden, who considered Merwin a master of traditional poetic forms and a creator of myth, both impersonal and universal.
Merwin’s next volume, The Dancing Bears, underscores his intense alienation from his fellow humans but softens this feeling with fable and allusion. Green with Beasts continues in this vein, emphasizing the importance of listening in “Learning a Dead Language,” which ends “what passion may be heard/ When there is nothing for you to say.” The Drunk in the Furnace carries the same emotional tones and...
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