Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1082
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 makes use of the same themes but opens a new and more personal area with a series of family portraits in the concluding poems.
For two years before the publication of The Moving Target, Merwin had written very little poetry; then, suddenly, the first half of the book came within a few weeks. In the last half Merwin introduced a radical change by dropping punctuation; because poetry stems from an oral tradition, Merwin decided, punctuation interferes with its flow. Also, the poems in The Moving Target are more epigrammatic. For example, “From a Series” observes that “the posters have changed/ But the day’s the same.” “We Continue,” dedicated to his longtime friend, poet Galway Kinnell, declares, “Those who believe/ In death have their worship cut out for them.”
The Lice became something of a cult book for young people and has had at least a dozen printings. Its title inspired by Heraclitus, The Lice details how human neglect of forest and animal, of gods and words, has consigned humankind to destruction. Merwin’s next collection, The Carrier of Ladders, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971, explores what the past can contribute to the discovery of an individual’s inner self. In Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, Merwin attempts to unleash time, not the past or the future but the present. The Compass Flower contains poems about places and people Merwin loves, but it continues his despondency about human living conditions.
Having moved to Hawaii in the late 1970’s, Merwin turned to the landscape and culture of the islands for additional images and metaphors, as seen in Finding the Islands, a book of haiku-like love poems. Opening the Hand offers a delightful look at Merwin’s childhood, at his acceptance of silence, and at his joy over the intricate interrelation of all things. The Rain in the Trees occasionally proclaims the light side but still explores the dark. In “Knock,” one of the last poems in the collection, the narrator rushes “toward the known world/ which it is hopeless to reject/ and death to accept.” Selected Poems reflects his entire career through the late 1980’s, and The Second Four Books of Poems is a useful collection of his four most powerful books. In Travels, each poem focuses on an individual historical figure, each of whom quested to preserve things that other considered to have no value. The Folding Cliffs is something of an anti-epic, relating the changes—most for the worse—that Hawaii underwent in the 1870’s and 1880’s as the result of European contact. The centerpiece of The River Sound, “Testimony,” is a fifty-eight page autobiographical poem in which Merwin, among other things, lists the things he would bequeath to his friends—moments of time, landscapes, angles of light. The Pupil is a collection of shorter poems capturing transient moments and pinpoint insights.
Merwin’s volumes of stories, essays, and recollections could almost be called poems. He once said that the more charged a piece of prose is, the more it tends toward poetry. Even a casual reader would detect the poetic nature of The Miner’s Pale Children, Houses and Travellers, Unframed Originals, and The Lost Upland.
The works Merwin has translated, spanning centuries and originally written in various different languages, reveal him to be a versatile translator. Indeed, he became the most prolific, respected, and successful translator of his generation, and in 1968 he received the PEN Translation Prize for his Selected Translations: 1948-1968. While writing for the theater is not Merwin’s primary focus, his productivity in this area should be noted. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, he wrote three original plays and four adaptations from the work of foreign playwrights. In 1987 Merwin was granted the Governor’s Award for Literature from the state of Hawaii and in 1988 was elected to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, both fitting tributes to a poet of Merwin’s stature.