W. S. Merwin 1927-
(Full name William Stanley Merwin) American poet, essayist, playwright, short story writer, and translator. See also W. S. Merwin Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 8, 88.
Although he has written essays; plays; translated poetry from French, Spanish, Latin, and Portuguese; and written television scripts, Merwin's most memorable and controversial work has been as a poet. As one of the most prolific poets of his time, Merwin has, over a five-decade career, published over twenty volumes of poetry and is celebrated as testing the bounds and power of language through imagery driven by a quest for knowledge of the human condition.
Merwin was born on 30 September 1927 in New York City, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His early life in rural Pennsylvania as the son of a minister, and the poverty he saw there and subsequently wrote about, led to Merwin’s focus on social, philosophical, and spiritual concerns as well as his use of biblical imagery in his works.
After receiving his degree in English at Princeton University, Merwin stayed for postgraduate study in modern languages, during which time he encountered poet John Berryman and critic R. P. Blackmur (to whom his fifth book, The Moving Target, is dedicated), both of whom have had significant influence on his work. Merwin left Princeton for Europe, where he traveled extensively, finally settling in Majorca in 1950, where he worked as a tutor for poet Robert Graves's son. Graves's interest in mythology greatly influenced Merwin, as can be seen in the mythic themes of his early books. Leaving Majorca, Merwin settled in the South of France and remained there for most of the 1960s. He also lived for several years in Mexico and has lived in Hawaii since 1975.
Peter Davison, writing for the Atlantic Monthly, whose pages have included Merwin's work more often than that of any other poet, comments that the “intentions of Merwin's poetry are as broad as the biosphere yet as intimate as a whisper.” His first book, A Mask for Janus (1952), displays Graves's influence—mythic themes, a highly formal, neoclassical style, and shades of the medieval poetry Merwin was translating at the time. Chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in the year of its publication, the book's preface (written by Auden) notes that Merwin had caught “the feeling which most of us share of being witnesses to the collapse of a civilization … and in addition the feeling that this collapse is not final but that … there will be some kind of rebirth, though we cannot imagine its nature.” The themes of myth and philosophical questioning regarding the self and survival continue in The Dancing Bears (1954), where the poems also reflect a search for identity. Merwin's third book, Green with Beasts (1956), departs from the formal traditions of his first two books for more flowing blocks of language. Merwin shifts his perspective from that of one who describes an experience from without to one that participates in the experience. Green with Beasts is broken into three parts: the first, a bestiary, includes “Leviathan,” which draws on the biblical themes of Genesis; the second section involves poems that are dramatic monologues, including “The Annunciation” and several others based on Judeo-Christian traditions; the third section centers on images of the sea.
Although The Drunk in the Furnace (1960) continues the sequence of sea poems started in Green with Beasts, the last few poems in the book show Merwin shifting to more uniquely American themes. This book followed two years’ residence in Boston during which Merwin met a number of poets who were breaking with the traditions of the 1950s including Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Robert Lowell. Merwin resurrects feelings and images from his past, admonishing those who complacently accept poverty, ignore the social plight of others, and damage the landscape. The title poem, which also concludes the volume, summarizes Merwin's view of the American landscape as both comedy and tragedy. “The Drunk in the Furnace” has made a discarded furnace his home—Merwin's symbolic image of spiritual and material poverty. This departure from his early themes and format is intensified in The Moving Target (1963), where Merwin essentially abandons punctuation, making the reader responsible for interpretation of syntax and, to a degree, abdicating control of his work and inviting the reader to construct his or her own images.
The Lice (1967) is one of the most critically acclaimed volumes of poetry in the last fifty years and has often served as the yardstick against which critics measure the rest of Merwin's work. The book's title is taken from an ancient Greek riddle that Homer, the wisest man in Greece, could not solve. Merwin wishes to point out to us that we need to focus on the mystery of the world and our distance from it. Although often interpreted as a reaction to specific events, such as the Vietnam War, The Lice is perhaps more properly viewed as another step along Merwin's continuum in which he focuses on nature and spiritualism. In 1970 Merwin published both his Pulitzer prize-winning The Carrier of Ladders and his book of short fiction, The Miner's Pale Children. The Carrier of Ladders includes a sequence of poems devoted to westward expansion in the United States, echoing works by Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, and Gary Snyder. The fifteen poems in the collection trace Merwin's thoughts on American history, including autobiographical “journeys,” his early images of Pennsylvania, the westward movement of Europeans, and the misuse of land and maltreatment of Native Americans.
In The Compass Flower (1977) Merwin moves further along the continuum, shifting to a more personal voice reflecting his feelings about his parents, life, death, love, and the importance of all types of connections—communal, biological and familial. The Rain in the Trees (1988) showcases Merwin's concerns with respect to ecology and cultural anthropology. Merwin's Travels (1993) presents the experiences of naturalists, artists, the Amazon experiences of Manuel Cordova, and includes a long personal account of his childhood and his minister father. In 1996 Merwin published his book-length narrative epic poem The Folding Cliffs, a historical piece concerning the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893.
Merwin's poetry has been greeted with a mixture of praise and criticism, with his early work regarded as his most universally successful and his later work evoking more critical responses. Some critics, including Victor Contoski, argue that the mixed reception is a result of a misunderstanding of Merwin's use of unfamiliar poetic traditions rather than the often-cited opinion that his work is simply enigmatic and obscure. Edward Haworth Hoeppner agrees that Merwin's poetry presents some problems for readers and critics alike; Neal Bowers explains this as a failure to consider Merwin's work in a postmodernist context. Most critics, however, have celebrated his work, and his list of awards—including the Pulitzer prize (for The Carrier of Ladders), Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and Kenyon Review fellowships, and numerous other grants and prizes—is testament to the critical acclaim he has enjoyed over his fifty-year career. Merwin's themes, including myth, emptiness, and cultural death, are explored by Thomas P. Roche, Jr. and Jarold Ramsey, while Kenneth Andersen, Harvey Gross, and Anthony Libby consider Merwin's evolution as a poet. The development of Merwin's poetry and style is examined by Frank MacShane, who cites the poet's European years and Ezra Pound as significant influences. Analysis of Merwin's poetry is provided by John Vogelsang, and by L. Edwin Folsom, who addresses Merwin's obsession with the meaning of America, and Cheri Colby Davis, who investigates Merwin's use of time in his work. Analysis of specific works is offered by Vincent B. Sherry, Jr., who examines Merwin's shift from traditional to surreal forms using The Compass Flower as a basis. Randall Stifler explores “The Annunciation,” one of Merwin's more powerful works, while Michael W. Thomas considers “For the Anniversary of My Death.” John Burt offers a detailed review of Merwin's narrative epic The Folding Cliffs. Michael Clifton comments on Merwin's visionary poetry, contending that it is derived from altered states of consciousness. Jane Frazier discusses the narrators of Merwin's poems, noting that they are often “disembodied,” thus permitting a story to be told without the intrusion of ego.