W. S. Merwin Merwin, W. S. (Vol. 88) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

W. S. Merwin 1927–

(Full name William Stanley Merwin) American poet, short story writer, autobiographer, dramatist, translator, essayist, and editor.

The following entry provides an overview of Merwin's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 18, and 45.

One of the most prolific contemporary American poets, Merwin writes stylistically diverse poems that frequently display a moral concern for the state of contemporary society and the natural world. In much of his writing, he presents a despairing view of civilization that is only occasionally tempered by expressions of hope. Merwin has been consistently praised as a technically accomplished writer and has won several prestigious awards for his works, including the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Carrier of Ladders (1970).

Biographical Information

Born in New York City, Merwin grew up in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. In 1947 he graduated from Princeton University with an A.B. and subsequently completed one year of graduate study in modern languages. From 1949–1950, he worked as a tutor in France, Portugal, and Majorca, Spain, where he taught the son of poet Robert Graves. During the early 1950s he worked in London, England, translating Spanish and French classics for the British Broadcasting Corporation, and published his first collection of poetry, A Mask for Janus (1952). Returning to the United States in 1956, he was playwright-in-residence at the Poets' Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1962 he served as poetry editor for the Nation, and from 1964–1965 he lived in Lyon, France, where he was an associate with Roger Planchon's Théâtre de la Cité. Merwin has received numerous grants, fellowships, and prizes throughout his career, including a Ford Foundation grant in 1964, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant in 1968, the 1969 P.E.N. Translation Prize for Selected Translations, 1948–1968 (1968), and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973. Most recently, Merwin received the 1994 Tanning Poetry Prize for Career Achievement and the Lenore Marshall/Nation Poetry Prize for Travels (1993). Merwin currently lives in Hawaii.

Major Works

The poems from Merwin's first three volumes—A Mask for Janus, The Dancing Bears (1954), and Green with Beasts (1956)—are characterized by traditional prosodic forms, symbolic imagery, mythical and legendary motifs, and anachronistic language. His themes in these collections, which are echoed in successive works, include the universal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth; the loss of order and the search for identity in contemporary society; and the tensions between spiritual and temporal existence as well as those between art and experience. In subsequent collections, Merwin began to implement experimental techniques as his subjects became more personal. The poems in The Drunk in the Furnace (1960), for instance, incorporate colloquial language and metrical irregularities, while those in The Moving Target (1963)—which frequently concern self-alienation—feature discordant rhythms, a lack of punctuation, and informal diction. In The Lice (1967), he continued to focus on humanity's irresponsible relationship with the natural world, its delusions of self-importance, and its abuse of power. These poems display a tone of resignation toward the plight of civilization, only occasionally finding reasons for hope in individual human actions. With the prizewinning The Carrier of Ladders, Merwin combined the classical detachment of his early work with personal elements typical of his verse from the 1960s. While still decrying the shortcomings of contemporary society, these poems also celebrate the common bonds of humanity. As Eric Hartley has argued, such poems as "Night Wind" and "Midnight in Early Spring" demonstrate that for Merwin "it is no longer a matter of 'us-and-them,' but only of 'us.'" His next poetry volume, Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (1973), examines in part humanity's relationship to time and history. Such later collections as The Compass Flower (1977), Feathers from a Hill (1978), and Finding the Islands (1982) are influenced by classical Chinese poetry in their direct, seemingly simple portrayals of the beauty and sanctity of life, love, and nature. Often written in haiku tercets, the poems in these volumes are generally introspective and personal. Interweaving elements of myth with memories of Merwin's childhood, Opening the Hand (1983) focuses on natural phenomena and urban landscapes, suggesting the intimate relationship between past and present as well as parallels between the natural world and human civilization. The Rain in the Trees (1988) is marked by its concern with ecological themes, expressing Merwin's disdain for humankind's arrogant destruction of rain forests and blatant disregard for the natural world. Travels focuses on history and loss through meditations that have been described as inward journeys of the soul. Stylistically, the collection is a departure from Merwin's earlier work as it features several long narrative poems devoted to historical figures, makes use of interior monologues, and contains numerous poems written in syllabics.

Critical Reception

While Merwin is consistently praised for rejuvenating traditional forms and for continually challenging and developing his technique and themes, critics have historically lamented the obscure nature of his work. Reviewers of Merwin's first three collections, for instance, faulted him for intellectual self-indulgence. During the 1960s some critics likewise regarded his evolving style as obscure, but others viewed his new approaches as subtle and rewarding. Scholars have noted, however, that when Merwin's oeuvre is viewed in its entirety, each successive collection shows distinct developments in style and theme from the previous ones. Many reviewers, for example, consider Travels one of Merwin's most accomplished collections. In her review of this award-winning volume, Judith Kitchen remarked: "This collection fascinates me. Throughout, Merwin holds onto an established habit of line but finds in certain more traditional forms and techniques a renewed sense of what the line is capable of accomplishing…. Travels takes shape almost in spite of its unwieldy premises and the crisis of readership at its core. No, the poem does not bring back the fields and farmland or the sweet smell of sandalwood forest. It will not make recompense to the lives lost to history. It will not stop wars or stay death. Merwin, for all his acute awareness of loss, writes not to alter the world but to honor it."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Mask for Janus (poetry) 1952
The Dancing Bears (poetry) 1954
Darkling Child [with Dido Milroy] (drama) 1956
Green with Beasts (poetry) 1956
Favor Island (drama) 1957
The Drunk in the Furnace (poetry) 1960
The Gilded West (drama) 1961
The Moving Target (poetry) 1963
The Lice (poetry) 1967
Selected Translations, 1948–1968 (translations) 1968
The Carrier of Ladders (poetry) 1970
The Miner's Pale Children (short stories) 1970
Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (poetry) 1973
The Compass Flower (poetry) 1977
Houses and Travellers (short stories) 1977
Feathers from a Hill (poetry) 1978
Selected Translations, 1968–78 (translations) 1979
Finding the Islands (poetry) 1982
Unframed Originals: Recollections (autobiographical sketches) 1982
Opening the Hand (poetry) 1983
The Rain in the Trees (poetry) 1988
Selected Poems (poetry) 1988
Travels (poetry) 1993

W. S. Merwin with Jack Myers and Michael Simms (interview date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Southwest Review, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 164-80.

[Myers is an American educator, poet, biographer, and critic. Simms is an American educator, poet, and critic. In the following interview, which was conducted in 1982 during Southern Methodist University's eighth annual literature festival, Merwin comments on creative writing programs, his development as a poet, the writing process, and his ideas regarding translation.]

[Simms]: Bill, unlike most contemporary poets, you have not made a career of teaching. Recently, you started teaching for the first time. How do you like it?

[Merwin]: I love it. But I'm very...

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Mark Christhilf (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Mythic Image of Humankind," in W. S. Merwin: The Mythmaker, University of Missouri Press, 1986, pp. 61-75.

[Christhilf is an educator, poet, and critic. In the following excerpt, he examines various themes in Merwin's poetry, particularly his focus on such mythic elements and concerns as mortality, immortality, and the poet's calling.]

Merwin's poetry from The Moving Target through Opening the Hand presents a mythic image of humankind. As mythmaker he answers the root questions of existence by imagining the origin, end, and destiny of the human being. Combining images from Christian, Classical, and pantheistic mythologies, Merwin's account of...

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Phoebe Pettingell (review date 16-30 May 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Merwin's Progress," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXI, No. 9, May 16-30, 1988, pp. 22-3.

[In the review below, Pettingell offers a thematic analysis of The Rain in the Trees.]

It is no wonder that poetry concerned with spiritual perceptions tends to be pastoral. When people embody ideas from their inner life, they usually select metaphors from nature. The earliest examples of religious art we know are those luminous beasts our ancestors painted on the walls of their caves. The Greeks portrayed their deities coming to earth disguised as animals or birds. And in Holy Scripture the relationship between man and God is depicted in terms of sheep and their shepherd....

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Diane Wakoski (review date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stalking the Barbaric Yawp," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 804-15.

[Wakoski is an American poet, educator, and critic. In the following excerpt, she comments on Selected Poems, noting thematic similarities between the poetry of Merwin and Walt Whitman.]

There is no need to go outside Merwin's Selected Poems, but I would advise those who are not already devotees to start at the back of this book and work forward, since Merwin has bravely put his early work (his Yale Younger Poets collection from 1952) at the beginning. There is in every Merwin poem the authority that comes from a fine ear, but his early prosody does...

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Mark Jarman (review date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Old Master and Four New Poets," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLI, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 729-36.

[In the following excerpt, Jarman assesses Selected Poems and The Rain in the Trees, noting Merwin's concern with ecological themes.]

Like many readers of my generation, I first became aware of W. S. Merwin's poetry after he had perfected the radical change in style that led to The Moving Target and The Lice. Reading Richard Howard's essay on Merwin's poetry in Alone with America led me to the first four books, A Mask for Janus, The Dancing Bears, Green with Beasts, and The Drunk in the Furnace. That Merwin was a...

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Edward J. Brunner (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Epilogue," in Poetry as Labor and Privilege: The Writings of W. S. Merwin, University of Illinois Press, 1991, pp. 285-91.

[Brunner is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he discusses the major themes and principles that inform Merwin's poetry.]

Entering his fifth decade of writing, W. S. Merwin continues to stand apart from his contemporaries as the representative of an unusual degree of freedom and independence. That independence is evident in his personal life. He has made his way on his own terms, much as he had hoped when, in 1949, with no prospects before him, he left America for Europe. He is one of the few American poets who have...

(The entire section is 2961 words.)

Judith Kitchen (review date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Skating on Paper," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 578-95.

[In the excerpt below, Kitchen examines the convergence of style and theme in Travels.]

W. S. Merwin's most recent book, Travels, is permeated by a healthy nostalgia for what has been lost to us—a sense of history, an identification with place, a connection between generations, the old forms in art. Everything is seen as though through the window of a passing train, briefly illuminated and then receding into the world of memory. The preface poem, "Cover Note," appears separately and sets an elegiac tone (whose echo of Baudelaire signals as well a literary nostalgia):...

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Ben Howard (review date December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Travels, in Poetry, Vol. CLXIII, No. 3, December, 1993, pp. 167-70.

[Howard is an American educator and poet. In the following mixed review, he remarks on the style and themes of Travels.]

With the publication of The Lice in 1967, W. S. Merwin brought a bold style and a fresh sense of the numinous to contemporary American poetry. Since that time, he has perfected his distinctions—the luminous image, the immaculate phrase, the power to make things strange. Writing in a fluid unpunctuated style, void of conventional syntax and traditional prosody, he has imbued his abiding motifs—water, silence, trees, and stones—with a dreamlike...

(The entire section is 974 words.)

Michael Leddy (review date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Travels, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 1, Winter, 1994, p. 133.

[Below, Leddy offers a mixed review of Travels.]

The themes of the forty-six poems in Travels, W. S. Merwin's first collection since The Rain in the Trees (1988), are familiar ones: displacement, both psychic and geographic, as a primary human condition; the loss and problematic recovery of one's past; nature as cunning consciousness and harbinger of apocalypse. There are many moments that look dangerously like self-parody, moving to a ponderous significance out of proportion to what is at hand. Here, for instance, is a description of coconuts: "many of...

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Gerald Stern (essay date 12 December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize—1994," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 259, No. 20, December 12, 1994, pp. 733, 735.

[An American poet and educator, Stern was one of the judges for the 1994 Lenore Marshall/Nation Poetry Prize. The other judges were Deborah Digges and Stephen Dunn. In the following essay, Stern offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Travels, concluding that this is Merwin's best collection yet.]

What I find myself responding to over and over in W. S. Merwin's Travels is the unique combination of tenderness and knowledge—closeness, love, pity, coupled with cruel history, true narrative, accuracy. It is not a new...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Byers, Thomas B. "The Peace in the Middle of the Floor: W. S. Merwin's Prose." Modern Language Quarterly 44, No. 1 (March 1983): 65-79.

Discusses style and theme in Merwin's prose, focusing on the works in The Miner's Pale Children.

Davis, William V. "Days Polished with Ashes: W. S. Merwin's Poetry of Immediate Moments." Poet & Critic 21, No. 3 (Spring 1990): 37-40.

Suggests that Merwin's work in The Rain in the Trees displays a thematic innovation not present in his previous work.

Hoeppner, Edward Haworth....

(The entire section is 199 words.)