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).
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.
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.
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."