WS (William Stanley) Merwin, who died in his sleep at his home in Hawaii yesterday (March 15th) aged ninety-one, was one of the most highly decorated of American poets. He was the US poet laureate in 2010/2011 and won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award. His work appeared frequently in mass-circulation magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine and elsewhere. He published nearly three dozen volumes of poetry, along with essays, short fiction, memoirs and translations of Dante, Neruda, Mandelstam and other poets.
Merwin was brought up in Union City, New Jersey and Scranton, Pennsylvania. Of his father, a Presbyterian minister, he wrote:
During my early childhood he had been distant, unpredictable and harsh. He had punished me fiercely for things I had not known were forbidden, when the list of known restrictions was already long and oppressive. I was told regularly that I loved him, as I was told that I loved God and Jesus, and I did not know at the time that the names for much of my feeling about him were really dread and anger.
He started to write poetry at Princeton, where he was taught by the poet and critic RP Blackmur and his assistant, John Berryman. He joined the navy as a seventeen-year-old during World War II but almost immediately realised he had made a mistake and declared himself a conscientious objector. He was interned for a year in the psychiatric ward of a navy hospital in Boston.
After the war he moved, with his first wife, Dorothy Jeanne Ferry, to Europe, where he was a tutor in a number of families, including that of Robert Graves in Majorca. Later he moved to London, where he worked as a translator, was divorced and got married again, to the Englishwoman Dido Milroy. He returned for a spell to the United States, then came back to London, where he was friendly with Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Eventually he and his wife moved to Dordogne in France, where they restored an old farmhouse.
The themes that preoccupied him as poet were “the usual ones”: the earth and the sea, earth and sea creatures, the seasons, myth and spirituality (leaving his cradle Presbyterianism far behind, he became a Buddhist), life history, memory and the evanescence of life. His early style sometimes drew on the alliterative tradition of Old English and medieval verse (he published a verse translation of the fourteenth-century Gawain and the Green Knight in 2002).
The hulk of him is like hills heaving
Dark, yet as crags of drift-ice, crowns cracking in thunder,
Like land’s self by night black-looming, surf churning and trailing
Along his shores’ rushing, shoal-water boding
About the dark of his jaws; and who should moor at his edge
And fare on afoot would find gates of no gardens,
But the hill of dark underfoot diving,
Closing overhead, the cold deep, and drowning.
“The intentions of Merwin’s poetry are as broad as the biosphere yet as intimate as a whisper,” Peter Davison, longtime poetry editor of The Atlantic, wrote in 1997. “He conveys in the sweet simplicity of grounded language a sense of the self where it belongs, floating between heaven, earth and underground.”
His mature style stripped away most punctuation and capitalisation. “Punctuation basically has to do with prose and the printed word,” he said in a Paris Review interview. “I came to feel that punctuation was like nailing the words onto the page. Since I wanted instead the movement and lightness of the spoken word, one step toward that was to do away with punctuation.”
In the mid-1970s, he had gone to Hawaii to study with the Zen master Robert Aitken. He remained there, purchasing some nineteen acres of a former pineapple plantation on a remote part of Maui serendipitously named Haiku. When he bought the property in the late 1970s, it was distressed and barren. Decades earlier, it had been deforested, overgrazed and then “pinappled”, which he saw as an act of agribusiness imperialism. Together with his third wife, Paula Schwartz, he took the place in hand, planting a huge effusion of flora, in particular palm trees, more than 2,700 trees, representing nearly five hundred species. In 2010, the couple established the Merwin Conservancy, dedicated to the continued preservation of their house and garden.
Paula died in 2017. In his 2009 collection The Shadow of Sirius, which won him his second Pulitzer Prize, he had written in the poem “To Paula in Late Spring”:
Let me imagine that we will come again
when we want to and it will be spring
we will be no older than we ever were
the worn griefs will have eased like the early cloud
through which the morning slowly comes to itself
and the ancient defenses against the dead
will be done with and left to the dead at last
the light will be as it is now in the garden
that we have made here these years together
of our long evenings and astonishment
Source: New York Times obituary, by Margalit Fox, with additional reporting by Ana Fota.
Image: WS Merwin and dog Peah at home in Hawaii