Meredith, William (Morris) 1919-
MEREDITH, William (Morris) 1919-
ADDRESSES: Office—337 Kitemaug Road, Uncasville, CT 06382.
CAREER: New York Times, New York, NY, 1940-41, began as copy boy, became reporter; Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, instructor in English and Woodrow Wilson fellow in writing, 1946-50; University of Hawaii, Honolulu, associate professor of English, 1950-51; Connecticut College, New London, associate professor, 1955-65, professor of English, 1965-83, professor emeritus. Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT, instructor at Bread Loaf School of English, 1958-62. Member of Connecticut Commission on the Arts, 1963-65; director of the humanities, Upward Bound Program, 1964-68; poetry consultant, Library of Congress, 1978-80. Military service: U.S. Army Air Forces, 1941-42; U.S. Navy, Naval Aviation, 1942-46; served in Pacific Theater; became lieutenant. U.S. Naval Reserve, active duty in Korean War as naval aviator, 1952-54; became lieutenant commander; received two Air Medals.
MEMBER: National Institute of Arts and Letters, Academy of American Poets (chancellor), American Choral Society (second vice president).
AWARDS, HONORS: Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for Love Letter from an Impossible Land, 1943; Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, 1944, and Oscar Blumenthal Prize, 1953, for poems published in Poetry; Woodrow Wilson fellowship, Princeton University, 1946-47; Rockefeller grant, 1948, 1968; Hudson Review fellow, 1956; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature, 1958; Ford Foundation fellowship for drama, 1959-60; Loines Prize from National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1966; Borestone Mountain Poetry Award for The Wreck of the "Thresher," 1964; Van Wyck Brooks Award, 1971; honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, Carnegie Mellon University, 1972; Connecticut College Medal, University of Connecticut, 1983, 1996; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1972, fellow, 1984; Guggenheim fellow, 1975-76; International Vaptsarov Prize for Literature, Bulgaria, 1979; Carl Sandburg Award, from the International Platform Association, 1979; Honorary Doctorate of Literature, Keene State College, 1988; Los Angeles Times Prize, 1987; Pulitzer Prize for poetry, 1988, for Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1990; Honorary Bulgarian Citizenship, Presidential Decree, for efforts to make Bulgarian literature accessible in the United States, 1996; National Book Award for Poetry for Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems, 1997; Honorary Doctorate, American University of Bulgaria, 1998.
Ships and Other Figures, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1948.
The Open Sea and Other Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1958.
The Wreck of the "Thresher" and Other Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1964.
Winter Verse, privately printed, 1964.
Year-End Accounts, privately printed, 1965.
Two Pages from a Colorado Journal, privately printed, 1967.
Earth Walk: New and Selected Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1970.
Hazard, the Painter, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.
The Cheer, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.
Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems, TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1997.
(Librettist) The Bottle Imp (opera, music by Peter Whiton; adaptation of the story by Robert Louis Stevenson), first produced in Wilton, Connecticut, 1958.
(Editor) Shelley: Poems, Dell (New York, NY), 1962.
(Translator) Guillaume Apollinaire, Alcools: Poems, 1898-1913, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1964.
(Editor) University and College Poetry Prizes, 1960-1966, in Memory of Mrs. Fanny Fay Wood, Academy of American Poets (New York, NY), 1966.
(Editor, with Mackie L. Jarrell) Eighteenth-Century Minor Poets, Dell (New York, NY), 1968.
Selected Poems, 1977 (recording), Watershed, 1977.
Reasons for Poetry and the Reason for Criticism (lectures), Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1982.
(Editor) Denise Levertov and others, translators, Poets of Bulgaria, Unicorn Press (Greensboro, NC), 1985.
The Poet and the Poem, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1990.
Poems Are Hard to Read, University of Michigan Press, 1991.
Contributor to magazines. Opera critic, Hudson Review, 1955-56.
William Meredith's poems have been recorded for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, 1994, 1995.
Meredith's collected manuscripts are housed at Middlebury College in Vermont.
SIDELIGHTS: William Meredith writes a formal, disciplined poetry concerned with the proper balance between the natural and civilized worlds. His poems, Matthew Flamm commented in the Village Voice, are "polished and direct, formal and natural, in equal measure," while his poetic voice is that "of someone who has been thinking for years about his place in the world, with no illusions of importance." A Publishers Weekly critic explained that Meredith's poems are "exercises in discipline and craft—objective in the choice and handling of theme, clear and simple in style and restrained in tone. He is a master in the use of meter, rhyme and stanzaic structure….The perfectly achieved formal aspects of Meredith's poetry mark him as a writer whose bedrock values transcend time and place." In 1985, Meredith received a Pulitzer Prize for his collection Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems, and in 1997 he received the National Book Award for Poetry for Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems.
Meredith first began writing poetry in college. After graduating in 1940, he worked for a year as a reporter with the New York Times before joining the army. In 1942 he transferred to the U.S. Navy to become a pilot, serving on aircraft carriers in the Pacific Theater for the duration of World War II. In 1952, he reenlisted to fly missions in the Korean War as well. Following his military service Meredith pursued an academic career, teaching English at Connecticut College from 1955 to 1983. A severe stroke in 1983 forced an early retirement from teaching and months of rehabilitation to regain his speech.
Meredith has always written a personal poetry rendered in traditional poetic forms, using these forms as frameworks for individual expression. Like fellow New Englander Robert Frost, to whom he is often compared, Meredith writes unadorned, formal verse. As Moul explained, the poet believes that "immediacy of image and idea, spoken in the poet's own voice, are and should be the poet's object." A critic for the Antioch Review described Meredith's poems as "beautifully worked, distinct objects, the language at once exciting and unobtrusive—what keeps them together is a tone wistful and ironic, which gives them the air of events as inevitable to the reader as to the poet." James Dickey, writing in his Babel to Byzantium, noted a "certain in-group variety of bookish snobbery that is probably Meredith's one outstanding weakness as a writer," but nonetheless found that "at his best he is a charming poet, cultivated, calm, quietly original, expansive and reflective, moving over wide areas slowly, lightly, mildly and often very memorably."
Over the years, Meredith's production of poetry has been modest in size. Writing in Corgi Modern Poets in Focus 2, the poet commented: "Chiefly I think my poverty of output stems from the conviction that an unnecessary poem is an offense to the art." But Moul disagreed: "Meredith's 'poverty of output' is instead a rare thing among poets, a discriminating taste."
Meredith's first collection of poems, Love Letter from an Impossible Land, was chosen by Archibald MacLeish for publication in the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1944. Half the poems in the collection were written while Meredith was still in college, and many of these were derivative of other poets' work. But critics felt that the poems based on Meredith's war experiences as a pilot displayed emotional honesty. A Christian Century reviewer explained that the "poems born out of the war are true, and often eloquent and revealing." Ruth Lechlitner in Poetry found, "When William Meredith leaves the book-shelves and becomes the flyer, he becomes also a poet in his own right."
In 1948 Meredith's second collection of poems was published. Ships and Other Figures again draws upon Meredith's time in the Navy for subject matter. Milton Crane, writing in the New York Times, described the poems as "cool, intellectual, and self-contained…. [Meredith's] detachment bespeaks no incapacity for more overt emotional expression, but a deliberate decision to set down his observations and conclusions as clearly and succinctly as possible." Writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, G. P. Meyer noted, "That a poet today can still write with affection of people and things and communicate that feeling to others, is something to celebrate."
Open Sea and Other Poems appeared in 1958, displaying a poetry more adventurous than previously suspected of Meredith. As Richard Howard stated in his Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, with Open Sea and Other Poems, Meredith "insisted on play, on a response to selfhood as pleasure, on the morality of virtuosity." At the same time, Howard admitted that for Meredith, "all art, poetic or otherwise, is an act of self-defense against the world changing its meaning from moment to moment, against the difference, against things becoming other, against their loss of identity. For him, poetry is a way of asserting that things are what they are—the insight of self-reference—and that when they mean something else, order as well as delight is endangered."
Meredith published The Wreck of the "Thresher" and Other Poems, in 1964, a book whose title poem is an elegy to an American submarine lost at sea in 1963. Despite the shift in tone, Meredith's handling of the tragic theme was met with critical applause. According to Fred Bornhauser in the Virginia Quarterly Review "the elegance is compounded of compassion, intelligence, and linguistic precision," while S. F. Morse in the New York Times Book Review stated that "The Wreck of the 'Thresher' is an accomplishment of a very high order….The title poem may well come to stand as a model of the elegy in our time." Keith Moul in the Dictionary of Literary Biography found that "the consensus is that Meredith attains a consistently high level of performance" in The Wreck of the "Thresher."
Gathering poems from the previous twenty-five years, Earth Walk reveals the range of Meredith's early work. Victory Howes in the Christian Science Monitor called Meredith "a poet of hairline precisions, minute discriminations, and subtle observings….How quickly the strangeness, the wonder, would pass from things were it not for poets like William Meredith." Earth Walk, according to Moul, is "a just selection that as much emphasizes [Meredith's] variety as his quirks. Much of his best writing is here."
With Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems, Meredith gathered poems from throughout his long writing career to give an overview of his poetic achievement. Publication of the book provided an opportunity for critics to assess Meredith's contribution to the genre. Among those critics is Linda Gregerson in Poetry. She observed that Partial Accounts documents Meredith's serious use of formal poetic structures. Meredith, Gregerson wrote, "is a poet who asks us seriously to consider the rhymed quatrain as a unit of perceptual pacing, the villanelle as the ambivalent and ritual simulation of fate, the sestina as a scaffolding for directed rumination, the sonnet as an instrument for testing the prodigious or the ineffable against the longing-for-shapeliness we know as 'argument.'" She concluded, "Touched as they are by goodness, rich in craft and thoughtfulness, the poems collected here should find themselves well-treated by their readers." Edward Hirsch, in his evaluation of Partial Accounts for the New York Times Book Review, saw Meredith as a poet who has "emphasized the need for a civilizing intelligence and humane values. In one sense, all of his work constitutes a desire to recognize and then move beyond catastrophe and despair—whether personal, social or historical. Book by book, he has evolved into a poet by sly wit and quiet skill, working out a thoughtful esthetic of orderliness."
During the years in which he worked as a consultant in poetry for the Library of Congress, Meredith became acquainted with Bulgarian poets, an alliance that eventually resulted in the publication of his Poets of Bulgaria, a work that includes some of his own translations. A subsequent collection Window on the Black Sea: Bulgarian Poetry in Translation, featured translations by twenty-seven American poets.
Meredith received the National Book Award for Poetry for Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems, a compilation of both new and previously published poems. Writing in Poetry Christian Wiman believed that, despite his many awards, Meredith has chiefly resigned himself to minor status. "It is for this reason that I prefer the poems in which Meredith isn't talking about poetry," Wiman explained, "or at least isn't going about it with a good deal of humor." Wiman concluded that, "At his best, Meredith is a poet of suburban decency" who is "emotionally ingenious, cautiously sage, intelligent, diffident," and "clever." A Publishers Weekly reviewer lauded Effort at Speech, describing it as "a medic's kit for the tired at heart." The same reviewer noted that the earlier poems in the book "are as subtle as aspirin" and are "so easily digestible in their precise meter and perfectly tuned end-rhyme, their power goes virtually unnoticed until the reader lifts his eyes from the page to find himself moved."
Publishers Weekly reviewer John F. Baker noted that Meredith had difficulty speaking after receiving the National Book Award for Poetry because of a stroke suffered years earlier. "He admitted later to reporters that he had been 'utterly surprised' to win and that though his health had much improved, he was still unable to 'visualize' new poems."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dickey, James, Babel to Byzantium, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1968, pp. 197-198.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI) Volume 5, 1980, pp. 46-53.
Encyclopedia of American Literature, Continuum (New York, NY), 1999.
Howard, Richard, Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1971, revised edition, 1980.
Robson, Jeremy, Corgi Modern Poets in Focus 2, Transworld Publishers, 1971, pp. 117-125.
Rotella, Guy, Three Contemporary Poets of New England, Twayne (New York, NY), 1983.
American Scholar, autumn, 1965.
Antioch Review, spring, 1970.
Atlantic, February, 1981, review of The Cheer, p. 94.
Christian Century, April 19, 1944.
Christian Science Monitor, October 15, 1970.
Commonweal, January 24, 1958; December 4, 1981, Josephine Jacobsen, review of The Cheer, p. 692.
Georgia Review, spring, 1976.
Hollins Critic, February, 1979.
Hudson Review, autumn, 1970; autumn, 1975; spring, 1981.
Kenyon Review, summer, 1988.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 30, 1980.
Nation, June 15, 1970.
New Republic, June 14, 1975.
New York Review of Books, June 15, 1972.
New York Times Book Review, September 27, 1964; September 21, 1975; March 22, 1981, Paul Breslin, review of The Cheer, p. 86; July 31, 1988, Edward Hirsch, review of Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems, p. 20.
Parnassus, spring-summer, 1976; fall, 1981.
Partisan Review, winter, 1971-72.
Plum Review, fall-winter, 1992.
Poetry, July, 1944; November, 1948; September, 1958; February, 1966; July, 1971; January, 1976; December, 1981, Robert B. Shaw, review of The Cheer, p. 173; February, 1988, Linda Gregerson, review of Partial Accounts, p. 423; August, 1998, Christian Wiman, review of Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems, p. 281.
Publishers Weekly, April 10, 1987, John Mutter, review of Partial Accounts, p. 90; May 26, 1997, review of Effort at Speech, p. 80; November 24, 1997, John F. Baker, "National Book Awards Surprise," p. 48.
Saturday Review, August 8, 1970.
Saturday Review of Literature, April 29, 1944; May 15, 1948; March 22, 1958.
Sewanee Review, winter, 1972; winter, 1973.
Shenandoah, winter, 1971.
Southwest Review, 1992, Neva Harrington, "The Language of the Tribe."
Village Voice, August 18, 1987.
Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1975; summer, 1981; autumn, 1987.
Washington Post, October 11, 1978.
World Literature Today, spring, 1989.
Yale Review, December, 1944; June, 1958; winter, 1971.
William Meredith Home Page, http://www.conncoll.edu/meredith/ (June 3, 2004).*