Merwin, W(illiam) S(tanley) 1927-
MERWIN, W(illiam) S(tanley) 1927-
PERSONAL: Born September 30, 1927, in New York, NY; son of a Presbyterian minister; married Dorothy Jeanne Ferry (divorced); married Dido Milroy (divorced); married Paula Schwartz. Education: Princeton University, A.B., 1947; attended one year of graduate study in modern languages.
ADDRESSES: Home—Haiku, HI. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Atheneum Publishers, 866 3rd Ave., New York, NY 10022-6221.
CAREER: Poet. Tutor in France and Portugal, 1949; tutor of Robert Graves's son in Majorca, 1950; lived in London, England, 1951-54, supporting himself largely by doing translations of Spanish and French classics for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Third Programme; playwright for Poets' Theatre, Cambridge, MA, 1956; lived in New York, NY, 1961-63; associated with Roger Planchon's Theatre de la Cite, Lyon, France, ten months during 1964-65; moved to Hawaii in the late 1970s. In 1999, Merwin was named Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress for a jointly-held position with poets Rita Dove and Louise Glück.
MEMBER: National Institute of Arts and Letters.
AWARDS, HONORS: Kenyon Review fellowship in poetry, 1954; Rockefeller fellowship, 1956; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1957; Arts Council of Great Britain playwriting bursary, 1957; Rabinowitz Foundation grant, 1961; Bess Hokin Prize, Poetry, 1962; Ford Foundation grant, 1964-65; fellowship from Chapelbrook Foundation, 1966; Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, Poetry, 1967; Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1969; Pulitzer Prize for poetry, 1971, for The Carrier of Ladders; fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, 1973; Guggenheim fellowship, 1973, 1983; Shelley Memorial Award, 1974; Bollingen Prize for poetry, Yale University Library, 1979; Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, 1994, for Travels; Tanning Prize for poetry, 1994; Lila Wallace Reader's Digest fellowship, 1994.
POETRY, EXCEPT AS INDICATED
The Dancing Bears (also see below), Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1954.
Green with Beasts (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1956.
The Drunk in the Furnace (also see below), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1960.
(Editor) West Wind: Supplement of American Poetry, Poetry Book Society (London, England), 1961.
The Moving Target, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1963.
Collected Poems, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1966.
The Lice, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1969.
Animae, Kayak (San Francisco, CA), 1969.
The Miner's Pale Children (prose), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1970, reprinted, Holt (New York, NY), 1994.
The Carrier of Ladders, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1970.
(With A. D. Moore) Signs, Stone Wall Press (Iowa City, IA), 1970.
Asian Figures, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1973.
Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1973.
The First Four Books of Poems (contains A Mask for Janus, The Dancing Bears, Green with Beasts, and The Drunk in the Furnace ), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1975.
The Compass Flower, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1977.
Houses and Travellers (prose), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, Holt (New York, NY), 1994.
Feathers from the Hill, Windhover (Iowa City, IA), 1978.
Finding the Islands, North Point Press (San Francisco, CA), 1982.
Unframed Originals: Recollections (prose), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1982.
Opening the Hand, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1983.
The Rain in the Trees: Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
Selected Poems, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1988.
The Lost Upland (prose), Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
Travels: Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
The Vixen: Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
(Compiler) Lament for the Makers: A Memorial Anthology, Counterpoint (Washington, DC), 1996.
Flower and Hand: Poems, 1977-1983, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 1996.
The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative (prose), Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
East Window: The Asian Poems, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 1998.
The River Sound: Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
The Pupil, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
The Mays of Ventadorn (prose, National Geographic Direction Series), National Geographic (Washington, DC), 2002.
The Ends of the Earth (essays), Shoemaker & Hoard (Washington, DC), 2004.
Migration: New and Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2005.
Present Company, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2005.
Contributor to numerous anthologies. Merwin's poems have been recorded for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, 1994.
Contributor to magazines, including Nation, Harper's, Poetry, New Yorker, Atlantic, Kenyon Review, and Evergreen Review. Poetry editor, Nation, 1962.
A reader, with others, on sound recordings, including Poetry and the American People: Reading, Voice, and Publication in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Library of Congress Bicentennial Symposium, 2000; Poetry in America: Favorite Poems: An Evening of Readings and a Special Favorite Poem Audio and Video Presentation, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 2000; An Evening of Dante in English Translation, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 2000.
The W. S. Merwin Archive in the Rare Book Room of the University Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign contains notes, drafts, and manuscripts of published and unpublished work by Merwin from the mid-1940s to the early 1980s.
The Poem of the Cid, Dent (London, England), 1959, New American Library (New York, NY), 1962.
(Contributor) Eric Bentley, editor, The Classic Theatre, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1961.
The Satires of Persius, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1961.
Some Spanish Ballads, Abelard (London, England), 1961, published as Spanish Ballads, Doubleday Anchor (New York, NY), 1961.
The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes: His Fortunes and Adversities, Doubleday Anchor (New York, NY), 1962.
(Contributor) Medieval Epics, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1963.
(With Denise Levertov, William Carlos Williams, and others) Nicanor Parra, Poems and Antipoems, New Directions (New York, NY), 1968.
Jean Follain, Transparence of the World, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1969, reprinted, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2003.
W. S. Merwin: Selected Translations, 1948-1968, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1969.
(And author of introduction) S. Chamfort, Products of the Perfected Civilization: Selected Writings of Chamfort, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969.
Porchia, Voices: Selected Writings of Antonio Porchia, Follett (Chicago, IL), 1969, reprinted, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2003.
(With others) Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems, Dell (New York, NY), 1970.
(With Clarence Brown) Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1973, reprinted as The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, New York Review of Books (New York, NY), 2004.
(With J. Moussaieff Mason) Sanskrit Love Poetry, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1977, published as Peacock's Egg: Love Poems from Ancient India, North Point Press (San Francisco, CA), 1981.
Roberto Juarroz, Vertical Poems, Kayak (San Francisco, CA), 1977.
(With George E. Dimock, Jr.) Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulius, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1978.
Selected Translations, 1968-78, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1979.
Robert the Devil, Windhover (Iowa City, IA), 1981.
Four French Plays, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1984.
From the Spanish Morning, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1984.
Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Gawain and the Green Knight, a New Verse Translation, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
Also translator of Lope de Rueda, "Eufemia," in Tulane Drama Review, December, 1958; Lesage, "Crispin," in Tulane Drama Review; Lope Felix de Vega Carpio, Punishment without Vengeance, 1958; Federico García Lorca, "Yerma" and "Blood," 1969.
(With Dido Milroy) Darkling Child, produced, 1956.
Favor Island, produced at Poets' Theatre, Cambridge, MA, 1957, and on British Broadcasting Corporation Third Programme, 1958.
The Gilded West, produced at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, England, 1961.
SIDELIGHTS: W. S. Merwin is a major American writer whose poetry, translations, and prose have won praise from literary critics since the publication of his first book. The spare, hard verse comprising the body of Merwin's work has been characterized by many as very difficult reading. However, it is generally agreed that this poetry is worth whatever extra effort may be required to appreciate it. In a Yale Review article, Laurence Lieberman stated, "This poetry, at its best—and at our best as readers—is able to meet us and engage our wills as never before in the thresholds between waking and sleeping, past and future, self and anti-self, men and gods, the living and the dead." Although Merwin's writing has undergone many stylistic changes through the course of his career, it is unified by the recurring theme of man's separation from nature. The poet sees the consequences of that alienation as disastrous, both for the human race and for the rest of the world.
Merwin, who feels strongly about ecological issues, once commented: "It makes me angry to feel that the natural world is taken to have so little importance." He gave an example from his own life: "The Pennsylvania that I grew up in and loved as a child isn't there . . . it's been strip-mined: it really is literally not there. This happens to a lot of people, but I don't see why one has to express indifference about it. It matters . . . It's like being told that you can't possibly be mentally healthy." As an illustration of the poet's commitment to environmental concerns, he has lived since the late 1970s on an old pineapple plantation in Hawaii, which he has been painstakingly restoring to its original rainforest state.
Merwin's despair over the desecration of nature is strongly expressed in his collection The Lice. Lieberman commented: "To read these poems is an act of self-purification. Every poem in the book pronounces a judgement against modern men—the gravest sentence the poetic imagination can conceive for man's withered and wasted conscience: our sweep of history adds up to one thing only, a moral vacuity that is absolute and irrevocable. This book is a testament of betrayals; we have betrayed all beings that had power to save us: the forest, the animals, the gods, the dead, the spirit in us, the words. Now, in our last moments alive, they return to haunt us." Published in 1969, The Lice remains one of Merwin's best-known volumes of poetry. Throughout his subsequent work, Merwin has continued to produce striking poems using nature as a backdrop. The Vixen, for instance, is an exploration of the rural forest in southwestern France that Merwin called home for many years. New Yorker critic J. D. McClatchy remarked that "the book is suffused with details of country life—solitary walks and garden work, woodsmoke, birdsong, lightfall." In his poem "Leviathan," published in the 1956 collection Green with Beasts, Merwin writes of time and nature through the specific examples of the whale as narrated in myth, legend, and observation. In this poem it is nature, represented by sea and whale, that is strong. Conversely, humanity is weak. Chris Semansky in Poetry for Students noted: "In his poem 'Leviathan,' W. S. Merwin describes the multiple ways in which the whale has historically served as a symbol to human culture and the ways in which the image of the whale has served as a receptacle for human hopes and fears."
His obsession with the meaning of America and its values makes Merwin like the great nineteenth-century poet Walt Whitman, L. Edwin Folsom noted in Shenandoah. "His poetry . . . often implicitly and sometimes explicitly responds to Whitman; his twentieth-century sparsity and soberness—his doubts about the value of America—answer, temper, Whitman's nineteenth-century expansiveness and exuberance—his enthusiasm over the American creation." Folsom summarized his comparison by saying, "Whitman's self sought to contain all, to embody past, present, and future; Merwin's self seeks to contain nothing, to empty itself of a dead past. . . . [Having taken a journey in the past,] Merwin does not return to the present replenished with the native ways: he returns only with an affirmation of man's stupidity and inhumanity, and of an irreplaceable emptiness lying beneath this continent. Having re-taken the Whitmanesque American journey, having relived the creation of the country via the medium of poetry, Merwin finds the American creation to be not a creation at all, but a destruction, an imposed obliteration that he believes will be repaid in kind."
The poetic forms of many eras and societies are the foundation for a great deal of Merwin's poetry. His first books contained many pieces inspired by classical models. According to Vernon Young in the American Poetry Review, the poems are traceable to "Biblical tales, Classical myth, love songs from the Age of Chivalry, Renaissance retellings; they comprise carols, roundels, odes, ballads, sestinas, and they contrive golden equivalents of emblematic models: the masque, the Zodiac, the Dance of Death." Merwin's versions are so perfectly rendered, stated Young, that "were you to redistribute these poems, unsigned, among collections of translated material or of English Poetry Down the Ages, any but the most erudite reader would heedlessly accept them as renderings of Theocritus, Catullus, Ronsard. . . . One thing is certain. Before embarking on the narratives published in 1956 and after, Merwin was in secure formal command. Shape and duration, melody, vocal inflection, were under superb control. No stanzaic model was alien to him; no line length was beyond his dexterity." Eric Hartley also commented on the importance of Merwin's background in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: "From the first of his career as a poet, Merwin has steeped himself in other cultures and other literary traditions, and he has been praised as a translator. This eclectic background has given him a sense of the presence of the past, of timelessness in time, that comes across emphatically in his poetry. Without some understanding of this background the reader cannot fully appreciate Merwin's poetry. Moreover, without such appreciation one cannot comprehend the thrust of Merwin's poetic and philosophical development."
However, John Vernon pointed out in a Western Humanities Review article that Merwin's poems are not difficult in a scholarly sense. The problem is the jaded ear of the modern reader. "These are some of the most unacademic poems I have ever read, in the sense that they could never be discussed in a university classroom, since they have no 'meaning' in any usual sense. . . . I think of what Samuel Beckett said about Finnegans Wake: we are too decadent to read this. That is, we are so used to a language that is flattened out and hollowed out, that is slavishly descriptive, that when we encounter a language as delicately modulated and as finely sensual as this, it is like trying to read Braille with boxing gloves on."
Some literary critics have identified Merwin with the group known as the oracular poets, but Merwin himself once commented: "I have not evolved an abstract aesthetic theory and am not aware of belonging to any particular group of writers. I neither read nor write much criticism, and think of its current vast proliferation chiefly as a symptom, inseparable from other technological substitutions. . . . I imagine that a society whose triumphs one after the other emerge as new symbols of death, and that feeds itself by poisoning the earth, may be expected, even while it grows in strength and statistics, to soothe its fears with trumpery hopes, refer to nihilism as progress, dismiss the private authority of the senses as it has cashiered belief, and of course find the arts exploitable but unsatisfying." The essayist for Contemporary Poets admitted that "Merwin has been associated with the tradition of contemporary poets known as the oracular poets, and if his surrealistic style has been compared to that of Roethke, Bly, Wright, Dickey, Plath, Olson, and even Lowell, his apocalyptic vision is entirely his own."
Of his development as a writer, Merwin once said, "I started writing hymns for my father almost as soon as I could write at all, illustrating them. I recall some rather stern little pieces addressed, in a manner I was familiar with, to backsliders, but I can remember too wondering whether there might not be some more liberating mode. In Scranton there was an anthology of Best Loved Poems of the American People in the house, which seemed for a time to afford some clues. But the first real writers that held me were not poets: Conrad first, and then Tolstoy, and it was not until I had received a scholarship and gone away to the university that I began to read poetry steadily and try incessantly, and with abiding desperation, to write it. I was not a satisfactory student; . . . I spent most of my time either in the university library, or riding in the country: I had discovered that the polo and ROTC stables were full of horses with no one to exercise them. I believe I was not noticeably respectful either of the curriculum and its evident purposes, nor of several of its professors, and I was saved from the thoroughly justified impatience of the administration, as I later learned, by the intercessions of R. P. Blackmur, who thought I needed a few years at the place to pick up what education I might be capable of assimilating, and I did in fact gain a limited but invaluable acquaintance with a few modern languages. While I was there, John Berryman, Herman Broch, and Blackmur himself, helped me, by example as much as by design, to find out some things about writing; of course it was years before I began to realize just what I had learned, and from whom. . . . Writing is something I know little about; less at some times than at others. I think, though, that so far as it is poetry it is a matter of correspondences: one glimpses them, pieces of an order, or thinks one does, and tries to convey the sense of what one has seen to those to whom it may matter, including, if possible, one's self."
The success of Merwin's attempts to convey his vision was summed up by Stephen Spender in the New York Review of Books: "These poems communicate a sense of someone watching and waiting, surrounding himself with silence, so that he can see minute particles, listen to infinitesimal sounds, with a passivity of attention, a refusal to disturb with his own observing consciousness the object observed. It is as though things write their own poems through Merwin. At their best they are poems of total attention and as such they protest against our world of total distraction."
Merwin was once asked what social role a poet plays—if any—in America. He commented: "I think there's a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there's still time. I think that's a social role, don't you? . . . We keep expressing our anger and our love, and we hope, hopelessly perhaps, that it will have some effect. But I certainly have moved beyond the despair, or the searing, dumb vision that I felt after writing The Lice; one can't live only in despair and anger without eventually destroying the thing one is angry in defense of. The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us. And you know, in a way, if you don't pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Brunner, Edward J., Poetry As Labor and Privilege: The Writings of W. S. Merwin, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1991.
Christhilf, Mark, W. S. Merwin the Mythmaker, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1986.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 18, 1981.
Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Davis, Cheri, W. S. Merwin, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1981.
Dickey, James, Babel to Byzantium, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1968.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
Hix, H. L., Understanding W. S. Merwin, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1997.
Hoeppner, Edward Haworth, Echoes and Moving Fields: Structure and Subjectivity in the Poetry of W. S. Merwin and John Ashbery, Associated University Presses (Cranberry, NJ), 1994.
Howard, Richard, Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1969.
Hungerford, Edward, Poets in Progress, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1962.
Nelson, Cary, and Ed Folsom, editors, W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1987.
Poetry for Students, Volume 5, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Rexroth, Kenneth, With Eye and Ear, Herder (New York, NY), 1970.
Rexroth, Kenneth, American Poetry in the Twentieth Century, Herder (New York, NY), 1971.
Rosenthal, M. L., The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1960.
Shaw, Robert B., editor, American Poetry since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, Dufour (Chester Springs, PA), 1974.
Stepanchev, Stephen, American Poetry since 1945, Harper (New York, NY), 1965.
American Poetry Review, January-February, 1978.
Booklist, November 1, 1996, review of Lament for the Makers: A Memorial Anthology, p. 476; January 1, 1999, review of The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative, p. 777; March 15, 1999, review of The Folding Cliffs, p. 1276.
Chicago Tribune Book World, December 26, 1982.
Commonweal, June 18, 1999, review of The Folding Cliffs, p. 24.
Concerning Poetry, spring, 1975.
Furioso, spring, 1953.
Hudson Review, winter, 1967-68; summer, 1973; spring, 1999, review of The Folding Cliffs, p. 141.
Iowa Review, winter, 1982, Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom, "Fact Has Two Faces: An Interview with W. S. Merwin," pp. 30-66.
Library Journal, January, 1996, p. 104; October 15, 1998, review of The Folding Cliffs, p. 74; November 1, 1996, review of Lament for the Makers, p. 71.
Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1983.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 21, 1983.
Modern Language Quarterly, March, 1983, pp. 65-79; September, 1988, pp. 262-284.
Modern Poetry Studies, winter, 1975.
Nation, December 14, 1970; December 12, 1994, Gerald Stern, "The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize-1994," p. 733.
New Leader, January 13, 1997, review of Lament for the Makers, p. 15; December 14, 1998, review of The Folding Cliffs, p. 23.
New Mexico Quarterly, autumn, 1964.
New Republic, March 22, 1999, review of The River Sound: Poems and The Folding Cliffs, p. 40.
New Yorker, June 3, 1996, J. D. McClatchy, review of The Vixen: Poems, p. 92; December, 7, 1998, review of The Folding Cliffs, p. 200.
New York Review of Books, May 6, 1971; September 20, 1973; March 27, 1997, review of The Vixen and Lament for the Makers, p. 18.
New York Times Book Review, October 18, 1970; June 19, 1977; August 1, 1982; October 9, 1983; April 4, 1999, Melanie Rehak, "Poetic Justice"; June 6, 1999, review of The River Sound, p. 37; December 5, 1999, review of The River Sound, p. 78.
New York Times Magazine, February 19, 1995, p. 39.
Ontario Review, fall-winter, 1977-78.
Partisan Review, summer, 1958; winter, 1971-72.
Poet and Critic, spring, 1990, pp. 37-40.
Poetry, May, 1953; May, 1961; February, 1963; June, 1964; August, 1974.
Prairie Schooner, fall, 1957; fall, 1962; winter, 1962-63; fall, 1968; winter, 1971-72.
Publishers Weekly, November, 27, 1995, p. 65; February 24, 1997, review of Flower and Hand: Poems, 1977-1983, p. 86.
Sewanee Review, spring, 1974.
Shenandoah, spring, 1968; winter, 1970; spring, 1978.
Southern Review, April, 1980.
Village Voice, July 4, 1974.
Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1973; spring, 1997, review of Lament for the Makers, p. 48; spring, 1999, review of The Folding Cliffs, p. 67; autumn, 1999, review of The River Sound, p. 136.
Voices, January-April, 1953; May-August, 1957; September-December, 1961.
Washington Post Book World, August 31, 1975; September 18, 1977; August 15, 1982; June 3, 1984.
Western Humanities Review, spring, 1970; spring, 1971.
Western Review, spring, 1955.
World Literature Today, autumn, 1996, review of The Vixen, p. 964; spring, 1997, review of Lament for the Makers, p. 391; autumn, 2000, review of The River Sound, p. 820.
Yale Review, summer, 1961; summer, 1968; summer, 1973; July, 1999, review of The River Sound, p. 167.
Steven Barclay Agency Web site,http://www.barclayagency.com/ (August 4, 2004), "William S. Merwin."*