W. S. Merwin

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W. S. Merwin
Merwin in 2003
Merwin in 2003
BornWilliam Stanley Merwin
(1927-09-30)September 30, 1927
New York City, New York, U.S.
DiedMarch 15, 2019(2019-03-15) (aged 91)
Haiku, Hawaii, U.S.
EducationWyoming Seminary, Kingston, PA 1944; Princeton University (attended)
GenrePoetry, prose, translation
Notable awardsPEN Translation Prize
Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
1971, 2009
Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry
Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize
Tanning Prize
National Book Award
United States Poet Laureate
Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award
SpouseDorothy Jeanne Ferry
Dido Milroy
Paula Dunaway (1983–2017)

William Stanley Merwin (September 30, 1927 – March 15, 2019) was an American poet who wrote more than fifty books of poetry and prose, and produced many works in translation.[1] During the 1960s anti-war movement, Merwin's unique craft was thematically characterized by indirect, unpunctuated narration. In the 1980s and 1990s, his writing influence derived from an interest in Buddhist philosophy and deep ecology. Residing in a rural part of Maui, Hawaii, he wrote prolifically and was dedicated to the restoration of the island's rainforests.

Merwin received many honors, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1971 and 2009;[2] the National Book Award for Poetry in 2005,[3] and the Tanning Prize—one of the highest honors bestowed by the Academy of American Poets—as well as the Golden Wreath of the Struga Poetry Evenings. In 2010, the Library of Congress named him the 17th United States Poet Laureate.[4][5]

Early life[edit]

Merwin grew up on this street in Union City, New Jersey, which was renamed for him in 2006.

W. S. Merwin was born in New York City on September 30, 1927. He grew up on the corner of Fourth Street and New York Avenue in Union City, New Jersey, and lived there until 1936, when his family moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania. As a child, Merwin was enamored of the natural world, sometimes finding himself talking to the large tree in his back yard. He was also fascinated with things that he saw as links to the past, such as the building behind his home that had once been a barn which housed a horse and carriage.[6] At the age of five he started writing hymns for his father,[7] a Presbyterian minister.[5]


Early career: 1952–1976[edit]

After attending Princeton University in 1952, Merwin married Dorothy Jeanne Ferry, and moved to Spain. During his stay there, while visiting the renowned poet Robert Graves at his homestead on the island of Majorca, he served as tutor to Graves's son. There, he met Dido Milroy, fifteen years his senior, with whom he collaborated on a play and whom he later married and lived with in London. In 1956, Merwin moved to Boston for a fellowship at the Poets' Theater. He returned to London, where he befriended Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. In 1968, Merwin moved to New York City, separating from his wife Dido Milroy, who stayed at their home in France. In the late 1970s, Merwin moved to Hawaii and eventually was divorced from Dido Milroy. He married Paula Dunaway in 1983.[8]

From 1956 to 1957, Merwin was also playwright-in-residence at the Poet's Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts; he became poetry editor at The Nation in 1962. Besides being a prolific poet, he was a respected translator of Spanish, French, Latin and Italian literature and poetry (including Lazarillo de Tormes and Dante's Purgatorio)[9][10] as well as poetry from Sanskrit, Yiddish, Middle English, Japanese and Quechua. He served as selector of poems of the American poet Craig Arnold (1967–2009).[11]

Merwin is known for his poetry about the Vietnam War, and can be included among the canon of Vietnam War-era poets which includes writers Robert Bly, Robert Duncan, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg and Yusef Komunyakaa.[12]

Merwin's early subjects were frequently tied to mythological or legendary themes, while many of his poems featured animals. A volume called The Drunk in the Furnace (1960) marked a change for Merwin, in that he began to write in a more autobiographical way.[13]

In the 1960s, Merwin lived in a small apartment in New York City's Greenwich Village.[6]

Later career: 1977–2019[edit]

Merwin's volume Migration: New and Selected Poems won the 2005 National Book Award for poetry.[14]

In 1998, Merwin wrote Folding Cliffs: A Narrative, an ambitious novel-in-verse about Hawaiʻi in history and legend.[15]

The Shadow of Sirius, published in 2008 by Copper Canyon Press, was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.[2]

In June 2010, the Library of Congress named Merwin the seventeenth United States Poet Laureate to replace the outgoing Kay Ryan.[4][5] He is the subject of the 2014 documentary film Even Though the Whole World Is Burning. Merwin appeared in the PBS documentary The Buddha, released in 2010. He had moved to Hawaii to study with the Zen Buddhist master Robert Aitken in 1976.[16]

In 2010, with his wife Paula, he co-founded The Merwin Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving his hand-built, off-the-grid poet's home and 18-acre restored property in Haiku, Maui, which has been transformed from an "agricultural wasteland" to a "Noah's Ark" for rare palm trees, one of the largest and most biodiverse collections of palms in the world.[17]

Merwin's last book of poetry, Garden Time (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), was composed during the difficult process of losing his eyesight. When he could no longer see well enough to write, he dictated poems to his wife, Paula. It is a book about aging and the practice of living one's life in the present. Writing about Garden Time in The New York Times, Jeff Gordinier suggests that "Merwin's work feels like part of some timeless continuum, a river that stretches all the way back to Han Shan and Li Po."[18]

In 2017, Copper Canyon Press published The Essential W. S. Merwin, a book which traces the seven decade legacy of Merwin's poetry, with selections ranging from his 1952 debut, A Mask for Janus, to 2016's Garden Time, as well as a selection of translations and lesser known prose narratives. Merwin's literary papers are held at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. The collection consists of some 5,500 archival items, and 450 printed books.[19][20]


Merwin lived on land that was part of a pineapple plantation, on the northeast coast of Maui, Hawaii.[4][5]

W.S Merwin died on March 15, 2019, in his sleep at his home, as reported by his publisher Copper Canyon Press.[21]


Other accolades[edit]

Merwin's home town honored him in 2006 by renaming a local street near his childhood home W. S. Merwin Way.[6]



  • 1952: A Mask for Janus, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press; awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize, 1952 (reprinted as part of The First Four Books of Poems, 1975)[22]
  • 1954: The Dancing Bears, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press (reprinted as part of The First Four Books of Poems, 1975)[22]
  • 1956: Green with Beasts, New York: Knopf (reprinted as part of The First Four Books of Poems, 1975)[22]
  • 1960: The Drunk in the Furnace, New York: Macmillan (reprinted as part of The First Four Books of Poems, 1975)[22]
  • 1963: The Moving Target, New York: Atheneum[22]
  • 1966: Collected Poems, New York: Atheneum[22]
  • 1967: The Lice, New York: Atheneum; (reprinted in 2017, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press)[31]
  • 1969: Animae, San Francisco: Kayak[22]
  • 1970: The Carrier of Ladders, New York: Atheneum[22] – winner of the Pulitzer Prize[2]
  • 1970: Signs, illustrated by A. D. Moore; Iowa City, Iowa: Stone Wall Press[22]
  • 1973: Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, New York: Atheneum[22]
  • 1975: The First Four Books of Poems, containing A Mask for Janus, The Dancing Bears, Green with Beasts, and The Drunk in the Furnace, New York: Atheneum; (reprinted in 2000, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press)[22]
  • 1977: The Compass Flower, New York: Atheneum[22]
  • 1978: Feathers From the Hill, Iowa City, Iowa: Windhover[22]
  • 1982: Finding the Islands, San Francisco: North Point Press[22]
  • 1983: Opening the Hand, New York: Atheneum[22]
  • 1988: The Rain in the Trees, New York: Knopf[22]
  • 1988: Selected Poems, New York: Atheneum[22]
  • 1993: Travels: Poems, New York: Knopf[22] – winner of the 1993 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize[24]
  • 1996: The Vixen: Poems, New York: Knopf[22]
  • 1997: Flower and Hand: Poems, 1977–1983 Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press[22]
  • 1998: The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative, a "novel-in-verse" New York: Knopf[32]
  • 1999: The River Sound: Poems, New York: Knopf[22]
  • 2001: The Pupil, New York: Knopf[22]
  • 2005: Migration: New and Selected Poems, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press[22] – winner of the National Book Award for Poetry[14]
  • 2005: Present Company, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press[22]
  • 2008: The Shadow of Sirius, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press[33] – winner of the Pulitzer Prize;[2] 2009: Tarset, Northumberland, UK: Bloodaxe Books
  • 2014: The Moon Before Morning, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press; Hexham, Northumberland, UK: Bloodaxe Books
  • 2016: Garden Time, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press; Hexham, Northumberland, UK: Bloodaxe Books
  • 2017: The Essential W. S. Merwin, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press


  • 1970: The Miner's Pale Children, New York: Atheneum (reprinted in 1994, New York: Holt)[22]
  • 1977: Houses and Travellers, New York: Atheneum (reprinted in 1994, New York: Holt)[22]
  • 2002: The Mays of Ventadorn, National Geographic Directions Series; Washington: National Geographic[22]
  • 2004: The Ends of the Earth, essays, Washington: Shoemaker & Hoard[22]


  • 1956: Darkling Child (with Dido Milroy), produced that year[22]
  • 1957: Favor Island, produced this year at Poets' Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts (broadcast in 1958 by Third Programme, British Broadcasting Corporation)[22]
  • 1961: The Gilded West, produced this year at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, England[22]


As editor[edit]

  • 1961: West Wind: Supplement of American Poetry, London: Poetry Book Society[22]
  • 1996: Lament for the Makers: A Memorial Anthology (compiler), Washington: Counterpoint[22]

Other sources[edit]


  1. ^ "Amazon.com Official Profile". Retrieved October 7, 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d "Poetry". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved April 8, 2012.
  3. ^ "2005 National Book Awards Winners and Finalists, The National Book Foundation". Nationalbook.org. Retrieved January 21, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d Kennicott, Philip (July 1, 2010). "W. S. Merwin, Hawaii-based poet, will serve as 17th U.S. laureate". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 1, 2010.
  5. ^ a b c d Cohen, Patricia (June 30, 2010). "W. S. Merwin to Be Named Poet Laureate". The New York Times. Retrieved July 9, 2010.
  6. ^ a b c Diaz, Lana Rose. "Merwin Speaks"; The Union City Reporter, July 11, 2010, pages 1 & 9.
  7. ^ "About W. S. Merwin". English.illinois.edu. Retrieved January 21, 2018.
  8. ^ Smith, Dinitia (February 19, 1995). "A Poet of Their Own". The New York Times. Retrieved March 30, 2010.
  9. ^ "An Online Interview with W. S. Merwin". English.illinois.edu. Retrieved January 21, 2018.
  10. ^ Wutz, Michael; Crimmel, Hal (May 21, 2015). Conversations with W. S. Merwin. Univ. Press of Mississippi. ISBN 9781626746190. Retrieved January 21, 2018 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ "Today's poem is "asunder"". Verse Daily. Retrieved February 17, 2017.
  12. ^ Mosson, Gregg. "American Poetry: Vietnam and Today". The Potomac. Retrieved February 17, 2017.
  13. ^ Michael Wutz, Hal Crimmel, Michael and Hal Crimmel (2015). Conversations with W. S. Merwin. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1628462227. Retrieved February 17, 2017.
  14. ^ a b c "National Book Awards – 2005". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-04-08.
    (With acceptance speech by Merwin, essay by Patrick Rosal from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog, and other material.)
  15. ^ Kramer, Michael (October 8, 1998). "Hawaii's History, By Chapter and Verse" (PDF). Newsday. Retrieved February 17, 2017.
  16. ^ "Featured Scholars and Poets – The Buddha". Pbs.org. Retrieved January 21, 2018.
  17. ^ "The Merwin Conservancy". The Merwin Conservancy. Retrieved March 16, 2019.
  18. ^ Gordinier, Jeff (September 19, 2016). "Memories Distilled by 2 Radically Different Poets". NYTimes.com. Retrieved January 21, 2018.
  19. ^ "Finding Aid for the W. S. Merwin Papers, Merwin 1". Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. hdl:10111/UIU00002. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  20. ^ "Finding Aid for the W. S. Merwin Book Collection (UIU00141)". Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. hdl:10111/UIU00141. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  21. ^ "Poet W. S. Merwin, Who Was Inspired By Conservation, Dies At 91". NPR.org. March 15, 2019. Retrieved March 16, 2019.
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax ay az Merwin biography at Poetry Foundation, Accessed October 23, 2010
  23. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Brennan, Elizabeth A. and Elizabeth C. Clarage, "1971: W. S. Merwin" article, p. 534, Who's Who of Pulitzer Prize Winners Phoenix, Arizona: The Oryx Press (1999), ISBN 1-57356-111-8, retrieved via Google Books on June 8, 2010
  24. ^ a b c d e f g h i j News release, "Poet W. S. Merwin Reads at Library of Congress October 15, September 22, 1997, Library of Congress website, retrieved June 8, 2010
  25. ^ Routledge Staff (2003). International Who's Who of Authors and Writers 2004. Routledge. p. 383. ISBN 1-85743-179-0. Retrieved July 20, 2008.
  26. ^ a b c W. S. Merwin Archived October 1, 2005, at the Wayback Machine at Barclay Agency, Accessed October 23, 2010
  27. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
  28. ^ "The 2009 Pulitzer Prize Winners/Poetry", Pulitzer.org; Accessed October 23, 2010
  29. ^ "Kenyon Review for Literary Achievement". KenyonReview.org.
  30. ^ "There's a flame in me that thinks…". Fundacja im. Zbigniewa Herberta. Retrieved January 25, 2014.
  31. ^ "LC Catalog". catalog.loc.gov. Retrieved April 24, 2019.
  32. ^ "The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative (Hardcover)"; Amazon.com; 2010
  33. ^ Farr, Sheila (October 30, 2010), "Poet ponders life's contrasts in 'The Shadow of Sirius'" (book review), The Seattle Times. Retrieved June 8, 2010.
  34. ^ Archive at The Hudson Review Accessed October 23, 2010 Archived March 2, 2010, at the Wayback Machine

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]