W. S. Merwin

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W. S. Merwin
Born (1927-09-30) September 30, 1927 (age 91)
New York City
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 (born September 30, 1927) is an American poet, credited with over fifty books of poetry, translation and prose.[1] During the 1960s anti-war movement, Merwin's unique craft was thematically characterized by indirect, unpunctuated narration. In the 1980s and 1990s, Merwin's writing influence derived from his interest in Buddhist philosophy and deep ecology. Residing in a rural part of Maui, Hawaii, he writes prolifically and is dedicated to the restoration of the islands' rainforests.

Merwin has received many honors, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (in both 1971 and 2009),[2] the National Book Award for Poetry (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 Merwin the seventeenth United States Poet Laureate to replace the outgoing Kay Ryan.[4][5] Following his receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2009, Merwin is recognized as one of the principal contributors to poetry in the early 21st century.

Early life[edit]

Merwin initially 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 until 1936, when his family moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania. As a child, he 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 that housed a horse and carriage.[6] At the age of five he started writing hymns for his father,[7] who was a Presbyterian minister.[5]


Early career: 1952–1976[edit]

After attending Princeton University in 1952, Merwin married his first wife, 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 older than he—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 was friends with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. In 1968, Merwin moved to New York City, separating from his wife 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]

In 1952 Merwin's first book of poetry, A Mask for Janus, was published in the Yale Younger Poets Series. W. H. Auden selected the work for that distinction. Later, in 1971 Auden and Merwin would exchange harsh words in the pages of The New York Review of Books. Merwin had published "On Being Awarded the Pulitzer Prize" in the June 3, 1971 issue of The New York Review of Books, outlining his objections to the Vietnam War and stating that he was donating his prize money to the draft resistance movement.

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 is also 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 also served as selector of poems of the late American poet Craig Arnold (1967–2009).[11]

Merwin is also known for his poetry about the Vietnam War, and can be included among the canon of Vietnam War-era poets which includes such writers as Robert Bly, 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 much more autobiographical way.[13] The title-poem is about Orpheus, seen as an old drunk. 'Where he gets his spirits / it's a mystery', Merwin writes; 'But the stuff keeps him musical'. Another poem of this period—'Odysseus'—reworks the traditional theme in a way that plays off poems by Stevens and Graves on the same topic.

In the 1960s, Merwin lived in a small apartment in New York City's Greenwich Village,[6] and began to experiment boldly with metrical irregularity. His poems became much less tidy and controlled. He played with the forms of indirect narration typical of this period, a self-conscious experimentation explained in an essay called 'On Open Form' (1969). The Lice (1967) and The Carrier of Ladders (1970) remain his most influential volumes. These poems often used legendary subjects (as in 'The Hydra' or 'The Judgment of Paris') to explore highly personal themes.

Later career: 1977–present[edit]

In Merwin's later volumes—such as The Compass Flower (1977), Opening the Hand (1983), and The Rain in the Trees (1988)—one sees him transforming earlier themes in fresh ways, developing an almost Zen-like indirection. His latest poems are densely imagistic, dream-like, and full of praise for the natural world. He has lived in Hawaii since the 1970s. Migration: New and Selected Poems won the 2005 National Book Award for poetry.[14] A lifelong friend of James Wright, Merwin wrote an elegy to him that appears in the 2008 volume From the Other World: Poems in Memory of James Wright.

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

The Shadow of Sirius,[16] 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 Aitkin in 1976.[17]

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, lovingly restored property in Haiku, Maui, which has undergone an astonishing transformation under their care, 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.

Merwin's most recent book of poetry, Garden Time[18] (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."[19]

In 2017, Copper Canyon Press published The Essential W.S. Merwin,[20] 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.

Personal life[edit]

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


Each year links to its corresponding "[year] in poetry" or "[year] in literature" article:

Other accolades[edit]

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


Each year links to its corresponding "[year] in poetry" or "[year] in literature" article.


  • 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)[21]
  • 1954: The Dancing Bears, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press (reprinted as part of The First Four Books of Poems, 1975)[21]
  • 1956: Green with Beasts, New York: Knopf (reprinted as part of The First Four Books of Poems, 1975)[21]
  • 1960: The Drunk in the Furnace, New York: Macmillan (reprinted as part of The First Four Books of Poems, 1975)[21]
  • 1963: The Moving Target, New York: Atheneum[21]
  • 1966: Collected Poems, New York: Atheneum[21]
  • 1967: The Lice, New York: Atheneum; (reprinted in 2017, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press)
  • 1969: Animae, San Francisco: Kayak[21]
  • 1970: The Carrier of Ladders, New York: Atheneum[21] – winner of the Pulitzer Prize[2]
  • 1970: Signs, illustrated by A. D. Moore; Iowa City, Iowa: Stone Wall Press[21]
  • 1973: Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, New York: Atheneum[21]
  • 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)[21]
  • 1977: The Compass Flower, New York: Atheneum[21]
  • 1978: Feathers From the Hill, Iowa City, Iowa: Windhover[21]
  • 1982: Finding the Islands, San Francisco: North Point Press[21]
  • 1983: Opening the Hand, New York: Atheneum[21]
  • 1988: The Rain in the Trees, New York: Knopf[21]
  • 1988: Selected Poems, New York: Atheneum[21]
  • 1993: The Second Four Books of Poems, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press
  • 1993: Travels: Poems, New York: Knopf[21] – winner of the 1993 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize[23]
  • 1996: The Vixen: Poems, New York: Knopf[21]
  • 1997: Flower and Hand: Poems, 1977–1983 Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press[21]
  • 1998: The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative, a "novel-in-verse" New York: Knopf[29]
  • 1999: The River Sound: Poems, New York: Knopf[21]
  • 2001: The Pupil, New York: Knopf[21]
  • 2005: Migration: New and Selected Poems, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press[21] – winner of the National Book Award for Poetry[14]
  • 2005: Present Company, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press[21]
  • 2008: The Shadow of Sirius, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press[30] – winner of the Pulitzer Prize[2]
  • 2013: The Collected Poems of W. S. Merwin, New York: Library of America
  • 2014: The Moon Before Morning, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press[31]
  • 2016: Garden Time, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press[18]
  • 2017: The Essential W.S. Merwin, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press[20]
List of poems
Title Year First published Reprinted/collected
Alba 2008 The New Yorker 84/35 (November 3, 2008)
The Blackboard 2014 The New Yorker 90/32 (October 20, 2014)
Shadow Questions 2016 Garden Time (2016)
Another Year Comes 1960 The New Yorker Book of Poems (1974)
The Asians Dying 1966 The New Yorker Book of Poems (1974)
Burning Mountain 1958
Forgetting clouds 2014 "Forgetting clouds". The New Yorker. 90 (9): 56. April 21, 2014.
The Herds 1966 The New Yorker Book of Poems (1974)
Lemuels Blessing 1962 The New Yorker Book of Poems (1974)
The Old Room 1969 The New Yorker Book of Poems (1974)
Peasant 1967 The New Yorker Book of Poems (1974)
Plea for a Captive 1960 The New Yorker Book of Poems (1974)
The Portland (Going Out) 1957 The New Yorker Book of Poems (1974)
Resolution 1964 The New Yorker Book of Poems (1974)
Telephone ringing in the labyrinth 2012 The New York Review of Books 59/9 (May 24, 2012)
The Way to the River 1962 The New Yorker Book of Poems (1974)
The Widow 1966 The New Yorker Book of Poems (1974)


  • 1970: The Miner's Pale Children, New York: Atheneum (reprinted in 1994, New York: Holt)[21]
  • 1977: Houses and Travellers, New York: Atheneum (reprinted in 1994, New York: Holt)[21]
  • Regions of Memory
  • 1982: Unframed Originals: Recollections
  • 1992: The Lost Uplands: Stories of Southwest France, New York: Knopf
  • 2002: The Mays of Ventadorn, National Geographic Directions Series; Washington: National Geographic[21]
  • 2004: The Ends of the Earth, essays, Washington: Shoemaker & Hoard[21]
  • 2005: Summer Doorways: A Memoir
  • 2007: The Book of Fables, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press


  • 1956: Darkling Child (with Dido Milroy), produced this year[21]
  • 1957: Favor Island, produced this year at Poets' Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts (broadcast in 1958 by Third Programme, British Broadcasting Corporation)[21]
  • 1961: The Gilded West, produced this year at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, England[21]



  • 1961: West Wind: Supplement of American Poetry, London: Poetry Book Society[21]
  • 1996: Lament for the Makers: A Memorial Anthology (compiler), Washington: Counterpoint[21]

Other sources[edit]


Merwin's literary papers are held at The Rare Book & Manuscript Library (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). The collection, which is open to researchers, consists of some 5,500 archival items and 450 printed books.[33][34]


  1. ^ "Amazon.com Official Profile". Retrieved 7 October 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d "Poetry". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-04-08.
  3. ^ "2005 National Book Awards Winners and Finalists, The National Book Foundation". Nationalbook.org. Retrieved 21 January 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 21 January 2018.
  8. ^ Smith, Dinitia (February 19, 1995). "A Poet of Their Own". New York Times. Retrieved March 30, 2010.
  9. ^ "An Online Interview with W. S. Merwin". English.illinois.edu. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  10. ^ Wutz, Michael; Crimmel, Hal (21 May 2015). "Conversations with W. S. Merwin". Univ. Press of Mississippi. Retrieved 21 January 2018 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ "Today's poem is "asunder"". Verse Daily. Retrieved 17 February 2017.
  12. ^ Mosson, Gregg. "American Poetry: Vietnam and Today". The Potomac. Retrieved 17 February 2017.
  13. ^ Michael Wutz, Hal Crimmel, Michael and Hal Crimmel (2015). Conversations with W. S. Merwin. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi. ISBN 1628462221. Retrieved 17 February 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 (8 October 1998). "Hawaii's History, By Chapter and Verse" (PDF). Newsday. Retrieved 17 February 2017.
  16. ^ "Copper Canyon Press: The Shadow of Sirius". coppercanyonpress.org. Retrieved 26 September 2018.
  17. ^ "Featured Scholars and Poets – The Buddha". Pbs.org. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  18. ^ a b [1]
  19. ^ Gordinier, Jeff (19 September 2016). "Memories Distilled by 2 Radically Different Poets". NYTimes.com. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  20. ^ a b "Copper Canyon Press: The Essential W.S. Merwin, Poetry by W.S. Merwin". Coppercanyonpress.org. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  21. ^ 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 Merwin biography at Poetry Foundation, Accessed October 23, 2010
  22. ^ 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
  23. ^ 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
  24. ^ Routledge Staff (2003). International Who's Who of Authors and Writers 2004. Routledge. p. 383. ISBN 1-85743-179-0. Retrieved 2008-07-20.
  25. ^ a b c W. S. Merwin Archived 2005-10-01 at the Wayback Machine at Barclay Agency, Accessed October 23, 2010
  26. ^ "The 2009 Pulitzer Prize Winners/Poetry", Pulitzer.org; Accessed October 23, 2010
  27. ^ "Kenyon Review for Literary Achievement". KenyonReview.org.
  28. ^ "There's a flame in me that thinks…". Fundacja im. Zbigniewa Herberta. Retrieved January 25, 2014.
  29. ^ "The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative (Hardcover)"; Amazon.com; 2010
  30. ^ Farr, Sheila, "Poet ponders life's contrasts in 'The Shadow of Sirius'", book review, October 30, 2010, The Seattle Times, retrieved June 8, 2010
  31. ^ a b [2][permanent dead link]
  32. ^ Archive Archived 2010-03-02 at the Wayback Machine at Hudson Review Accessed October 23, 2010
  33. ^ "Finding Aid for the W.S. Merwin Papers, Merwin 1". Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved March 29, 2010.
  34. ^ "Finding Aid for the W.S. Merwin Book Collection (UIU00141)". Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved March 29, 2010.

External links[edit]