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W.S. Merwin
W.S. Merwin
Profile of W.S. Merwin Biography of W.S. Merwin Interview with W.S. Merwin W.S. Merwin Photo Gallery

W.S. Merwin Biography

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry

W.S. Merwin Date of birth: September 30, 1927

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  W.S. Merwin

Born in New York City, William Stanley Merwin spent most of his childhood in Union City, New Jersey, and in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was preoccupied with poetry and the magic of words from an early age. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and Merwin began writing hymns for his father's church at age five. A sympathetic high school Spanish teacher encouraged his verse-making, and urged him to try his hand at translating the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.

W.S. Merwin Biography Photo
Although his parents lacked the means to send him to college, he won an academic scholarship to Princeton University, where he waited on tables at one of the school's elite dining clubs to help pay his expenses. At Princeton, he fell under the influence of the prominent critic and poet R.P. Blackmur and his graduate assistant, the poet John Berryman. Merwin acquired a thorough grounding in the fundamentals of poetry and began to seriously consider a career in literature. After graduation, he stayed at Princeton for another year to continue his study of Romance languages, preparing for his future work as a translator of French, Spanish, Latin and Italian literature.

Out of school, Merwin found work as a private tutor to the children of rich families. In a fateful development, he was hired to tutor the son of the British author Robert Graves, who lived on the Spanish island of Majorca. Primarily a poet, Graves had won renown with his memoir of combat in the First World War, Goodbye To All That. He was also well-known for his novels of ancient Rome, such as I, Claudius, and for his study of mythology, The White Goddess. Through Graves and his friends, Merwin met many of the great names in the English literary world, including the most influential poet of the era, the American-born T.S. Eliot. After leaving the Graves household, Merwin moved to London, where he made translations for the BBC, including the Spanish verse epic El Cid.

In 1952, when Merwin was only 24, a volume of his verse, The Mask of Janus, was accepted for publication by the Yale Younger Poets series. The series was edited by the poet W.H. Auden, second only to Eliot in the English-speaking world. Auden's praise brought Merwin to the attention of the poetry-reading public. Merwin's early verse showed the strong influence of Graves and of Eliot's old friend Ezra Pound, with its use of traditional forms, and its wide-ranging allusions to classical literature and mythology. Merwin's sensitive observation of nature and animals was distinctly his own and would come to the fore in his next collections, The Dancing Bears and Green With Beasts.

W.S. Merwin Biography Photo
For many years, Merwin and his English wife, Dido Milroy, lived in a farmhouse in Southwest France, a setting he would describe in his 1992 book, The Lost Uplands. At the time, Merwin was immersed in medieval literature and consumed with the idea of creating modern verse drama. He returned to the United States in 1956 to serve as playwright-in-residence at the Poets Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he made the acquaintance of other young poets -- Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich and Donald Hall -- who were all trying to find a contemporary voice for American poetry. In this setting, Merwin eventually lost interest in verse drama. His turn away from classical models, to contemporary diction and concerns, was marked with the 1960 publication of his book The Drunk in the Furnace. On returning to London, he befriended the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, who were also moving poetry away from the formality of Eliot's generation to a more colloquial style and more personal subject matter. The success of Merwin's new direction was affirmed when his 1963 volume, The Moving Target, received the National Book Award. In the same year, Merwin published his translation of the medieval French epic The Song of Roland.

W.S. Merwin Biography Photo
Separated from his wife, Merwin spent more of his time in New York City, and served as poetry editor of the liberal weekly The Nation. In his 1967 volume, The Lice, Merwin pursued a more experimental course in his verse, embracing the irregular meters he propounded in a much-discussed essay, "On Open Form." When he received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 1970 book, The Carrier of Ladders, he took the occasion to publicize his opposition to the Vietnam War, prompting a public split with W.H. Auden. In addition to the 1973 collection Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, Merwin's activities in the 1970s included collaborations with other scholars, producing English translations of works from Chinese, Japanese, Greek and Russian.

His 1978 volume, Feathers From the Hill, received the Bollingen Prize, completing a trifecta of the most coveted awards in American poetry. At the same time, he had become increasingly interested in Buddhism and the philosophy of deep ecology. After a number of visits to Hawaii, he settled on the island of Maui, a setting reflected in his books of the 1980s: Finding the Islands, Opening the Hand and The Rain in the Trees. His 1998 book The Folding Cliffs is a verse narrative of Hawaiian history and legend. More recent books include the poetry collections The River Sound and The Pupil as well as translations of Dante's Purgatorio and the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

W.S. Merwin Biography Photo
His other prose works include The Mays of Netadorn, published by National Geographic Directions, and The Ends of the Earth, a collection of his essays on nature and exploration. In 1994, he became the first recipient of the Tanning Prize, a $100,000 award presented by the Academy of American Poets at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. Fifty years of Merwin's poetry were collected in Migration: Selected Poems 1951-2001, a volume honored with the National Book Award. Merwin's anti-war convictions have not diminished with the years. In 2003, he returned to Washington with a delegation of "Poets Against the War" to protest the planned American invasion of Iraq. Two years later, Merwin published a brilliantly lucid memoir, Summer Doorways.

Today, he continues to live on Maui with his wife Paula. He maintains a disciplined writing schedule, while devoting the rest of his energy to the preservation of Hawaii's environment and the restoration of the rain forest around his home. In 2009, W.S. Merwin was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize for his collection of new poems, The Shadow of Sirius. The following year the Library of Congress selected him to serve as the nation's 17th Poet Laureate. SInce his appointment, Merwin's poems have come to play a distinct role in the public life of the United States. In January 2011, when nine people were killed and 13 wounded during the attempted assasination of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, W.S. Merwin's poem "To the New Year" was read aloud as the closing words of a nationally televised memorial service.

This page last revised on Jan 19, 2011 13:49 EDT
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