Haʻiku, HI — W.S. Merwin, former United States poet laureate, Academy of American Poets Chancellor, environmental activist, literary translator and two-time Pulitzer prize-winning author, passed away peacefully in his sleep on March 15, 2019 at his home in the Pe’ahi watershed near Haʻiku-Pauwela, HI.
One of the nation’s most decorated and prolific poets, Merwin published over fifty books, including The Shadow of Sirius (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 2009), Migration: New and Selected Poems (National Book Award, 2007), and The Carrier of Ladders (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1971). He was also dedicated to the art of literary translation, and published dozens of books in translation, including Selected Translations, 1948-2011 (2013), The Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, as well as verse by Pablo Neruda, Osip Mandelstam and Dante Alighieri.
Long at the forefront of a broad ecological and poetic consciousness, Merwin’s poems often grappled with the profound power of memory, landscape and a revolutionary engagement with language. His poetry, as well as his life as a poet, was flavored with a moral and political imperative, as when, during the Vietnam War, Merwin refused his first Pulitzer Prize and requested that his award money be divided between a peace activist, Alan Blanchard, and the Draft Resistance movement.
While Merwin’s poems may have occasionally addressed the topics of their time, they remained singular and immediately recognizable in their approach, as they simultaneously introduced a distinctive style to American poetry, devoid of punctuation, rife with suggestion, irreducibly universal in their perspective and often fabular in their diction.
W.H. Auden, writing about Merwin’s first collection, A Mask for Janus, which Auden had chosen for the Yale Younger Poets series, noted Merwin’s “admirable respect for the traditions of poetic craftsmanship.” (Auden, however, would later respectfully criticize Merwin for his public refusal of his first Pulitzer Prize.)
Writing in the New York Review of Books about his collection Shadow of Sirius, Helen Vendler commented, “In his personal anonymity, his strict individuated manner, his defense of the earth, and his heartache at time’s passing, Merwin has become instantly recognizable on the page; he has made for himself that most difficult of creations, an accomplished style.”
The poet Edward Hirsch has written, “W. S. Merwin is one of the greatest poets of our age. He is a rare spiritual presence in American life and letters (the Thoreau of our era).”
Michael Wiegers, his longtime editor at Copper Canyon Press, said, “While we have lost a tremendous friend, the loss to American poetry is even more profound. From the stylistic inventions he introduced to the catalyzing force of his work in translation and international poetics, his influence on American poetry has been without equal.”
Born in New York City in 1927, and raised in New Jersey and Scranton, Pennsylvania, Merwin was the son of a Presbyterian minister. 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.” Merwin later attended Princeton University and studied with R.P. Blackmur and John Berryman. As he said in an interview, “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.” After graduating from Princeton, he moved to Europe and worked as a translator and tutor, first for the royal family of Portugal, and later in Mallorca, Spain as a tutor for the son of Robert Graves. He would shortly thereafter buy a derelict farmhouse in the rural Dordogne Valley of Southern France, and restore it over many years. Many of the people and places of that area are recounted in his prose books The Lost Uplands and The Mays of Ventadorn.
In the mid-1970s, Merwin moved to Maui to study Zen Buddhism with Robert Aitken, who encouraged Merwin to purchase a denuded parcel of land on the island. He would build his home there and soon after, met his wife Paula Dunaway. The two attentively replanted their plot of land in the Pe’ahi Valley on the north shore of Maui, Hawaii. Slowly transforming a “wasteland” one sapling at a time, into the thriving 19-acre palm forest that it is today, Merwin remained a dedicated and treasured member of the environmentalist community. The couple later established a non-profit organization The Merwin Conservancy in order to preserve and protect their home, and its biodiverse landscape that includes over 3,000 palms, as well as other rare and endangered flora. In 2015, Merwin and his lifetime of work, both poetical and environmental, was the subject of the documentary film, Even Though the Whole World Is Burning.
Sonnet Coggins,, Executive Director of The Merwin Conservancy, said: “William Merwin leaves this life having fully lived and practiced his values and his care for this world. He expressed this care with exquisite beauty in his poetry and in his garden, and through both he touched the lives of countless people. Together, we will safeguard and share his incredible legacy to renew our world through imagination, and embody in our every gesture the same integrity with which he lived his life.”
Merwin’s final original collection of poems, Garden Time, was published in 2016, and two retrospective collections, a 50th Anniversary Edition of The Lice, and The Essential W.S. Merwin, were published in 2017. He is survived by sister Ruth Moser, and stepsons Matthew Carlos Schwartz and John Burnham Schwartz. The family asks that in lieu of flowers or cards, donations in W.S. Merwin’s honor be made to the nonprofit organization he founded, The Merwin Conservancy.
FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
— W.S. Merwin
For Media Inquiries, Please Contact:
Sara Tekula, Director of Programs