The Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University mourns the loss of and pays tribute to poet W.S. Merwin, Princeton Class of 1948. Merwin’s death on March 15, 2019, at the age of 91 at his home in Hawaii was confirmed by a spokesperson for his publisher, Copper Canyon Press.
Merwin served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2010 to 2011 and received two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, and many other honors. In addition to his extensive poetry he was known for his volumes of prose and translation of poetry from a range of languages.
Following is a tribute to W.S. Merwin by Tracy K. Smith, current U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and Director of Princeton’s Program in Creative Writing:
The last time I met W.S. Merwin was just over a year ago at his home on Maui, as the guest of the Merwin Conservancy, which he and his wife, the late Paula Schwartz, founded to support poetry and ecology. We sat on the large veranda Hawaiians refer to as a lanai and talked. There was a bird that would land on a porch railing, wait a moment, then approach Merwin to eat a blueberry from his hand. This happened several times while we sat there, and I came to suspect it might have been an ordinary occurrence.
I knew Merwin had been the classmate of poet Galway Kinnell while the two were undergraduates at Princeton in the late 1940s. That afternoon at his home, Merwin told me about studying with critic R.P. Blackmur and poet John Berryman in Princeton’s Creative Writing program in those years. His poem “Berryman” describes the profound impact of Berryman as a teacher:
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
Merwin’s poems are driven by a profound sense of the mystery surrounding human existence, a staunch opposition to the violence of war, and a deep reverence for the environment.
What I feel, reading his work, is an imagination capable of grasping the connections uniting life across species, geographies, and eras. This Zen-like sense of oneness is enlarging and consoling—but it’s also chastening, calling attention to the many past and present failures for which we humans are responsible.
In “Chord,” Merwin describes the devastation of a sandalwood forest in Hawaii during the 19th Century, a history he interweaves with the story of the life and death of the poet John Keats. The poem is a brief catalog of seemingly unrelated events, but it argues persuasively that nothing happens in isolation, and that we the nameless and the famous are all of us implicated in the ongoing exploitation of the earth.
The Hawaiian landscape is a vivid character in “Chord” and a great many other of Merwin’s poems. In the late 1970s he moved to the island of Maui and built a home on an 18-acre plot of land that had been decimated by a failed pineapple plantation. Over more than 40 years, Merwin and Paula coaxed that barren land into a lush rain forest, reviving several species of near-extinct palm trees in the process.
Imagining the ways Merwin came to understand that land, and to coax it into fruition, feels like a corollary to his work as a poet. Over the course of his career, he developed a relationship to the poetic line that allowed his poems to become spare, clear, capable of managing complex and sometimes abstract subject matter without the need for punctuation. I love the way this plays out in a brief poem like “For the Anniversary of My Death,” whose first stanza deftly guides the reader toward an understanding of the poem’s surprising title:
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
I’m captivated by this version of what dying might be like. But I think the poem becomes most moving and surprising in its second stanza, when it takes stock of the strange beauty and grace of daily existence—and of the moments in life when one feels the presence of that which defies understanding. Indelibly, the poem renders that mystery without reducing it to a specific vocabulary or imposing fixed parameters:
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
The first time I met Merwin I was a student at Columbia. I was a student in Lucille Clifton’s workshop, and she implored all of us to attend a reading Merwin would be giving on campus. The two were close friends, which initially surprised me. But I can see now how both poets were driven by similar visions of hope and conscience. And I can see how both strove toward an uncomplicated, transparent poetry capable of speaking to life’s greatest urgencies. My classmates and I went obediently to hear Merwin read his translations of Mexican poet Jaime Sabines. Captivated by these poems, I set out to read Merwin’s nimble, lyrical, life-filled translations of Pablo Neruda—translations that (as I saw it) rescued the Chilean poet from a number of stiff, dated, oftentimes flippant previous renderings—and which remain some of the very best in English today. Merwin translated across numerous languages, and the results are always beautiful, unlabored-seeming and eminently accessible.
Merwin’s death marks a terrible loss for poetry. But the largeness of his vision, and the fact that his work is so profound as to be inexhaustible, is an immense consolation.
To read more about W.S. Merwin’s passing and legacy: