W.S. Merwin began his life in poetry at age five, writing hymns for his minister father’s Presbyterian services. Author of eighteen books of poetry, five books of prose, and translator of twenty works of European and Asian languages, Merwin has been awarded most of the major prizes in American letters, including the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award (1952, for A Mask for Janus), the Pulitzer Prize (1970, for The Carrier of Ladders), the Bollingen Prize, and the first Tanning Prize for mastery in the art of poetry.

As a Princeton graduate in the 1950s, Merwin traveled in western Europe, finding his affinity for translation while tutoring Robert Graves’ son in Majorca. His translation work has ranged widely, from The Song of Roland to Euripedes to the poetry of Russian Osip Mandelstam to Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Recipient of the 1968 PEN Translation Prize for his Selected Translations, Merwin’s more recent translations include East Window (The Asian Translations), collections by Jaime Sabines, Roberto Juarroz, Muso Soseki, and Dante’s Purgatorio.

The influence of Graves and Blake are evident in the formalism and mythological themes of Merwin’s own early work. By the sixties, though, with The Moving Target and The Lice, he was experimenting with metrical irregularity and “open forms,” creating the signature enjambment and syntactic suspension that has allowed him to dispense with punctuation entirely, even in recent long narrative poems.

A typical Merwin poem – easily identifiable and widely imitated – is elusive, enigmatic, and often disquieting. Merwin’s varied and prolific literary career is entwined with his pacifist, anti-imperialist, environmentalist values and activism. Merwin has a “talent for the desolate and dismembered,” writes the critic Helen Vendler. “He is one of the voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells . . . finding his hollow divinities.”

In poems marked by a severe and tenuous beauty, Merwin explores human perception and the capacity of language to express experience; he ponders the passage of time, the unreliability of memory, and man’s perplexity in the face of a troubled planet. As the poet Peter Davison writes, he “engages the underground stream of our lives.”

W.S. Merwin lives in Hawaii where he keeps a garden of rare and endangered palm trees.


Poems by W. S. Merwin



Through a Glass




    Poetry Center Reading:
    Spring 2003