(1927- ) A prodigious poet and acclaimed translator, W. S. Merwin's distinguished career follows the ambitious literary projects of his modernist predecessors T. S. eliot, Ezra pound, and William Carlos WILLIAMS (see modernism). In more than 15 books of poetry and four books of prose, Merwin's theme, especially as it develops in the later phase of his work, is the postmodern problem of finding language that can offer an adequate and just account of the world. The insistent and—as some critics have described it—distant voice in Merwin's poems is essential to an understanding of the generation of American poets that includes such authors as John ashbery, Robert creeley, Allen ginsberg, Galway kinnell, James merrill, Adri-enne rich, Gary snyder, and James wright.
Born in New York City in 1927 and raised in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania, Merwin was educated at Princeton University, where he studied with the influential poet-critics John berryman and R. P blackmur. Merwin spent an additional year at the university studying Romance languages before living and working in France, Spain, Majorca, and England. He has lived and worked in Mexico, New York City, the southwest of France, and the Hawaiian island of Maui. His awards include the 1971 Pulitzer Prize, the 1979 Bollingen Prize, the 1998 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the 1994 Tanning Prize from the Academy of the American Poets for outstanding and proven mastery in poetry, and the 2003 Harold Morton London Translation Award.
Merwin's first book, A Mask for Janus, received the 1952 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. In his fore-ward to the collection, W H. auden calls attention to Merwin's intimate knowledge of poetic tradition and myth. Critics praised Merwin's formal range in the poems written between 1947 and 1958 and now collected in The First Four Books of Poems (1975). The 1960s and 1970s mark a period of transition. In the work collected in the Second Four Books of Poems (1993), Merwin develops and expands his thematic and formal range. Carefully chosen line breaks, variable use of caesura, evocative rendering of the spoken word, and movement away from punctuation—these formal characteristics are simply the most visible qualities of Merwin's poems from this middle period. Mer-win, in describing the difference in these poems, says that "it might be more to the point to say that whatever may provide their form is less apparent" (1).
Merwin's poems require careful listening for what might best be called the "shape" of a speaking voice. Although the seductive rhythms and allegorical impulses of the poems have baffled many of his readers, the inscrutable presence of Merwin's speakers nevertheless registers the struggle to reconcile the public and the private dimensions of experience. "My own life in the sixties," Merwin explains, "seemed to be made of contradictions: City life and rural life; Europe and America; Love of the old and a craving for change; Public issues and a disposition to live quietly" (2).
one of Merwin's abiding concerns is the relationship between aesthetic and moral issues. Eschewing the impulses of didactic poetry, Merwin hews to the responsibility of the poet who has "no choice but to name the wrong as truthfully as he can, and to try to indicate the claims of justice in terms of the victims he lives among" (Regions 291). As early as The Lice (1967), Merwin holds human culture accountable to the delicate and sustaining web of life, as in the speaker's haunting address to a grey whale in the poem "For a Coming Extinction." His devotion to nature is shaped by a profound engagement with the contradictions of human culture—a concern with the contours of human desire and its, at times, unacceptable costs.
Through the 1990s Merwin assembled a testimonial to personal and cultural loss: in the elegiac prose of The Lost Upland (1992), in the intricate sequences of poems in Travels (1993) and The Vixen (1996), and in the 300-page narrative-in-verse of 19th-century Hawaii The Folding Cliffs (1998). In The River Sound (1999), nature's persistence appears as an antidote to human and ecological loss. In the lyric "The Gardens of Versailles," the human impulse to shape nature points to the diminishment of the natural world under the imposition of "form's vast claim." However, the final lines of the poem intimate that despite this rage for order, the presence of the river remains, tenaciously, in "the sound of water falling."
The origin of a poem, Merwin has said, is "a passion for the momentary countenance of the unrepeatable world" (5). The destiny of a poem, it might follow, is to awaken a fuller recognition of the self within the all-too-fragile and quickly passing frame of our lives. Mer-win's poems urge us to affirm a wider sympathy with the nonhuman world of nature. And yet, in the opening of "Testimony" (1999), Merwin admits his uncertainty over how the pain of "learning what is lost / is transformed into light at last." Merwin's poems, brilliant flashes of illumination, remind us of the existence of something more substantial—hope.
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