William Stanley Merwin was born in New York City but grew up in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and Merwin has said that his first experience of writing poetry came from writing hymns. He attended Princeton University, where he studied with R. P. Blackmur and John Berryman, graduating in 1948. He stayed on for a graduate year, studying Romance languages, his first preparation for later translations from Latin, French, and Spanish poetry that are much admired. In 1950 he moved to Europe, where he would remain, in Spain, England, and the south of France, for much of the next two decades. In 1950 he spent a year tutoring for the family of Robert Graves, and some of Merwin's interest in myth has been attributed to this association with Graves. Through much of the decade Merwin made his living as a translator.
In 1952 W. H. Auden selected Merwin's first book, A Mask for Janus, for the Yale Younger Poets series. Merwin's poems in this book, like those he published later in the decade, are formal and highly wrought, and characterized by detachment and technical virtuosity. "Leviathan," for example, from 1956, is modeled on the Anglo-Saxon alliterative line and is similar in its dense complexity to some of the poems Robert Lowell was writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In the mid-1950s Merwin also wrote a number of plays. The 1960 poem "The Drunk in the Furnace" from the volume of that title, its central figure creating a wild music behind his "cosily bolted" door, is often seen as signaling the more personal voice and open verse forms of Merwin's later poetry. But this development found its most consistent expression in his next three books, The Moving Target (1963), dedicated to Blackmur and winner of the National Book Award, The Lice (1967), and The Carrier of Ladders (1970) - which won Merwin the Pulitzer Prize. These books were among the most influential poetry volumes published during the 1960s. Merwin's pacifist views led him to take a stand against the war in Vietnam. From 1961 to 1963 he served as poetry editor of The Nation, writing in its pages in 1962 that the poet who recognized such responsibilities to speak out would "not have been another priest of ornaments." Poems such as "When the War is Over" and "The Asians Dying" express his contemplative but firm opposition.
Merwin's poems, particularly those of the 1960s, have an elegiac tone, and often contain dream-like, surreal images. The language, like the images, can take unexpected directions while remaining within the almost private logic established by the poem itself. Peter Davidson has written that Merwin's poetry seems "to flow up from an underground river that lies beneath mere speech, as though written in some pre-verbal language of which all later languages have proved to be a mere translation." Edward Hirsch, reviewing Merwin's Selected Poems (1988) in The New York Times, has termed him "a master of erasures and negations, a visionary of discomfort and reproof." Merwin himself often speaks about language in interviews and in his poetry with a kind of mystical reverence. The interest in process (sometimes connected by commentators to the influence of Frost and Stevens) extends to a refusal to burden the subject matter with definitive claims for the experience or emotion explored. Merwin clearly endorses the advice that he describes John Berryman giving him in his undergraduate days at Princeton. His 1983 poem "Berryman" concludes:
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
Concern for the environment and sensitivity to the threats to animal, insect, and plant life have been frequent subjects of Merwin's poetry since the late 1970s, as are the intimate ways in which language and landscape are intertwined. This direction has led some commentators to see a more positive outlook in Merwin's later work, although the vision can still be quietly apocalyptic. Since 1975 Merwin has lived on the island of Maui in Hawaii, where his garden contains a large number of tropical plants, many of which are threatened with extinction elsewhere. The poems of The Folding Cliffs (1998) are subtitled "A Narrative of 19th-century Hawaii."
He has continued publishing poetry volumes regularly, including acclaimed translations, particularly of Spanish and French poetry, but also including Four French Plays in 1985, and in 2000 a translation of Dante's Purgatorio. His volume Feathers from the Hill (1978) won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry. In April 1999 Merwin was named Special Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position he held jointly with Rita Dove and Louis Glück. Merwin's prose works are also highly regarded. These include the short stories of The Miner's Pale Children (1970), the autobiographical Unframed Originals (1983), Regions of Memory (1987) containing his selected prose writings, and The Lost Upland (1992) a memoir of his life in the south of France in the 1960s.
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