At a seminar on Maui in 1995, someone asked W.S. Merwin ’48 to recommend a daily routine for aspiring poets. Merwin’s answer registered like a Zen koan. “There is nothing like doing eight hours of physical work every day to take the palaver out of your style,” he said. It was a revealing utterance from a celebrated poet who was also a practicing Buddhist, a gifted translator, a rebellious activist, and, simply, a gardener.
Merwin died having published nearly three dozen volumes of poetry and about as many volumes of prose and translations. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice and the National Book Award once and was U.S. poet laureate. Yet one of his proudest achievements was his home, built by hand on a 19-acre tropical garden in which he had planted thousands of trees.
Born in 1927 in New York City, William Stanley Merwin was raised in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His father was, as he put it, “a very strict Scots Presbyterian” and a disappointed man of “pinched salaries” and violent impulses. But he read aloud the King James Bible. “That really seemed like magic to me,” Merwin recalled. He began writing hymns at age 5, awed by the alchemy of words on the page.
It was Merwin’s mother who instilled a love of poetry, in particular. To her son and daughter she read everything from silly jingles to Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and Tennyson’s “The Brook.”
Merwin received a scholarship from Princeton. Intensely frugal, he worked as a waiter in eating clubs and shopped in secondhand stores. His roommate was Galway Kinnell ’48; determined to become poets, they studied with the critic R.P. Blackmur and his teaching assistant, John Berryman. Merwin later wrote about Berryman:
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
At Princeton, Merwin had written poems of despair amid the violence of history. His first published book of poems in 1952 relied on mythology and traditional form. Then, in the 1960s, he returned to his earlier themes, writing in open verse. The Lice (1967), often read as a response to the Vietnam War, condemns modern man in apocalyptic and visionary terms. His next book, The Carrier of Ladders, won the 1971 Pulitzer, and he donated the award money to anti-war efforts.
As distressed by the destruction of natural life as by that of human life, Merwin articulated his concern long before eco-poetry came into vogue. He also wrote hauntingly about love, loss, memory, and presence amid emptiness, in lines that became increasingly spare and translucent.
“He started out as a somewhat academic poet,” notes poet Matthew Zapruder. “Then he broke out, on his own, into a much more mystical mode. He found psychological symbols that we recognize from our dreams.”
Merwin moved to Hawaii in 1976 to study with a Zen Buddhist teacher. In 1977, he bought a failed pineapple plantation on Maui and began a painstaking restoration. With his third wife, Paula Dunaway, he built an off-the-grid home and planted more than 3,000 palms. The erstwhile wasteland is now a conservancy dedicated to poetry and ecology.
“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,” writes poet and Princeton professor Tracy K. Smith.
Merwin died in the house he built and amid the rainforest he created. In an obituary, The New York Times noted his abiding theme of “life and its damnable evanescence.” Merwin himself had described the “desperate hope” built into poetry: “One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there is still time.”
Constance Hale ’79 is a San Francisco-based writer and the author of six books, including Sin and Syntax.
JULY 24, 1932 | NOV. 27, 2019