Merwin’s Early Life:
W.S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. He grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in a family stricken with violence and grief and surrounded by grinding poverty. His father was the son of an abusive alcoholic riverboat captain; his mother was an orphan who lost her own brother and then her first baby, Merwin’s elder brother. His first poems were hymns written for his father, a Presbyterian minister. He was the first member of his family to receive a college education—he studied Romance languages on a scholarship at Princeton University, where he attracted the attention of noted critic R.P. Blackmur and his teaching assistant, John Berryman.
Early Career in Europe:
After college, Merwin married and moved to Europe, where he intended to make his living writing verse plays and teaching the children of the wealthy. While working as a tutor to Robert Graves’ son in Majorca, he met his second wife, Englishwoman Dido Milroy, who helped him make connections in the literary world, and he began his career as a translator in England, France and Spain. Living in England in the early 1960s, the Merwins knew Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and witnessed the horrific end to their marriage and her life. In 1968, the Merwins separated and W.S. returned to spend part of his time living in New York.
Merwin as Translator:
Merwin has published nearly 20 books of his own translations, ranging from Spanish old and new (El Cid, Pablo Neruda) to medieval French (Song of Roland) to 20th century Russian (Osip Mandelstam) to his celebrated new translation of Dante’s Purgatorio from medieval Italian. He has also collaborated with translators on collections of poetry from languages he does not himself speak (Urdu, Chinese, Sanskrit, Japanese, Persian, Vietnamese...), making their translations into poems in English.
Merwin’s first book of poems, A Mask for Janus, was chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Prize series in 1952. His early poems were formal, classical, often concerned with themes from mythology, influenced by Wallace Stevens and Robert Graves. In the 1960s he began to experiment with loosened poetic forms, political themes and autobiographical subjects, and his work became less technically crafted and more personal. When he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for The Carrier of Ladders, he donated the prize money to the antiwar cause in protest against the Vietnam War, sparking an angry response from Auden.
Merwin as Buddhist and Environmentalist:
Merwin moved to Hawaii in 1976 to study Zen Buddhism and he ended up remarrying and settling in Maui, where he has spent the years since restoring the land around his home to tropical rainforest. When he was awarded the Academy of American Poets’ first $100,000 Tanning Prize (now known as the Wallace Stevens Prize) in 1994, The New York Times published a profile by Dinitia Smith, “A Poet of Their Own,” which clearly articulates the intersection of violence, pacifism, Buddhism and concern for the natural world in Merwin’s life, his family history, his experience at Naropa and in Hawaii, and of course his poetry. It’s a piece well worth reading.
Books by W.S. Merwin:
- The Shadow of Sirius (new poems, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Copper Canyon Press, 2008)
- Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (poems by Pablo Neruda, translated by W.S. Merwin, dual language edition, Penguin Classics, 2006)
- Present Company (new poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2005)
- Migration (new and selected poems, winner of the 2005 National Book Award, Copper Canyon Press, 2005)
- Summer Doorways: A Memoir (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005)
- The Ends of the Earth (essays, Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004)
- Purgatorio, A New Verse Translation (Dante trans. Merwin, Knopf, 2001)
- The First Four Books of Poems, including A Mask for Janus (1952), The Dancing Bears (1954), Green with Beasts (1956) and The Drunk in the Furnace (1960), (Copper Canyon Press, 2000)
- The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative (book-length poem on Hawaiian history, Knopf, 1998)
- East Window: Poems from Asia (translations, Copper Canyon Press, 1998)
- The Second Four Books of Poems, including The Moving Target (1963), The Lice (1967), The Carrier of Ladders (1970) and Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (1973), (Copper Canyon Press reissue, 1993)