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About W. S. Merwin


Jay Parini

Merwin was born in New York City and grew up in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. His father was a Presbyterian minister. 'I started writing hymns for my father as soon as I could write at all', Merwin has said. He attended Princeton University, where he studied writing with John Berryman and R. P. Blackmur, to whom his fifth book, The Moving Target (1963), was dedicated. Merwin spent a postgraduate year at Princeton studying Romance languages, an interest that would lead, eventually, to his much-admired work as a translator of Latin, Spanish, and French poetry.

Having left Princeton, Merwin travelled in France, Spain, and England. He settled in Majorca in 1950 as a tutor to Robert Graves's son. Graves, with his interest in mythology, would become a primary influence on young Merwin. Moving to London in 1951, Merwin made his living as a translator for several years. Meanwhile, back in America, his first book of poems won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for 1952, selected by W. H. Auden, who remarked in his introduction on the young poet's technical virtuosity. That volume, A Mask for Janus, is immensely formal, neoclassical in style. For the next decade Merwin would regularly publish collections of intensely wrought, brightly imagistic poems that recalled the poetry of Wallace Stevens as well as Robert Graves and other influences.

Merwin's early subjects were frequently tied to mythological or legendary themes, while many of the poems featured animals, which were treated as emblems in the manner of Blake. A volume called The Drunk in the Furnace (1960) marked a change for Merwin, in that he began to write in a much more autobiographical way. The title-poem is about Orpheus, seen as an old drunk. 'Where he gets his spirits / it's a mystery', Merwin writes; 'But the stuff keeps him musical'. Another powerful poem of this period is 'Odysseus', which reworks the traditional theme in a way that plays off poems by Stevens and Graves on the same topic.

In the 1960s Merwin began to experiment boldly with metrical irregularity. His poems became much less tidy and controlled. He played with the forms of indirect narration typical of this period, a self-conscious experimentation explained in an essay called 'On Open Form' (1969). The Lice (1967) and The Carrier of Ladders (1970) (which won a Pulitzer Prize) remain his most characteristic and influential volumes. These poems often used legendary subjects (as in 'The Hydra' or 'The Judgment of Paris') to explore highly personal themes.

In Merwin's later volumes, such as The Compass Rower (1977), Opening the Hand (1983), and The Rain in the Trees (1988), one sees him transforming earlier themes in fresh ways, developing an almost Zen-like indirection. His latest poems are densely imagistic, dream-like, and full of praise for the natural world. He has lived in Hawaii in recent years, and one sees the influence of this tropical landscape everywhere in the recent poems, though the landscape remains emblematic and personal.

From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Ed. Ian Hamilton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Copyright 1994 by Oxford University Press.


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