Today is the birthday of American poet, translator, and environmental activist W.S. Merwin (1927) (books by this author), born William Stanley Merwin in New York City. His father, a Presbyterian minister, moved the family from Union City, New Jersey, to Scranton, Pennsylvania, when Merwin was a small boy. It was in Scranton that Merwin first began to feel a deep kinship with nature. He liked to talk to the trees in his backyard, spinning stories and practicing the hymns he was writing for his father’s church. One day, two men came and began cutting limbs from the trees in the backyard. Merwin lost his temper and began hitting the men with his fists. They left, and Merwin’s father, impressed with his son’s vigor, did not punish him. Trees, and the natural world, would later influence much of his poetry. In the poem “Place,” he writes, “On the last day of the world/ I would want to plant a tree.”
In 1948, after graduating from Princeton University, Merwin began a period of travel and study in Europe that lasted several years. In Portugal, he found himself tutoring the children of the Portuguese royal family for $40 a month and room and board. On weekends, he traveled to Spain on milk trains, hoping to meet his idol, the poet and translator Robert Graves, which he did. Graves befriended him and when his own children’s tutor failed to show up, he hired Merwin, who spent the next year in Majorca. In London, he befriended poet T.S. Eliot, who was homesick for America and used to give Merwin French cigarettes during their visits. Merwin also became friends with poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in London. Merwin was translating Pablo Neruda’s poems for a BBC program, and Plath used some of this work as a springboard for the poems that would become the collection Ariel (1965), published two years after her suicide.
His first collection of poetry, A Mask for Janus, won the 1952 Yale Younger Prize, judged by W.H. Auden, who became a good friend. They had a falling out in 1971, when Merwin refused the Pulitzer Prize for his collection The Carrier of Ladders. The Vietnam War was still raging, and Merwin — who had long been an anti-war activist — wrote a short, public letter to the Pulitzer committee, in which he thanked them for the award, but declined the prize money, writing, “After years of the news from Southeast Asia, and the commentary from Washington, I am too conscious of being an American to accept public congratulation with good grace, or to welcome it except as an occasion for expressing openly a shame which many Americans feel, day after day, helplessly and in silence.” He directed that the prize money be equally split between a painter who’d been blinded by the police during a civil protest, and the Draft Resistance. Auden was incensed. He wrote his own public letter to Merwin, accusing him of a “publicity-stunt” and calling the action “ill-judged.”
Merwin moved to Hawaii and set about restoring a former pineapple plantation on Maui to its original rainforest state, a painstaking and yearslong process. The relationship between his writing and ecology is constantly expanding. He said: “We try to save what is passing, if only by describing it, telling it, knowing all the time that we can’t do any of these things. The urge to tell it, and the knowledge of the impossibility. Isn’t that one reason we write?”
Merwin won his second Pulitzer Prize (2009) for his collection The Shadow of Sirius (2008). His most recent book is The Moon Before Morning (2014). On writing, Merwin insists on regular practice. He said: “I’ve found that the best thing for me is to insist that some part of the day — and for me, it’s the morning until about two in the afternoon — be dedicated to writing. I go into my room and shut the door, and that’s that. You have to make exceptions, of course, but you just stick to it, and then it becomes a habit, and I think it’s a valuable one. If you’re waiting for lightning to strike a stump, you’re going to sit there for the rest of your life.”
And he said: “I think there’s a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there’s still time.”