Today is the birthday of American poet, essayist, and translator W.S. Merwin (books by this author) (1927), best known for his spare poems about nature and the meaning of life. He once said, “I think a poem begins out of what you don’t know, and you begin not by having a good idea but by hearing something in the language.”
When he was a junior at Princeton University, he decided he would be nothing but a poet for the rest of his life, and would never get a job that didn’t have something to do with poetry. So when he graduated, he went to Europe, where he worked as a babysitter for writer Robert Graves in Majorca and wrote poems feverishly in his spare time. He said, “I wanted to be in the world, to meet people and go places and try to write, and learn from languages.” When he was 24, his first book, A Mask for Janus (1952), won the Yale Younger Poets Award, a major prize that launched his career.
During the 1960s, he was an ardent anti-war activist, and when he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Carrier of Ladders (1970), he refused the award, lambasting the Vietnam War in an open letter to the New York Review of Books. He wrote that he felt “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 asked that that the money go instead to a painter who was blinded by police in California while watching a protest.
W.S. Merwin’s books include The Lice (1967), Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (1973), The Compass Flower (1977), Finding the Islands (1982), Opening the Hand (1983), and The Rain in the Trees (1988).
In 1976, he moved to Hawaii and bought 20 acres of land by a dormant volcano. The land had previously been an ill-run pineapple plantation and Merwin and his wife set about turning it into a palm forest, hacking down dead growth with machetes and planting palms one by one. There are now more than 700 species of trees and plants, along with geckos and mynah birds. He doesn’t use a cell phone or email and still writes every morning in longhand.
Merwin moved to Hawaii to study with a Buddhist master and to live a more ecologically aware life. He says: “The connection between poetry and the natural world seems to me to be a given. I think that’s where poetry comes from, and any attempt to make a separation is unnatural and is going to be temporary.” He still plants a tree every day during the rainy season and is still a pacifist.
W.S. Merwin won his second Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for The Shadow of Sirius. When asked how he knows a poem is done, he answered, “When a poem is really finished, you can’t change anything. You can’t move words around. You can’t say, ‘In other words, you mean.’ No, that’s not it. There are no other words in which you mean it. This is it.”