W.S. Merwin's poem "Separation," Children's Memorial Grove, San Leandro, CA. Photo by MercuryWoodRose. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

W.S. Merwin
Courtesy the Library of Congress.
Occupation Poet
Nationality American
Writing period 1952–
Genres Poetry, prose, translation
Notable award(s) PEN Translation Prize (1969)
Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1971, 2009)
Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize (1994)
Tanning Prize (1994)
United States Poet Laureate (2010)
Spouse(s) Dorothy Jeanne Ferry
Dido Milroy
Paula Schwartz (1983–present)

William Stanley Merwin (born September 30, 1927) is an American poet, credited with over 30 books of poetry, translation and prose. During the 1960s anti-war movement, Merwin's unique craft was thematically characterized by indirect, unpunctuated narration. In the 1980s and 1990s, Merwin's writing influence derived from his interest in Buddhist philosophy and deep ecology. Residing in Hawaii, he writes prolifically and is dedicated to the restoration of the islands' rainforests.

Life Edit


W.S. Merwin was born in New York City on September 30, 1927. He grew up on the corner of Fourth Street and New York Avenue in Union City, New Jersey until 1936, when his family moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania. As a child, he was enamored of the natural world, sometimes finding himself talking to the large tree in his back yard. He was also fascinated with things that he saw as links to the past, such as the building behind his home that had once been a barn that housed a horse and carriage.[1] At the age of five he started writing out hymns for his father.[2]

After attending Wyoming Seminary College Preparatory School in Northeast Pennsylvania, Merwin won a scholarship to attend Princeton University where he studied under R.P. Blackmur, and was influenced by John Berryman.(Citation needed)


After college, Merwin married his first wife, Dorothy Jeanne Ferry, and moved to Majorca to tutor Robert Graves's son. There, he met Dido Milroy — fifteen years older than he — with whom he collaborated on a play and whom he later married and lived with in London. In 1956, Merwin moved to Boston for a fellowship at the Poets' Theater. He returned to London where he was friends with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. In 1968, Merwin moved to New York City, separating from his wife who stayed at their home in France. In the late 1970s, Merwin moved to Hawaii and eventually was divorced from Dido Milroy. He married Paula Schwartz in 1983.[3]

In 1952 Merwin's first book of poetry, A Mask for Janus, was published in the Yale Younger Poets Series. W. H. Auden selected the work for that distinction. Later, in 1971 Auden and Merwin would exchange harsh words in the pages of The New York Review of Books. Merwin had published "On Being Awarded the Pulitzer Prize" in the June 3, 1971, issue of The New York Review of Books outlining his objections to the Vietnam War and stating that he was donating his prize money to the draft resistance movement.

From 1956 to 1957 Merwin was also playwright-in-residence at the Poet's Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts; he became poetry editor at The Nation in 1962. Besides being a prolific poet (he has published over fifteen volumes of his works), he is also a respected translator of Spanish, French, Latin and Italian poetry (including Dante's Purgatorio) as well as poetry from Sanskrit, Yiddish, Middle English, Japanese and Quechua. He also served as selector of poems of the late American poet Craig Arnold (1967–2009).

Merwin is probably best known for his poetry about the Vietnam War, and can be included among the canon of Vietnam War-era poets which includes such luminaries as Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich; Denise Levertov; Robert Lowell; Allen Ginsberg and Yusef Komunyakaa. In 1998, Merwin wrote Folding Cliffs: A Narrative, an ambitious novel-in-verse about Hawai`i in history and legend.

Merwin's early subjects were frequently tied to mythological or legendary themes, while many of his poems featured animals, which were treated as emblems in the manner of William 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 — 'Odysseus' — reworks the traditional theme in a way that plays off poems by Stevens and Graves on the same topic.

In the 1960s, Merwin lived in a small apartment in New York City's Greenwich Village,[1] and 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) remain his most 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 Flower (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 since the 1970s, and one sees the influence of this tropical landscape everywhere in the recent poems, though the landscape remains emblematic and personal. Migration (Copper Canyon Press, 2005) won the 2005 National Book Award for poetry. A life-long friend of James Wright, Merwin wrote an elegy to him that appears in the 2008 volume From the Other World: Poems in Memory of James Wright.

The Shadow of Sirius, published in 2008 by Copper Canyon Press, was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

In June 2010, the Library of Congress named Merwin the seventeenth United States Poet Laureate to replace the outgoing Kay Ryan.[4][2]

Personal lifeEdit

Merwin lives a quiet life on a former pineapple plantation built atop a dormant volcano on the northeast coast of Maui, Hawaii.[4][2]


Merwin has received many honors, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (in both 1971 and 2009) and the Tanning Prize, one of the highest honors bestowed by the Academy of American Poets, as well as the Golden Wreath of the Struga Poetry Evenings. In 2010, the Library of Congress named Merwin the seventeenth United States Poet Laureate to replace the outgoing Kay Ryan.[4][2]

Merwin's former home town of Union City, New Jersey, honored him in 2006 by renaming a local street near his former home W.S. Merwin Way.[1]



W.S. Merwin Way, Union City, NJ. Photo © Luigi Novi. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



  • A Mask for Janus. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press *Yale Series of Younger Poets), 1952.
  • The Dancing Bears. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1954.
  • Green with Beasts. New York: Knopf, 1956.
  • The Drunk in the Furnace. New York: Macmillan, 1960.
  • The Moving Target. New York: Atheneum, 1963.
  • Collected Poems. New York: Atheneum, 1966.
  • The Lice. New York: Atheneum, 1969.
  • Animae. San Francisco: Kayak, 1969.
  • The Carrier of Ladders. New York: Atheneum, 1970.
  • Signs (With A.D. Moore). Iowa City, IA: Stone Wall Press, 1970.
  • Asian Figures. New York: Atheneum, 1973.
  • Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment. New York: Atheneum, 1973.
  • The First Four Books of Poems (contains A Mask for Janus, The Dancing Bears, Green with Beasts, & The Drunk in the Furnace). New York: Atheneum, 1975.
  • The Compass Flower. New York: Atheneum, 1977.
  • Feathers from the Hill. Iowa City, IA: Windhover, 1978.
  • Finding the Islands. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982.
  • Opening the Hand. New York: Atheneum, 1983.
  • The Rain in the Trees: Poems. New York: Knopf, 1988.
  • Selected Poems. New York: Atheneum, 1988.
  • Travels: Poems. New York: Knopf , 1993.
  • The Vixen: Poems. New York: Knopf, 1996.
  • Flower and Hand: Poems, 1977-1983. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1996.
  • East Window: The Asian poems. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1998.
  • The Folding Cliffs: A narrative (verse novel. New York: Knopf, 1998.
  • The River Sound: Poems. New York: Knopf, 1999.
  • The Pupil. New York: Knopf, 2001.
  • Migration: New and selected poems. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.
  • Present Company. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.
  • The Shadow of Sirius. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2008.

Short fictionEdit

  • The Miner's Pale Children. New York: Atheneum, 1970; New York: Holt, 1994.
  • Houses and Travellers. New York: Atheneum, 1977; New York: Holt, 1994.
  • The Lost Upland: Stories of southwestern France. New York: Knopf, 1992.


  • Unframed Originals: Recollections. New York: Atheneum, 1982.
  • The Mays of Ventadorn. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2002.
  • The Ends of the Earth (essays). Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004.


  • Lope de Rueda, "Eufemia," Tulane Drama Review, December, 1958.
  • Lope Felix de Vega Carpio, Punishment without Vengeance, 1958.
  • The Poem of the Cid. London: Dent, 1959; New York: New American Library, 1962.
  • The Satires of Persius. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1961.
  • Some Spanish Ballads. London: Abelard, 1961.
  • The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes: His Fortunes and Adversities. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1962.
  • Nicanor Parra, Poems and Antipoems (translated with Denise Levertov, William Carlos Williams, and others). New York: New Directions, 1968.
  • Jean Follain, Transparence of the World. New York: Atheneum, 1969; Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2003.
  • Selected Translations, 1948-1968. New York: Atheneum, 1969.
  • S. Chamfort, Products of the Perfected Civilization: Selected writings. New York: Macmillan, 1969.
  • Antonio Porchia, Voices: Selected writings. Chicago: Follett, 1969; Port Towsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2003.
  • Federico García Lorca, "Yerma" and "Blood," 1969.
  • Pablo Neruda, Twenty Poems and a Song of Despair. London: Cape, 1969
    • with introduction by Christina García & illustrations by Pablo Picasso), New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
  • Pablo Neruda, Selected poems (translated with others). New York: Dell, 1970.
  • Osip Mandelstam, Selected poems (translated with Clarence Brown). New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
    • also published as The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam. New York: New York Review of Books, 2004.
  • Sanskrit Love Poetry (translated with J. Moussaieff Mason). New York: Columbia University Press, 1977
    • also published as Peacock's Egg: Love poems from ancient India. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981.
  • Roberto Juarroz, Vertical Poems. San Francisco: Kayak, 1977.
  • Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulius (translated with George E. Dimock, Jr.). New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • Selected Translations, 1968-78. New York: Atheneum, 1979.
  • Robert the Devil.Iowa City, IA: Windhover, 1981.
  • Four French Plays. New York: Atheneum, 1984.
  • From the Spanish Morning. New York: Atheneum, 1984.
  • Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio. New York: Knopf, 2000.
  • Gawain and the Green Knight: A new verse translation. New York: Knopf, 2004.


  • West Wind: Supplement of American poetry. London: Poetry Book Society, 1961.
  • Thomas Wyatt, The Essential Wyatt. New York: Ecco Press, 1989.[11]
  • (Compiler) Lament for the Makers: A memorial anthology (compiler). Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1996.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[12]

Audio / video Edit

  • Merwin's poems have been recorded for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, 1994. [12]
  • A reader, with others, on sound recordings, including Poetry and the American People: Reading, Voice, and Publication in the 19th and 20th Centuries,Library of Congress Bicentennial Symposium, 2000; Poetry in America: Favorite Poems: An Evening of Readings and a Special Favorite Poem Audio and Video Presentation, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 2000; An Evening of Dante in English Translation, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 2000.[12]

Plays producedEdit

  • Darkling Child(With Dido Milroy), produced 1956.
  • Favor Island, produced at Poets' Theatre, Cambridge, MA, 1957, and on British Broadcasting Corporation Third Programme, 1958.
  • The Gilded West, produced at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, England, 1961.

Except where noted, information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[12]

See alsoEdit



Merwin's literary papers are held at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The collection, which is open to researchers, consists of some 5,500 archival items and 450 printed books.[13][14]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Diaz, Lana Rose. "Merwin Speaks"; The Union City Reporter; July 11, 2010; Pages 1 & 9
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Cohen, Patricia (June 30, 2010). "W. S. Merwin to Be Named Poet Laureate". The New York Times.,%20laureate&st=cse. Retrieved July 9, 2010. 
  3. Smith, Dinitia (February 19, 1995). "A Poet of Their Own". New York Times. Retrieved March 30, 2010. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Kennicott, Philip (July 1, 2010). "W.S. Merwin, Hawaii-based poet, will serve as 17th U.S. laureate". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 1, 2010. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Merwin biography at Poetry Foundation, Accessed October 23, 2010
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 Brennan, Elizabeth A. and Elizabeth C. Clarage, "1971: W.S. Merwin" article, p 534, Who's Who of Pulitzer Prize Winners Phoenix, Arizona: The Oryx Press (1999), ISBN 1573561118, retrieved via Google Books on June 8, 2010
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 News release, "Poet W.S. Merwin Reads at Library of Congress October 15, September 22, 1997, Library of Congress website, retrieved June 8, 2010
  8. Routledge Staff (2003). International Who's Who of Authors and Writers 2004. Routledge. pp. 383. ISBN 1857431790. Retrieved 2008-07-20. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 W. S. Merwin at Barclay Agency, Accessed October 23, 2010
  10. "The 2009 Pulitzer Prize Winners/Poetry",; Accessed October 23, 2010
  11. Search results = au:Thomas Wyatt, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Jan. 6, 2015.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 W.S. Merwin b. 1927, Poetry Foundation, Web, June 25, 2012.
  13. "Finding Aid for the W.S. Merwin Papers, Merwin 1". Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved March 29, 2010. 
  14. "Finding Aid for the W.S. Merwin Book Collection (UIU00141)". Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved March 29, 2010. 

External linksEdit

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