News comes that a friend far away
is dying now
I look up and see small flowers appearing
in spring grass outside the window
and can’t remember their name
—James, W. S. Merwin
W. S. Merwin, one of the most prolific poets of the 21st century, died yesterday in his sleep at his house in Ha’iku, on the northeast coast of Maui. Born on September 30, 1927, Merwin published over three dozen collections of poetry and translated the works of various poets such as Dante, Mirza Ghalib, Pablo Neruda and Osip Mandelstam.
He was named the poet laureate twice, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for his collection The Carrier of Ladders, received the National Book Award for Migration: New and Selected Poems in 2005, and for the second time in 2009 for The Shadow of Sirius.
He was a venerated figure in American poetry, revered by poets such as Agha Shahid Ali and Christopher Merrill. As a versifier, he evolved constantly – exploring Buddhist philosophy, condemning war and reflecting on mortality. However, for Merwin, all these accolades meant nothing. In his poem Berryman, he wrote:
you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
Merwin grew up in Scranton, where his father was a Presbyterian minister. At the age of five, he wrote his first verse, a hymn for his father’s congregation. “I started writing hymns for my father as soon as I could write at all,” he had said.
Born William Stanley Merwin, he chose to go with his initials because he thought that’s what poets did. He published his first collection of poetry, A Mask for Janus in 1952, and was awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize, judged by W. H. Auden. The transience of human life, loss, death and the beauty that surrounded him were recurring themes in his poems.
Hope, for Merwin, was not a thing in the future but was a way of seeing the present and even writing betrayed the existence of hope. Even though he had faith in language, he was aware of its inadequacy to convey the unique intimacy of experience. Even though his poetry was deeply personal and dismissive of hope, he interspersed it with roots, trees, mountains and all the elements that encompass life effortlessly. In his poem, Now it is clear to me that no leaves are mine, he wrote:
no roots are mine
that wherever I go I will be a spine of smoke in the forest
and the forest will know it
we will both know it.
By the time he published his fifth collection of poetry, concerned about nuclear issues, the planet and the Vietnam war, Merwin had decided to do away with punctuation in his poems in order to bring in a sense of urgency. The barren, unpunctuated poems changed the landscape of American poetry. One of his short poems titled Elegy, in its entirety reads:
who would I show it to
The absence of punctuation turns the question into a passing remark, a matter-of-fact statement that he has come to terms with. This poetic style not only created a sense of urgency, but also layered his poetry, leading the critic and poet David Mason to describe Merwin as “the most protean poet.”
He was politically active throughout his career. In an interview, he said that “we have to try to write what we feel, if we can. If we have any talent, any use of language that’s a little bit out of the ordinary; we have to try to use it.” He was troubled by the war in Vietnam, and publicly announced to donate the thousand-dollar Pulitzer award to anti-war causes.
The act was criticised by the likes of W.H. Auden for “politicising of the award” and he called it a “publicity stunt” to which Merwin replied “I’m sorry if he was troubled by it, but what I did was an act of mourning, and I can’t regret the form of it,” and continued to voice his opinion in every way possible. In his poem Inauguration, 1985, he wrote,
We have elected the end because we have looked on everything alive
with a look that has killed it and we see it already dead
Merwin wasn’t sure if a poem was going to “change the course of history,” but he wrote incessantly. He said: “This question came up again and again during the Vietnam War when a lot of us were trying to write poems about it. Did the poems do any good? We’ll never know. We certainly wrote, all of us, some very bad poems, and we knew it. But the alternative was not to do it at all, and that seemed unthinkable, and it still does. A bad poem, after all, doesn’t do any harm; it disappears in a little while.”
In an interview, he said that “The connection is – our blood is connected with the sea. It’s the recognition of that connection. It’s the sense that we are absolutely, intimately connected with every living thing.” As a child, he had a recurring nightmare– of the whole world becoming a city, being covered with cement and buildings and streets.
So, in 1977, Merwin purchased a worn-out 18-acre plantation in Ha’iku, which he restored with his wife Paula over the next four decades. The estate had been deforested in the last few decades and Merwin took up the task of reforesting the area, planting more than 2,700 trees which resulted in one of the largest palm collections in the world. After his death, Merwin’s Maui home has been set aside as part of the Merwin Conservancy.
Manan Kapoor is the author of The Lamentations of the Sombre Sky, shortlisted for the Yuva Sahitya Akademi Award 2017. He is currently working on the biography of the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali. He tweets at @mana_kapo