Give a man a free hand and he'll run it all over you.
W. S. Merwin
William Stanley Merwin was born in New York City on September 30, 1927. He was raised in Union City, New Jersey and Scranton, Pennsylvania, as the son of a Presbyterian minister, and began writing hymns as a child. Merwin's mother had grown up an orphan, and later lost her brother and her first child; Merwin's father was raised in a hard and violent home. The grief from these tragedies, the inherited violence, and the surrounding poverty, run throughout Merwin's poetry, across a career that spans five decades.
Merwin attended Princeton University on a scholarship, where he was a classmate of Galway Kinnell, and studied poetry with the critic R. P. Blackmur, and his teaching assistant, John Berryman. After graduating in 1948, he spent an additional year at Princeton studying Romance language, a pursuit that would later lead to his prolific work as a translator of Latin, Spanish, and French poetry.
Merwin soon married his first wife, Dorothy Jeanne Ferry, and began writing verse plays and working as a tutor to the children of wealthy families. He traveled throughout Europe, and in 1950 took a position in Majorca, Spain as an instructor to the son of Robert Graves. While there, he met Dido Milroy, who he eventually married after ending his first marriage. His relationship with Dido became deeply influential, and helped propel him into literary circles and find work as a translator.
Merwin's first collection, A Mask for Janus (1952), was selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. The formal and ornate collection was praised by Auden for its technical virtuosity, and bore the influence both of Graves and the medieval poetry Merwin was translating, in its focus on classical imagery and myth.
After leaving Majorca, Merwin remained in Europe, living in London and the South of France for several years. In 1956, he received a fellowship from the Poets' Theater in Cambridge, MA, and moved back to the United States. While in Boston, he entered the circle of writers that surrounded Robert Lowell and decided to abandon his verse plays to concentrate on poetry, seeking a more American vernacular and turning inward, toward more introspective and personal subjects. At this time he also began experimenting with form and irregular metrics.
His books written during this time, Green with Beasts (1956) and The Drunk in the Furnace (1960), both demonstrate the beginning of a significant shift in style and perspective, which intensified in his later work. A New York Times review of The Drunk in the Furnace noted "the earthiness, the grittiness, the humane immediacy that informs the finest of these poems."
Merwin and Dido soon moved back to Europe, and lived in London and the South of France. They became close friends with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and witnessed the brutal collapse of their marriage and Plath's eventual suicide. In 1968, Merwin and Dido separated, and he began living for part of the year in New York.
In 1967, Merwin published the critically acclaimed volume, The Lice, followed by The Carrier of Ladders in 1970, both of which remain his most influential collections. Both books use classical legends as a means to explore personal and political themes, including his opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1971, Merwin received the Pulitzer Prize for The Carrier of Ladders. In a letter to the New York Review of Books, he declared his intention to donate the $1000 prize to antiwar causes as protest, because of his objection to the war. Auden responded through his own letter that the Pulitzer judges were not a political party and had no ties to American foreign policy.
In 1976, Merwin moved to Hawaii to study with the Zen Buddhist master Robert Aitken. There he married Paula Schwartz in a Buddhist ceremony in 1983. Merwin settled in Maui, in a home that he helped design and build, surrounded by acres of tropical forest which he painstakingly restored after the land had been devastated and depleted after years of erosion, logging, and agriculture. The rigorous practice of Buddhism and passionate dedication to environmentalism that Merwin devoted himself to in Hawaii has profoundly influenced his later work, including his evocative renderings of the natural world in The Compass Flower (1977), Opening the Hand (1983), and The Rain in the Trees (1988), as well as The Folding Cliffs, a novel-in-verse drawing on the history and legends of Hawaii.
Over the course of his long career, Merwin has published over twenty books of poetry. His recent collections include The Shadow of Sirius which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize; Present Company (Copper Canyon, 2007); Migration: New & Selected Poems (2005) which won the 2005 National Book Award; The Pupil (2002); The River Sound (1999), which was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Flower and Hand: Poems 1977-1983 (1997); The Vixen (1996); and Travels (1993), which received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.
He has also published nearly twenty books of translation, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2004), Dante's Purgatorio (2000), and volumes by Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda. His numerous plays and books of prose include The Lost Upland (1992), his memoir of life in the south of France; Summer Doorways (2006), a memoir of his childhood, and The Book of Fables (2007), a collection of his short prose.
Merwin's honors include the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Bollingen Prize, a Ford Foundation grant, the Governor's Award for Literature of the State of Hawaii, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the PEN Translation Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Wallace Stevens Award, and a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award, and fellowships from The Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation.
He is a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and has served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. In 2010, Merwin was appointed the Library of Congress's seventeenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. He currently lives and works in Hawaii.