Poetry News

Former U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin Has Died at 91

By Harriet Staff

Copper Canyon Press announced that poet W.S. Merwin died in his sleep today, at home in Hawaii. "Merwin's poetry is known for its mystery and wonder, and he was twice named the U.S. poet laureate," writes NPR's Noah Adams. "Merwin wrote a lot and for a long time. As a 5-year-old in New Jersey, he wrote hymns for the Presbyterian church where his father was a minister." From there: 

When he was ready for college, the young Merwin earned a scholarship to Princeton, where he also worked in the campus dining halls. He went on to Europe, where he became a translator and soon a poet.

Fellow poet Edward Hirsch remembers when he first saw Merwin's picture.

"I thought he looked like Orpheus," he says. "His physical beauty was really quite startling, always."

But according to Hirsch, by the time Merwin published his fifth book, he was in despair — worried about the planet, nuclear issues and Vietnam. He wanted his writing to be more urgent, so, to start, Merwin decided to do away with punctuation.

"Suddenly using punctuation felt like nailing words on a page," Hirsch says. "He was seeking something like the movement and lightness of the spoken word. Then, as he became more involved in the ecological movement, his poems began to root themselves in the Earth. And one of the most amazing things in this work is by the time he became a poet of old age he had sort of morphed into a poet of praise."

That happened on the Hawaiian island of Maui. In the 1980s, Merwin found a worn-out pineapple plantation there and with his wife, Paula, worked to restore the rainforest. His day would begin early with tea, the birds, the wind and maybe some poetry scrawled on the back of an envelope. The afternoon was given to bringing back the palm trees.

Learn more at NPR.

Originally Published: March 15th, 2019