Remembering W. S. Merwin

The poet W. S. Merwin passed away on March 15, marking the conclusion to a long and richly productive life. His body of poetry proves difficult to sum up. Over the course of his seven decades of writing, Merwin changed again and again, in style and tone and subject.

Merwin’s first volumes of verse, published in the 1950s, reveal his context and influences—Graves, Auden, and Yeats—more than his own passions. These early works are crisply formal and erudite, commanded by a cryptic, abstruse intelligence. In the 1960s, anger entered Merwin’s verse. His poetry became heated by the political woes of the age, namely the Vietnam War and the mounting environmental crisis. By then, Merwin had slipped free from traditional verse forms and had shed almost all punctuation.

These qualities can be found in the opening lines of “For a Coming Extinction” (1967):

Gray whale
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing

In the late 1970s, Merwin moved to Hawaii, where his poetry ripened into a masterful and unmistakable style. Merwin studied Buddhism and ecology, translated classical Asian poetry, and slowly transformed a blighted pineapple plantation into a thriving rainforest—activities to which he was committed for the rest of his life. The passions of Merwin’s life shine through his art, which increasingly reflected his natural surroundings through beautifully minute observation. Indeed, Merwin’s later poems show the workings of a mind attuned to the riches of the present moment and calibrated to the slow cycles of soils, trees, and migrating birds. In these poems, Merwin’s signature lack of punctuation conveys the immediacy of felt experience and the layered character of time.

Consider “The Making of Amber” (2009):

The September flocks form crying
gathering southward
even small birds knowing
for the first time
how to fly all the way as one

at daybreak the split fig
is filled with dew
the finch finds it
like something it remembers

then across the afternoon
the grape vine hangs low in the doorway
and grapes one by one
taste warm to the tongue
transparent and soundless
rich with late daylight

The poem exemplifies the marvel of Merwin’s best poetry, in which his immense technique seems to disappear, leaving on the page moments of delight, sorrow, or wonder. Merwin’s loss is irreplaceable, but in his poetry he left the record of a life deeply lived and beautifully expressed. As long as there are readers of poetry, his work will live on.