Literary Treasures: Remembering W. S. Merwin, 1927-2019

The following post is part of our monthly series, “Literary Treasures,” which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

On October 25, 2010, W. S. Merwin gave his opening reading as the 19th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium. To preface his reading, which spanned more than 50 years of his literary work, Merwin said:

Several months ago, when Professor Billington and I were discussing the possibility of this occasion, he asked me whether there was any particular theme that I would like to invoke as an accompaniment to what I might say about poetry and my own poetry. And I answered at once, without hesitation, that there was one, and it would be what I think is the essential relation between poetry and the living world in all its forms—that is its source and sustenance and the source and sustenance of the art, of all the arts.

As readers of Merwin’s work know, the poet’s focus on the “essential relation between poetry and the living world” was, of course, not a theme chosen at random for this occasion; Merwin’s life and poetry were inextricably linked to the natural world.

A week ago, on March 15, W. S. Merwin died at the age of 91 at his home in Haiku, Hawaii, surrounded by the 10-acre flora conservancy—once a depleted pineapple plantation—he had spent more than 30 years building with his late wife, Paula Dunaway. Upon the news of Merwin’s death, obituaries and memorials appeared quickly in major outlets like The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker, not to mention those closer to home for Merwin such as The Maui News and the Honolulu Star Advertiser. You can visit our resource guide on W. S. Merwin to read more.

W. S. Merwin was born in 1927 in New York City and educated at Princeton University. He published nearly 30 collections of poetry; his first book, A Mask for Janus, was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1952. His book Migration: Selected Poems 1951-2001 won the National Book Award for poetry in 2005. He twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, in 1971 for his book The Carrier of Ladders, and in 2009 for The Shadow of Sirius. Merwin also published more than 20 books of translation, numerous plays, and several books of prose.

Before he walked onstage as the newly appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in 2010, Merwin had been invited to read his work at the Library of Congress nearly a dozen times before, as early as 1958. Several of these recordings are online: Courtesy of the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, you can listen to Merwin reading his poems in the Coolidge Auditorium in 1979 at the invitation of William Meredith, and again in 1997 at the invitation of Robert Pinsky. In 2007, Merwin returned to the Library of Congress to receive its Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry; you can watch his prize reading as a video webcast. And, of course, Merwin returned once again at the end of his laureateship in 2011 to give his closing lecture; you can watch this event as a video webcast as well.

During Merwin’s opening reading in 2010, he spoke of the “great tree” in the Gilgamesh epic, “which overshadows everything, which was part of everything, which was a menace, which was both the menace and the food of everything.” He continued:

Yes, you can cut the great tree down . . . But when you do cut it down, without knowing what the consequences are, death comes into the world. There was no death before that. That’s a great myth. I mean, that’s something that I think if you once paid attention to, you’ll never forget it. And I don’t think these are things that ever go away—and if we ignore them, we ignore them always with our peril.

I just wanted to say that in this context, once, at this time, in this century, because I think we must decide what we’re going to do with the time that is left to us—whether we’re going to live up to ourselves or whether we’re not. And nobody will miss us, you know.

There is grim humor in Merwin’s remark that “nobody will miss us”—he flashes a wry smile at the audience, who laughs, before he moves on—but his concerns are crystal clear.

A celebrated poet, translator, and conservationist, Merwin died surrounded by the trees he planted and protected with the time left to him. We mourn the loss of W. S. Merwin, who, most certainly, will be missed.

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