W.S. Merwin, a beloved and deeply influential American poet, translator and conservationist who served as U.S. poet laureate and twice won the Pulitzer Prize, died Friday at his home near Haiku-Pauwela on Maui’s north shore. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by the staff of The Merwin Conservancy, a nonprofit organization founded by Merwin and his late wife Paula Dunaway to preserve their home and garden, including a 10-acre arboretum with 3,000 palm trees from 850 species and other rare and endangered flora they planted on eroded, overgrown land Merwin bought in the mid-1970s.
“I’ve always wanted to take a piece of ruined land and restore it,” Merwin told a Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter in 2010 when he became the first Hawaii resident to be appointed poet laureate. And it had beauty. “The plovers were flying overhead. I went down to the stream bed. Thrushes were singing.”
Merwin died peacefully in his sleep, said Sonnet Coggins, the conservancy’s executive director. “That was what he wanted, to be in his home.”
The current U.S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith, had fond memories of the generous welcome Merwin extended to her and her husband at his home last year when she came to Hawaii to speak in The Merwin Conservancy’s “Green Room” lecture series. “He was feeding birds flying to eat berries out of his hand,” said Smith. Adding that she had been inspired by Merwin’s work “in so many ways,” the generations-younger poet, 46, lauded the “deep moral conscience driving his poems, which took different forms at different times in his career,” from directly addressing politics to “a larger kind of vision about being human, being submissive to a kind of mystery, a oneness, that is human and beyond the human.”
Asked about Merwin’s literary legacy, “He was one of the great poets of our generation,” said Frank Stewart, a retired professor of English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who first met the poet — also a celebrated nonfiction writer and translator — in Honolulu in the 1970s and has published his work in Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing and an anthology, “World Between Waves,” of natural-history writing about Hawaii. He spoke of Merwin’s decades spent learning about Hawaiian culture, which grew into “The Folding Cliffs,” a 1998 book-length epic in verse about the 19th-century royalist and fugitive known as Koolau the Leper. “It is a masterpiece,” Stewart said.
“He was a charming, gracious man,” Stewart added, remembering being welcomed with “wonderful lunches” on drop-in visits to the Merwins’ home.
Smith, a professor of creative writing at Princeton University, Merwin’s alma mater, spoke to the formality that underlay the often plainspoken, free-associative, personal tenor of his poems, most, but not all, written in free verse. “His work was so humble and lyrical and full of this kind of ageless wisdom, and then formally, this beautiful mastery,” she said. She praised “those lines that don’t really need punctuation to guide you through a really complex set of perceptions that feels effortless.”
Of Merwin’s translations of Pablo Neruda’s poetry, Smith said, “They were the first translations (of Neruda) to me that really felt like a poet had made them.”
In “The Shadow of Sirius,” his poetry collection that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, Merwin conveys the sense of place, mortality and transcendence through nature and love that is found throughout his prolific body of work.
“Where the roaring torrent
raced at one time
to carve farther down
those high walls in the stone
for the silence that I hear now
day and night on its way to the sea.”
WILLIAM Stanley Merwin was born in New York City on Sept. 30, 1927, and raised in Union City, N.J., and Scranton, Pa. Early on he was captivated by language through the sermons of his father, a Presbyterian minister, and the poems his mother read aloud to him, including Henry W. Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha.” This made him want to learn more about the lifestyle of Native Americans, he told the Star-Advertiser in 2010. He also recalled his father’s speaking out against racism.
He attended Princeton on scholarship and befriended the poets Galway Kinnell and John Berryman. On a student break he went to Washington, D.C., to visit the poet Ezra Pound in a mental hospital. While Pound had nearly been executed for treason for his support of Mussolini during World War II, Merwin focused only on his poetry. “I admired him for passages in his poems, some of which still seem to me new and gemlike,” he writes in his 2002 memoir “The Mays of Ventadorn.”
If Pound could write such poems, perhaps there was hope for Merwin. “He was an American — middle-class and in every sense provincial, as I was — who had set out from the beginning to be an artist, a poet. And to do it without money.”
Pound also translated the verses of the early medieval French troubadours, who wrote in Occitan, and, after graduating from college and working as a tutor in Europe for the son of the poet Robert Graves, Merwin visited the troubadours’ region of Perigord. In a small hamlet, where the people spoke Occitan rather than French, he bought a ruined farmhouse that he restored.
Returning to the U.S., Merwin received his first Pulitzer Prize for “The Carrier of Ladders” in 1971, during the heat of protests against the Vietnam War, and refused the money, requesting that it be given to peace activist Alan Blanchard and the draft resistance movement. One of the nation’s most decorated poets, his more than 50 books have included “A Mask for Janus,” which W.H. Auden chose for the Yale Younger Poets award, and “Migration: New and Selected Poems,” winner of the 2007 National Book Award.
In 1975 he came to Maui to study with Zen Buddhist master Robert Aitken and became involved in environmental and Hawaiian causes, helping to sponsor a statewide conference about the importance of keeping water flowing in natural streams. His final collection of poems, “Garden Time,” was published in 2016.
In 2010 Merwin told the Star-Advertiser that he began to become an ecologist when restoring his medieval ruined stone house in France, learning to garden, compost, recycle and reuse. In “The Mays of Ventadorn” he writes, “when I recall the ruins and the country around them … I am sure to see them, at least to begin with, as I did the first time I approached them, in the cool, veiled light of spring, the new leaves fully open, shining with rain …”
Although he died a few days short of spring, one senses it was the season that prevailed in his heart.
Merwin is survived by sister Ruth Moser and stepsons Matthew Carlos Schwartz and John Burnham Schwartz. The family asks that in lieu of flowers or cards, donations be made to The Merwin Conservancy, merwinconservancy.org.