What It Takes is an audio podcast produced by the American Academy of Achievement featuring intimate, revealing conversations with influential leaders in the diverse fields of endeavor: public service, science and exploration, sports, technology, business, arts and humanities, and justice.
I think poetry goes back to the invention of language itself.
Born in New York City, William Stanley Merwin spent most of his childhood in Union City, New Jersey, and in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was preoccupied with poetry and the magic of words from an early age. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and Merwin began writing hymns for his father’s church at age five. A sympathetic high school Spanish teacher encouraged his verse-making, and urged him to try his hand at translating the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.
Although his parents lacked the means to send him to college, he won an academic scholarship to Princeton University, where he waited on tables at one of the school’s elite dining clubs to help pay his expenses. At Princeton, he fell under the influence of the prominent critic and poet R.P. Blackmur and his graduate assistant, the poet John Berryman. Merwin acquired a thorough grounding in the fundamentals of poetry and began to seriously consider a career in literature. After graduation, he stayed at Princeton for another year to continue his study of Romance languages, preparing for his future work as a translator of French, Spanish, Latin and Italian literature.
Out of school, Merwin found work as a private tutor to the children of rich families. In a fateful development, he was hired to tutor the son of the British author Robert Graves, who lived on the Spanish island of Majorca. Primarily a poet, Graves had won renown with his memoir of combat in the First World War, Goodbye to All That. He was also well-known for his novels of ancient Rome, such as I, Claudius, and for his study of mythology, The White Goddess. Through Graves and his friends, Merwin met many of the great names in the English literary world, including the most influential poet of the era, the American-born T.S. Eliot. After leaving the Graves household, Merwin moved to London, where he made translations for the BBC, including the Spanish verse epic El Cid.
In 1952, when Merwin was only 24, a volume of his verse, The Mask of Janus, was accepted for publication by the Yale Younger Poets series. The series was edited by the poet W.H. Auden, second only to Eliot in the English-speaking world. Auden’s praise brought Merwin to the attention of the poetry-reading public. Merwin’s early verse showed the strong influence of Graves and of Eliot’s old friend Ezra Pound, with its use of traditional forms, and its wide-ranging allusions to classical literature and mythology. Merwin’s sensitive observation of nature and animals was distinctly his own and would come to the fore in his next collections, The Dancing Bears and Green With Beasts.
For many years, Merwin and his English wife, Dido Milroy, lived in a farmhouse in Southwest France, a setting he would describe in his 1992 book, The Lost Uplands. At the time, Merwin was immersed in medieval literature and consumed with the idea of creating modern verse drama. He returned to the United States in 1956 to serve as playwright-in-residence at the Poets Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he made the acquaintance of other young poets — Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich and Donald Hall — who were all trying to find a contemporary voice for American poetry. In this setting, Merwin eventually lost interest in verse drama. His turn away from classical models, to contemporary diction and concerns, was marked with the 1960 publication of his book The Drunk in the Furnace. On returning to London, he befriended the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, who were also moving poetry away from the formality of Eliot’s generation to a more colloquial style and more personal subject matter. The success of Merwin’s new direction was affirmed when his 1963 volume, The Moving Target, received the National Book Award. In the same year, Merwin published his translation of the medieval French epic The Song of Roland.
Separated from his wife, Merwin spent more of his time in New York City, and served as poetry editor of the liberal weekly The Nation. In his 1967 volume, The Lice, Merwin pursued a more experimental course in his verse, embracing the irregular meters he propounded in a much-discussed essay, “On Open Form.” When he received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 1970 book, The Carrier of Ladders, he took the occasion to publicize his opposition to the Vietnam War, prompting a public split with W.H. Auden. In addition to the 1973 collection, Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, Merwin’s activities in the 1970s included collaborations with other scholars, producing English translations of works from Chinese, Japanese, Greek and Russian. His 1978 volume, Feathers from the Hill, received the Bollingen Prize, completing a trifecta of the most coveted awards in American poetry.
While living in New York City, Merwin met Paula Dunaway, an editor of children’s books. The couple married in 1983. After a number of visits to Hawaii, the Merwins settled on the island of Maui, a setting reflected in his books of the 1980s: Finding the Islands, Opening the Hand and The Rain in the Trees. His 1998 book, The Folding Cliffs, is a verse narrative of Hawaiian history and legend. More recent books include the poetry collections The River Sound and The Pupil ,as well as translations of Dante’s Purgatorio and the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
His other prose works include The Mays of Netadorn, published by National Geographic Directions, and The Ends of the Earth, a collection of his essays on nature and exploration. In 1994, he became the first recipient of the Tanning Prize, a $100,000 award presented by the Academy of American Poets at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. Fifty years of Merwin’s poetry were collected in Migration: Selected Poems 1951-2001, a volume honored with the National Book Award. Merwin’s anti-war convictions have not diminished with the years. In 2003, he returned to Washington with a delegation of “Poets Against the War” to protest the planned American invasion of Iraq. Two years later, Merwin published a brilliantly lucid memoir, Summer Doorways.
In 2009, W.S. Merwin was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize for his collection of new poems, The Shadow of Sirius. The following year the Library of Congress selected him to serve as the nation’s 17th Poet Laureate. Since his appointment, Merwin’s poems have come to play a distinct role in the public life of the United States. In January 2011, when nine people were killed and 13 wounded during the attempted assassination of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, W.S. Merwin’s poem “To the New Year” was read aloud as the closing words of a nationally televised memorial service.
Over the years, Merwin became increasingly interested in Buddhism and the philosophy of deep ecology. He maintained a disciplined writing schedule, while devoting the rest of his energy to the preservation of Hawaii’s environment and the restoration of the rain forest around his home. The Merwins planted thousands of palms on the 19 acres around their home, a former pineapple plantation near the town of Haiku. The house they built was a model of environmental sustainability, with solar-powered electricity and a rain catchment system. The couple founded a nonprofit, the Merwin Conservancy, to preserve their home as a haven for writers, artists and activists, and to support others in pursuing a more sustainable way of life. After Paula Merwin died in 2017, W.S. Merwin continued to live in the home they created until his death at age 91. The rain forest the Merwins restored is now permanently protected by the Hawaiian Island Land Trust. Home to more than 800 horticultural varieties, the Merwins’ forest is one of the greatest collections of palm species on Earth, “a living treasure house of palm DNA.”
The dynamic evolution of W.S. Merwin’s verse — allied with his accomplishments as translator, essayist and environmentalist — made him the most admired and imitated of American poets. He published his first volume of verse at age 24 and soon won acclaim for an impressive mastery of classical verse technique, combined with a vivid appreciation of animal life and the natural world.
Merwin embraced the use of more colloquial language and contemporary themes in the 1960s, advocating experimentation in his influential essay “On Open Form.” When his book The Carrier of Ladders won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Merwin took the occasion to voice his opposition to the Vietnam War. His poetry in the following decades increasingly reflected his passionate antiwar convictions.
Long celebrated as an outstanding translator of Latin, French, Spanish and Italian literature, his attention turned to the poetry of China, Japan and India. For many years, he lived on the island of Maui in Hawaii, and much of his poetry is suffused with the mythology and natural beauty of the islands. The meditative simplicity of his later work reflected his growing involvement with Buddhism and the philosophy of deep ecology. Fifty years of his poetry was collected in Migration: Selected Poems 1951-2001, a volume honored with the National Book Award. Thirty-eight years after winning his first Pulitzer, W.S. Merwin received a second Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 2008 volume, The Shadow of Sirius. In 2010 he was named Poet Laureate of the United States.
You have lived in two exceptionally beautiful places, Hawaii and the South of France. As a poet, do you find it necessary to surround yourself with nature, or is it the other way around, that the nature inspires the poetry?
W.S. Merwin: I never thought of it as a program. I used to live in New York and I wrote. I think if you’re a poet, or whatever kind of artist you are, you want to be able to write or compose or paint anywhere. But…
I remember one day talking to a bunch of friends crossing the campus in college, and listening to what they were thinking of doing with their lives, and I thought, “They don’t care about where they’re going to be living.” And to me, it’s terribly important where I am. The place is enormously important. I want to live in places. I don’t want to live in situations all of the time, and they’re talking about situations. I mean, I know how to make a living somehow, but that’s not really what I care about. I wouldn’t have known how to say it, but I knew that one thing that was terribly important was a place. So I don’t know, I had a retired maiden aunt who left me $800, which was all she had when she died, and my mother put it in bonds, and I had $1200 when I was in my early 20s, and I had it when I found that ruined farmhouse that had been not lived in for almost 50 years. And the lady who owned it sold it to me for $1200. I said, “How much would you sell it for?” after a long conversation when she wouldn’t sell it, and her husband said, “You better sell it, because it’s going to fall down.” So after tears, she said she’d sell it, and then the price she named was $1200 and was translated into francs. I put out my hand just like that and I’m very glad I did. It looked straight down 400 feet to the Dordogne, and it’s the whole valley of the Dordogne.
What town is that in?
W.S. Merwin: There isn’t any town. It’s a little tiny hamlet. It had about nine houses in it, they were all peasants at the time. Now they don’t farm anymore. Do you know where Toulouse is? It’s halfway between Toulouse and Limoges in the Southwest.
Later you chose to move to Hawaii. When did that happen?
W.S. Merwin: I came out here in the ’60s to do a reading over at the university and I fell in love with it.But it was kind of unreal to me, and then I came back again a few years later, and I spent longer, and I got to meet people, and a teacher in particular that I really wanted to see more of.My marriage had broken up in France years before, and my former wife wanted to live in my house over there, so I let her stay there, and I didn’t have anywhere to live except a little tiny apartment in New York.I decided that I just wanted to spend more time out here, and little by little I got hooked. Quite fast, in fact.
W.S. Merwin: I’m still hooked. I love it more all of the time.
We’d like to hear about your childhood too. You grew up in urban surroundings, didn’t you?
W.S. Merwin: Across the river from New York, in a place called Union City, which is right up — it used to be, before that, West Hoboken — it is just up the hill from the Palisades, from Hoboken, and from my father’s church I could look down on the harbor.I was fascinated as a small child to kneel up at a window there and just spend hours watching the traffic on the river, the river traffic, which was quite different then, there was a lot more of it.Very beautiful, I thought, and I still have wonderfully clear images of it still there. I mean I can still see the ferry barges taking — I mean, not just the ferries, the passenger ferries, but these things that would take a whole train on a series of barges across the river, and ships going up and down in the afternoon light.It was very, very beautiful.Everything is gone. I mean the traffic is gone. The Hoboken harbor has changed completely.My father’s church has long since, many years ago — gone.And the house is still there, but unrecognizable.I’ve been back and seen it.
We’ve read that you started writing hymns for your father’s church as a young boy. When did you start doing that?
W.S. Merwin: When I could make letters with a pencil. I was fascinated by hymns. It was one of the things that most fascinated me about having to go to church every Sunday, which I took for granted, like putting on clean clothes on Sunday and all that. You had to do that.
So I had to listen to all of these morning services, and I was allowed to do drawings and things, and then do what I wanted with a little pad and pencil. And I was fascinated by two things. One of them was the language of the King James version of the Bible — which was different from the language that we spoke — the language of the psalms. There was a whole lot of the Bible that I got to know by heart without even thinking about it, and the language of the hymns: “the spacious firmament on high” and “the blue ethereal sky.” I didn’t know what half of the words meant, thought it was wonderful, you know. It’s funny, the way it rhymed, and so I wanted to write that. And my mother read to us, which is very important. She read Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses and she read Tennyson, “The Brook,” and a lot of poems like that. And that’s wonderful when parents read — not just stories — but poems to their children, because the language of poetry is different from the language of prose, and children pick up that language. And if they can pick it up very early, it’s really very, very important. They are likely to always love it if they do. I suspect that they really naturally do.
We’ve got an educational system that doesn’t encourage it at all, any more than they encourage listening to Mozart. And you know, one of the strange things is that I don’t think that’s natural. I have a friend, the guy who wrote Equus and Amadeus, Peter Schaffer. Peter is a friend, and I heard Peter give a brilliant lecture on Shakespeare a few years ago and we had a long, wonderful conversation afterwards. Peter’s gay and he had a boyfriend who was a young officer and who never read anything. He wasn’t interested in reading.
Peter one evening said, “I’m going out and I’ll be back quite late because I’m going to the theater.” And his friend said, “Well, what are you going to go and see?” He said, “Well, it’s nothing that would interest you at all. I’d take you, but I don’t think you would be interested.” He said, “What is it?” He said, “Well, it’s a play by Shakespeare.” He’d never heard of Shakespeare. He said, “It’s a new production of Hamlet and I want to see it.” “Well,” he said, “I’d like to go and see it if it interests you that much.” So he got him a ticket and he went along. And this guy who had never been to a play, never read anything like it, gets through the first scene of Hamlet on the battlements with the ghost, and the ghost gets into the banquet scene afterwards, and he turns and grabs Peter by the shoulders and says, “Does anyone know about this play?” he said. He thought it was the most exciting thing he had ever seen, that first scene, the battle scene. I’ve seen kids sit up in that Shakespeare in Love movie, which I didn’t like very much, but Gwyneth Paltrow doing Juliet, and these kids put down their popcorn and sit up on the edge of their seats. They never heard anything like this. It’s not so strange. They hear it. It’s too bad that it’s neglected, because it’s a whole dimension to their life that they are not getting.
The arts are neglected in the school system these days, as if they’re some kind of luxury.
W.S. Merwin: Yes. I think they’ve always been essential to us.
When we talk about the extinction of species, I think the endangered species of the arts and of language and all these things are related. I don’t think there is any doubt about that. I think poetry goes back to the invention of language itself. I think one of the big differences between poetry and prose is that prose is about something, it’s got a subject and the subject comes first and it’s dealing with the subject. But poetry is something else, and we don’t know what it is (that) comes first. Prose is about something, but poetry is about what can’t be said. Why do people turn to poetry when all of a sudden the Twin Towers get hit, or when their marriage breaks up, or when the person they love most in the world drops dead in the same room? Because they can’t say it. They can’t say it at all, and they want something that addresses what can’t be said. I think that’s the big difference between poetry and prose. All the arts, in a way, are doing that, they are talking about, “Dove sono? (Where are they?)” What’s that? She can’t say it, can she? Where are they? Where are they? What has happened to those days?