Verses and Voices

W.S. Merwin - United States Poet Laureate (2010-2011)

Pulitzer Prize-winning and National Book Award-winning Poet and Essayist

In a career spanning five decades, W.S. Merwin, poet, translator, and environmental activist, has become one of the most widely read — and imitated — poets in America. The son of a Presbyterian minister, for whom he began writing hymns at the age of five, Merwin went to Europe as a young man and developed a love of languages that led to work as a literary translator. Over the years, his poetic voice has moved from the more formal and medieval—influenced somewhat by Robert Graves and the medieval poetry he was then translating — to a more distinctly American voice, following his two years in Boston where he got to know Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Adrienne Rich, and Donald Hall, all of whom were breaking out of the rhetoric of the 1950s. W.S. Merwin’s recent poetry is perhaps his most personal, arising from his deeply held beliefs. He is not only profoundly anti-imperialist, pacifist, and environmentalist, but also possessed by an intimate feeling for landscape and language and the ways in which land and language interflow. His latest poems are densely imagistic and full of an intimate awareness of the natural world.

His first book, A Mask for Janus, was chosen by W.H. Auden in 1952 for the Yale Younger Poets series. His book of poems The Carrier of Ladders was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1970. His other books of poems include The Drunk in the Furnace, The Moving Target, The Lice, Flower & Hand, The Compass Flower, Feathers from the Hill, Opening the Hand, The Rain in the Trees, Travels, The Vixen, The Lost Upland, Unframed Originals, The Folding Cliffs, The River Sound, The Pupil, a translation of Dante’s Purgatorio and his critically-lauded translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His prose includes The Mays of Ventadorn, as part of the National Geographic Directions series, The Ends of the Earth (essays), and a memoir entitled Summer Doorways (Shoemaker & Hoard). Recent reissues of his books include The First Four Books of Poems, Spanish Ballads (Copper Canyon Press), his translations of Jean Follain’s poems Transparence of the World, and Antonio Porchia’s Voices, as well as The Book of Fables (Copper Canyon), a reissue of two previously published books The Miner’s Pale Children and Houses & Travelers. His most recent poetry collections include Present Company (Copper Canyon), which won the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, Migration: Selected Poems 1951-2001 (Copper Canyon), which won the National Book Award, and The Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (his second Pulitzer).

In 1999, W.S. Merwin was named Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress for a jointly-held position along with poets Rita Dove and Louise Glück. He has been honored as laureate of the Struga Poetry Evenings Festival in Macedonia, receiving the international poetry award, the Golden Wreath Award. In the fall of 2004, Merwin received the 2004 Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. Included in his numerous awards are the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, the Tanning Prize, the Bollingen Prize, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. In July 2010, William Merwin was appointed United States Poet Laureate by the Librarian of Congress. He lives, writes, and gardens in Hawaii, on the island of Maui.

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