The US Poet Laureate had received nearly every major poetry prize that exists, including two Pulitzer Prizes, and a National Book Award.
W.S. Merwin, the American poet, environmental activist, and two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, died Friday March 15 at his home in Haiku, Hawaii, on the island of Maui. He was 91.
As The New York Times reports, Merwin was known for poems that used language to conjure “absence, silence and nothingness,” often drawing on themes of the natural world, spirituality, personal history, and the impermanence of life. He was a longtime Buddhist practitioner, having moved from New York to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism with Robert Aitken Roshi in 1976. Merwin eventually settled on Maui after purchasing 19 acres of deforested tropical landscape on a former pineapple plantation that he set out to restore.
He and his late wife, Paula Schwartz, restored the land, planting more than 2,700 trees and an array of other flora. The Merwin Conservancy was later established in 2010, aiming to maintain Merwin’s house and palm forest as “a place of stillness and reflection for retreat, study, and contemplation,” that will serve to “inspire innovation in the arts and sciences.”
The 2014 documentary film on Merwin’s life, Even Though the Whole World is Burning, features footage of Merwin on his restored land in Maui. The documentary also details a 1975 incident at a Halloween party at the Vajradhatu Seminary in Snowmass, Colorado, where Merwin and Hawaiian poet Dana Naone refused an order from Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche to undress. When they refused, a fight broke out, and they were forcibly stripped after their locked door was broken through. The incident caused controversy in the community.
Merwin began reading and writing poetry while studying at Princeton University. After graduating, he worked in Europe as a tutor and later a translator. When he returned to the United States, he served as a poet in residence at the Poets’ Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and published his first book of poetry, A Mask for Janus, in 1952.
Merwin went on to write two dozen books of poetry, and further volumes of prose, memoirs, story collections, and translation. Alongside his two Pulitzer Prizes, Merwin won the National Book Award in 2005 for Migration: New and Selected Poems, and served as the United States Poet Laureate from 2010 to 2011. His final book of poems, Garden Time, was published in 2016.
Zen student Susan Dunlap wrote about Merwin’s poem “Vixen” for Lion’s Roar in 2011, writing, “Merwin’s intriguing phrases are mysteries, or perhaps almost koans.” The real pleasure of his poems, she writes, “is in reading it again and again and letting meanings emerge.”
In his poem “For the Anniversary of My Death,” featured in his 1993 book, The Second Four Books of Poems, Merwin writes:
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what