Remembering the Deep Impact of W.S. Merwin

Image from The Merwin Conservancy

On March 15, 2019, we lost a giant of the poetry world. W.S. Merwin’s work spanned the later half of the 20th century up until today – his first collection, A Mask for Janus, was published in 1952, with his last collection, Garden Time, published in 2016. In each collection he sought to remake his form and thus was alway unlearning and relearning his poetics. Perhaps because he came to his craft each time with the freshness of a novice, he served as a guiding and powerful influence on younger poets.

Merwin’s commitment to the community of poetry was evident in the decades of sustained correspondence with his peers – including many writers whose work resides in Special Collections. Robert Creeley, Joy Williams, May Swenson, and Mona Van Duyn are among those with whom he exchanged letters. The most sustained relationship (with anyone in Special Collections, that is) was with poet James Merrill. Their correspondence spanned three decades and saw exchanges of poetry, meditations on the small workings of their lives, financial troubles, the changing seasons – an epistolary friendship cherished by both.

Letter and postcard to “Jimmy,” or James Merrill, from W.S. Merwin. From the James Merrill Papers

On and off the page Merwin was known for his fierce commitment to social and ecological justice, which lent his writing an urgency and vitality. At Special Collections we have a typescript of  “Looking East at Night” from the collection The Lice, a critically acclaimed work that is often read as a response to the devastations of the Vietnam War.

Typescript of “Looking East At Night” (1964). From the W.S. Merwin Collection

Merwin remained an active and critical voice against war, while also developing a commitment to deep ecology. In 1976 he moved to Maui and began restoring the pineapple plantation he lived on to its original ecology. He cultivated and planted thousands of palms and tropicals – all native to Maui – and wrote about the destruction of environments, the need for deep healing, and the scared vivacity of the forest. The Merwin Conservancy (the grounds that he lived on) became a center for scientific and artistic research, contemplation, and collaboration. He died at the age of 91 among the thousands of palms he planted, in the house that he built.

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