Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Scranton, Lackawanna County
Raised in Scranton, Merwin won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1971 for The Carrier of Ladders and in 2009 for The Shadow of Sirius.
Awards: Pulitzer Prize
W.S. Merwin was a highly acclaimed poet and translator who spent part of his childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Read more here.
The Merwin Conservancy website. 2019. 19 March 2019.
William Stanley (W.S.) Merwin was born in New York, New York, on September 30, 1927. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he grew up in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. Merwin lived in Scranton from the ages nine to 14; he then attended school “across the river from Wilkes-Barre,” from ages 14 to 16. Then he left to attend college at Princeton University in 1944, according a letter he wrote to John Balaban. While at Princeton, Merwin studied poetry with John Berryman and R.P. Blackmur; he also began a correspondence with Ezra Pound that continued for several years. Merwin graduated with a degree in English in 1947. Also at Princeton, he subsequently completed one year of postgraduate study with an emphasis on modern languages. In 1949, Merwin worked as a tutor in France and Portugal. A year later he continued his work in Majorca, Spain, where he tutored the son of poet Robert Graves. During the early 1950s Merwin translated Spanish and French classics for the British Broadcasting Corporation, an activity that became a lifelong passion leading him to translate many works in languages as diverse as French, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, Old Anglo-Saxon, and even Sanskrit. Merwin demonstrated his talent for drama between 1956 and 1957, which is when he wrote and produced two plays, Darkling Child (with Dido Milroy, his second wife) and Favor Island. At the same time, he was also working as playwright-in-residence at the Poet’s Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Merwin’s real career as a poet, however, began in 1952 with the publication of A Mask for Janus, which W.H. Auden chose as that year’s winning book for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Merwin has since published over 20 books of poetry, in addition to his works of translation and prose, and has established himself as one of the great masters of American poetry.
Merwin’s career as a poet and translator spans over 50 years and includes numerous literary awards, among them a Pulitzer Prize (1971) for The Carrier of Ladders and the P.E.N. Translation Prize (1969) for Selected Translations, 1948-1968. Merwin has also been the recipient of many other fellowships, grants, and awards. Some of his most notable honors include: a Rockefeller fellowship (1956); an American Academy grant (1957); the Arts Council of Great Britain playwriting bursary (1957); a Rabinowitz research fellowship (1961); a Ford grant (1964); an American Academy of Poets fellowship (1973); two Guggenheim fellowships (1973, 1983); a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1978); the Bollingen prize (1979); and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (1998).
In 1994, Merwin was named Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress for a jointly-held position along with poets Rita Dove and Louise Glück. Merwin also served as Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets (1988-2000) and was poetry editor of The Nation in 1962. In 2004, Merwin was presented with the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2005, Merwin was honored as laureate of the Struga Poetry Evenings Festival in Macedonia, where he received poetry’s international Golden Wreath Award.
Since the publication of A Mask for Janus, W.S. Merwin has consistently proved himself to be a poet of discerning voice and vision. Merwin has been described by one critic as a “mythmaker,” since his poetry often invokes mythical themes or figures to convey otherwise incommunicable emotional states. One of the best examples of this is Merwin’s poem “Odysseus” from The Drunk in the Furnace (1960). Odysseus is depicted in his classic struggle with self-doubt and alienation, which are common themes in Merwin’s poetry. Odysseus is portrayed as a man for whom “always the setting forth was the same, / Same sea, same dangers waiting for him / As though he had got nowhere but older.” Merwin’s later poems explore many similar themes, yet his most powerful poetry calls attention to the problems of language and the imbalance between humans and the natural world. “Witness,” from The Rain in the Trees (1988), speaks well to this point: “I want to tell what the forests / were like / I will have to speak / in a forgotten language.”
Speaking the lost language of nature appears to be Merwin’s calling, and throughout his poetry he takes great pains to give voice to things that cannot speak or be spoken to. Merwin’s poetry is concerned with other lives and languages, particularly those which have been lost or forgotten. He is also concerned about the nature of movement and change. “Travelling,” from Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (1973), makes this point clear and ties together many of the major themes that characterize Merwin’s poetry: “One travels / to learn how not to look back / hearing the doors fall down the stairs / and the tongues like wet feathers in a high wind / only in the present are the voices / however far they travel / and fires raising hands between echoes / out of words one travels / but there are words along the road waiting / like parents’ grandparents / we have heard of but never seen / each with its column of smoke / and its horizon beyond which nothing is known / and its sun.”
Merwin’s most recent testaments of his travels are Migration: New & Selected Poems (2005) and Summer Doorways (2005), a memoir of his childhood and travels in Europe. Migration won the National Book Award for 2005.
In 2009, Merwin won the Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection The Shadow of Sirius, where he explores and reflects on his childhood, the future, death, along with other images and themes. In July 2010, the National Book Foundation announced that Merwin had been selected to serve as the United States' Poet Laureate from 2010 to 2011. He currently resides in Hawaii and continues to work.
A Mask for Janus. New Haven: Yale UP, 1952.
The Lice. New York: Atheneum, 1967.
The Carrier of Ladders. New York: Atheneum, 1970.
The Compass Flower. New York: Atheneum, 1977.
The Rain in the Trees. New York: Knopf, 1988.
Travels. New York: Knopf, 1993.
The River Sound. New York: Knopf, 1999.
Migration: New & Selected Poems. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.
The Shadow of Sirius. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2008.
Transparence of the World: Poems of Jean Follain. New York: Atheneum, 1969.
Purgatorio, by Dante Alighieri. New York: Knopf, 2000.
The Ends of the Earth. Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004.