W.S. Merwin, who served as the 17th Poet Laureate of the United States, beginning in 2010, has died, his publisher, Copper Canyon Press, has confirmed. He was 91 years old.
The author of more than fifty books of poetry, prose, and translations, Merwin won nearly every honor an American poet can, including two Pulitzer Prizes: in 1971 for The Carrier of Ladders, and again in 2008 for The Shadow of Sirius. His 2005 retrospective volume, Migration: New and Selected Poems, won the National Book Award. His debut collection, A Mask for Janus, was selected by W.H. Auden as winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and was published in 1952.
Merwin was universally regarded as a major poet, achieving wide notoriety in the 1960s and early 1970s with a series of collections, beginning with 1963'sThe Moving Target and the seminal 1967 collection of anti-war poetry, The Lice, in which he eschewed punctuation and cast his poems in the oracular voice that would be his signature style for the remainder of his long career.
After maintaining long publishing relationships with Atheneum and then Knopf, Merwin moved to the independent poetry publisher Copper Canyon Press, which has published his new collections since 2005 and reissued many of his previous books. Deborah Garrisson, who was his editor at Knopf, praised the deep resonance of Merwin’s poetry and its lasting influence: “Very few poets have had as large an influence on the cadence of American poetry in our time as Merwin -- his notion of how to use the self in a landscape to shape a poem, his feel for the way free verse should sound and move down the page, and his subject matter (particularly in terms of his way of living in and writing about the landscape and climate) have all influenced our poetry so much that the effects are almost invisible, but are everywhere in contemporary poetry. He's like a deep underground spring that fed us all going into the late 20th century and the 21st. He wore that voice of the ages, of the long shaping of the land by nature, with remarkable ease, I suppose because he truly lived it and saw the world the way he wrote a poem; it wasn't put on or ironic or playful. It just was.”
His editor at Copper Canyon, Michael Wiegers, offered this statement about Merwin’s impact on American letters: “While we have lost a tremendous friend, the loss to American poetry is even more profound. From the stylistic inventions he introduced to the catalyzing force of his work in translation and international poetics, his influence on American poetry has been without equal.”
Merwin was a longtime resident of the island of Maui in Hawaii. His third wife, Paula Dunaway, whom he married in 1983, died in 2017.
Among Merwin's most famous poems is “For the Anniversary of My Death,” which takes on a new meaning today:
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
This story was updated with a quote from Merwin’s editor at Knopf.