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There aren't many American poets alive today with as many accolades as W.S. Merwin. If he were an athlete, his trophy case would be chock-full. If he were a show horse, he'd be drowning in a sea of blue ribbons. He's won the Pulitzer Prize twice, and he's just been named the seventeenth Poet Laureate of the United States. In fact, there's nothing left for the guy to win. But, considering Merwin likes things pretty quiet (he lives the island life as a Zen Buddhist and naturalist), he's probably okay with that.
Merwin was raised in New Jersey and Pennsylvania by religiously conservative parents. After graduating from Princeton, he began to spread his wings. He traveled a lot, to Europe especially, living in Spain, France, and England. He met some seriously big-shot poets while he was over there—Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and, most influentially, Ezra Pound. He also married… three times. Eventually, though, things quieted down—aside from all of the fame and attention, Merwin now lives a peaceful life in Hawaii.
"One of the Lives" is a great example of how his poetry and life have developed. Published in Merwin's 1996 collection entitled The Vixen, it shows some technical similarities to his later work. For example: no punctuation ever and a general flowing of the lines (like a silk kimono hanging on the line in an August breeze). You also get to see some popular Merwin themes, like family, reflection, and existence. And above all, you get the feeling that the speaker of a Merwin poem is grateful. His poems aren't bubblingly optimistic (phew, who needs all that sugary sweetness anyway?), but they are undeniably peaceful—you could even say Zen.
Place your right index finger at the base of your left hand at the wrist. Feel your pulse? Hey, congrats! You're alive. But did you ever think of all the tiny details that had to come into place in order for you to exist? Most of us know our parents and grandparents. Some of us can even trace the family tree further back. But we rarely think about all the events that had to fall into place to make us come into the world.
Maybe if your great-grandfather hadn't been dumped by his high school sweetheart, he never would have met your great-grandmother, and, well, you would never have been born. Or, if your mom hadn't forgotten the milk one day, so she had to stop at the deli on the way home, she never would have met your dad. Again, you wouldn't exist. We know there's a lot of unpredictability in our present and future lives, but we don't often think of all the coincidental and unpredictable things that had to happen in our pasts to lead us to where we are today. Luckily, we have super-talented poets like W.S. Merwin to do that sort of thinking for us, which is exactly what he does in "One of the Lives."
Just the Facts
The Poetry Foundation offers thorough info on Merwin and an extensive bibliography.
Modern American Merwin
Tons of info, poetry, and reliable links by the good folks at Modern American Poetry.
Check out this info on the Merwin Conservancy, about his conservation efforts—in particular planting palm trees.
PBS on Merwin
Bill Moyers interviews Merwin about his most recent Pulitzer Prize.
Merwin reads his poem "Yesterday."
Merwin the Laureate
Check out this interview Merwin gave after becoming the U.S Poet Laureate.
"For the Anniversary of My Death"
Merwin reads this poem for the Academy of American Poets.
Merwin talks about preserving the Hawaiian rainforest (not poetry, BTW).
A whole clearinghouse of Merwin-related audio files can be found here.
Here's a recent headshot of Merwin.
In the Forest
Merwin where he's most comfortable: in nature.
An interview with the poet from The Paris Review.
Here's an interview he did with The Progressive.
Check out "One of the Lives," and much much more!
Impress your friends and press your flowers!