W.S. Merwin, former poet laureate who wrote about war, nature and Hawaii, dies

W.S. Merwin, former poet laureate who wrote about war, nature and Hawaii, dies
(Image: W.S. Merwin Conservancy)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) — W.S. Merwin, a prolific and decorated poet who celebrated nature, condemned war and industrialism and reached for the elusive past, died Friday at his Maui home. He was 91.

A Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate, Merwin completed more than 20 books, from early works inspired by myths and legends to fiery protests against environmental destruction and the conflict in Vietnam to late meditations on age and time.

He wrote rhymes and blank verse, a brief report on the month of January and a book-length story in verse about colonialism and the birth of modern Hawaii.

The Merwin Conservancy, which he founded, said that he died in his sleep at his Haiku home.

“While we have lost a tremendous friend, the loss to American poetry is even more profound," said Michael Wiegers, his longtime editor at Cooper Canyon Press.

"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 born in New York City in 1927, and moved to Maui in the mid-1970s to study Zen Buddhism.

Citing the Vietnam War, he declined a Pulitzer in 1971 for “The Carrier of Ladders,” saying that he was “too conscious of being an American to accept public congratulation with good grace, or to welcome it except as an occasion for expressing openly a shame which many Americans feel.”

Among other awards he accepted: a National Book Award for “Migration” in 2005, a Pulitzer in 2009 for “The Shadow of Sirius,” and such lifetime achievement honors as the Tanning Prize, the Bollingen Prize and a gold medal from the arts academy. He was chosen the country’s poet laureate in 2010 and served a single one-year term.

Merwin was also a lifelong environmentalist.

Over decades, he slowly transformed a plot of land on Maui’s north shore into a thriving, 19-acre palm forest.

“William Merwin leaves this life having fully lived and practiced his values and his care for this world. He expressed this care with exquisite beauty in his poetry and in his garden, and through both he touched the lives of countless people,” said Sonnet Coggins, executive director of the Merwin Conservancy.

"Together, we will safeguard and share his incredible legacy to renew our world through imagination, and embody in our every gesture the same integrity with which he lived his life.”

In announcing Merwin’s death, the conservancy shared this iconic poem from the writer:

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day

When the last fires will wave to me

And the silence will set out

Tireless traveler

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

― W.S. Merwin

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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