Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
-W.S. Merwin, “Separation”
The world of poetry has lost one of its brightest and longest-burning lights this week. W.S. Merwin, a prolific American poet and environmental activist, has died at the age of 91 in Hai’ku, Hawaii. Those of you familiar with Merwin’s work understand the depth of loss that has occurred, and those of you who aren’t can consider this an opportunity to make the best of the situation and read through the repertoire of this exceedingly talented artist.
While we mourn his passing, no one can deny that the life Merwin lead took every advantage of the 91 years he spent on this planet. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927, just two years before the stock market crash that would set off the events of the Great Depression. The first indication of Merwin’s poetic leanings came when he was only five years old, assisting his father, a Presbyterian minister, by writing hymns. Merwin’s love of language was planted in him by his father’s ministry, specifically a reading of Chapter Six in the book of Isaiah. In an interview with Paul Holdengräber in 2017, he said:
I was so taken by the sound of the language that I had memorized it just by hearing it…. I thought, “I have to find more language like that because I really want that to be part of my life.”
Sadly, Merwin’s home life was not safe. The same father who exposed him to the love of language he would build his career on was also abusive, forcing the adolescent Merwin to act as protector on behalf of himself and his mother. These protective instincts may also be the trait that prompted his later work in conservancy.
Merwin graduated from Princeton University in 1948, and spent his post-grad years as many Americans with the means chose to do: traveling across Europe. It is believed that the landscape of his home in the Midi Pyrenees region of France had a major influence on his work.
Merwin’s first-ever collection of poetry, A Mask for Janus, published in 1952, caught the attention of W.H. Auden— this should instill some hope in those with writing aspirations. This first volume of work drew upon classical literature, but Merwin’s successive volumes would become more experimental over time, eventually evolving into the “impersonal, indirect, and open style that eschewed punctuation” that he became known for.
Merwin relocated to Hai’ku Hawaii, (and I must say, Hai’ku sounds like a brilliant choice of residence for a poet) in 1976, at the age of 49, where he purchased a plot of land with the intention of restoring it to health after having been ravaged by exploitative farming practices. Merwin accomplished this goal, and it became one of the crowning achievements of his life outside of writing. Merwin was a staunch anti-war and environmental activist, attitudes that come across very strongly in his work. Merwin’s worldview may best be explained by his subscription to the philosophy of deep ecology, which aims to de-center humanity’s role on earth, i.e., humans are not the best thing since sliced bread, we are just one form of life that emerged from a vast primordial pool that spawned an unknowable amount of creatures currently populating the planet. In his lifetime, Merwin and his wife Paula (née Dunaway, a children’s books editor who passed in 2017) founded a non-profit called The Merwin Conservancy, to which the revitalized Hai’ku property will now be donated.
Featured image via PBS