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Zen Buddhist and Poet W. S. Merwin Dies at 91

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William Stanly Merwin, 1927–2019. From pbs.org
William Stanly Merwin, 1927–2019. From pbs.org

One of America’s most celebrated poets, who spent his later years as a Zen Buddhist practitioner and environmental conservationist in Hawaii, died in his sleep on 15 March. William Stanley Merwin was honored twice as US Poet Laureate, won one National Book Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, and further praise over a span of seven decades. 

Born in New York City in 1927, Merwin studied poetry at Princeton under acclaimed writers Richard Blackmur (1904–65) and John Berryman (1914–72), and later tutored for the rebellious and freethinking Robert Graves (1895–1985). Merwin’s work grappled with his observation of humanity in a steady state of conflict and self-destruction.

The poet and critic Reginald Shepherd described his early work, written during the American war in Vietnam: These are poems not written to an agenda but that create an agenda. Preserving and recreating the world in passionate words. Merwin has always been concerned with the relationship between morality and aesthetics, weighing both terms equally. His poems speak back to the fallen world not as tracts but as artistic events.” (Poetry Foundation)

His Zen practice and appreciation of deep ecology led him to Hawaii to study with Robert Aitken Roshi in the mid 1970s. There he purchased an old pineapple plantation, which he and his late wife, Paula Dunnaway (d. 2017), carefully restored to its original rainforest state. Poet Edward Hirsch wrote that Merwin “is one of the greatest poets of our age. He is a rare spiritual presence in American life and letters (the Thoreau of our era).” (Poetry Foundation)

His writing expressed Zen Buddhist themes of impermanence and careful study of the world around him. In “Anniversary on the Island,” from his collection The Rain in the Trees, Merwin writes as a careful observer of his surroundings on Maui, continuing a style of eschewing capitalization and punctuation that he had developed earlier:

day after day we wake to the island
the light rises through the drops on the leaves
and we remember like birds where we are
night after night we touch the dark island
that once we set out for

The Compass Flower (Macmillan Pub Co 1977), Opening the Hand (Atheneum 1983), and The Rain in the Trees (Knopf 1988) “are concerned not only with what to renounce in the metropolis but also what to preserve in the country,” noted Ed Hirsch in the New York Times. (Poetry Foundation)

Naomi Shihab Nye, a fellow poet and friend of Merwin and his wife, said, “He has kept very diligently that precious, quiet oasis of solitude.” (NPR)

In 2010, Merwin appeared in the PBS documentary The Buddha, and in 2015, his life and work were the subject of the documentary film, Even Though the Whole World Is Burning. In 2017, his poems and palm forest were part of an exhibition in the new American Writers Museum in Chicago. (Maui News)

Paula-and-William-Merwin-by-Tom-Sewell1 via mauinews dot com
Paula and William Merwin. From mauinews.com

Merwin’s Maui home, where he raised more than 2,000 trees, will all be set aside as part of the Merwin Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the natural environment. The conservancy also plans to create a Merwin Fellowship program to support poets, writers, and artists, and offer an artist-in-residency program that would use the home in Hawaii.

“William Merwin leaves this life having fearlessly and gracefully practiced and expressed his care for this world,” said Sonnet Coggins, executive director of the conservancy. “In so doing, he touched the lives of countless people, and enriched our lives beyond measure. In his spirit, we will look upon our work at the Merwin Conservancy with the same sense of wonder that beckoned his poetry and his garden into being and will embody in our every gesture the same integrity with which he lived his life.” (Maui News)

See More

W. S Merwin (Poetry Foundation)
Poet W.S. Merwin, Who Was Inspired By Conservation, Dies At 91 (NPR)
W.S. Merwin, Pulitzer-winning poet and Peahi resident, dies (Maui News)
Merwin Conservancy

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