The Sunday Poem : W.S. Merwin & the Debut of the Sunday Poem Index


Poet W.S. Merwin


I want to wish you and your loved ones a belated Happy Thanksgiving this Sunday.

This holiday I’m exceedingly grateful to you for reading Gwarlingo and to all of the artists and poets who have contributed work to the site. In gratitude I have a new addition to the site that I’m excited to share with you…

As Gwarlingo grows, browsing and locating older posts becomes more difficult. This handy, easy-to-use Sunday Poem Index will make it a breeze for you to locate your favorite Sunday Poets and to find poets you may have missed. You can easily access the index by clicking on “Sunday Poem” in the navigation bar at the top of the site.

I’m always striving to make the site better and to highlight the work of the talented artists who contribute to Gwarlingo. I hope you enjoy browsing the Sunday Poem Index!

Stay tuned for more site improvements and another big announcement in the coming week.


The new Sunday Poem Index page


Since family and friends are on our minds this holiday, I thought this would be a good time to share this video of W.S. Merwin reading his poem “Yesterday.”

As the Poetry Foundation notes, Merwin was once asked what social role a poet plays—if any—in America. This was his response:

“I think there’s a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there’s still time. I think that’s a social role, don’t you? … We keep expressing our anger and our love, and we hope, hopelessly perhaps, that it will have some effect. But I certainly have moved beyond the despair, or the searing, dumb vision that I felt after writing The Lice; one can’t live only in despair and anger without eventually destroying the thing one is angry in defense of. The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us. And you know, in a way, if you don’t pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness.”

Thanks for reading and have a marvelous Sunday.



(NOTE: If you are reading this post in an email and cannot see the video, click here to watch Merwin’s reading on the Gwarlingo website).






About W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin (Photo © Tom Sewell 2010)

W.S. Merwin is a major American writer whose poetry, translations, and prose have won praise since W.H. Auden awarded his first book, A Mask for Janus (1952), the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Though that first book reflected the formalism of the period, Merwin eventually became known for an impersonal, open style that eschewed punctuation. Writing in the Guardian, Jay Parini described Merwin’s mature style as “his own kind of free verse,

[where] he layered image upon bright image, allowing the lines to hang in space, largely without punctuation, without rhymes . . . with a kind of graceful urgency.” Although Merwin’s writing has undergone stylistic changes through the course of his career, a recurring theme is man’s separation from nature. The poet sees the consequences of that alienation as disastrous, both for the human race and for the rest of the world. Merwin, who is a practicing Buddhist as well as a proponent of deep ecology, has lived since the late 1970s on an old pineapple plantation in Hawaii which he has painstakingly restored to its original rainforest state.

Merwin was born in New York City in 1927 and raised in New Jersey and Scranton, Pennsylvania, the son of a Presbyterian minister. Of his development as a writer, Merwin once said, “I started writing hymns for my father almost as soon as I could write at all, illustrating them . . . But the first real writers that held me were not poets: Conrad first, and then Tolstoy, and it was not until I had received a scholarship and gone away to the university that I began to read poetry steadily and try incessantly, and with abiding desperation, to write it.”  Merwin attended Princeton University and studied with R.P. Blackmur and John Berryman. After graduating in 1948, he continued as a post-graduate student of Romance languages and eventually traveled through much of Europe, translating poetry and working as a tutor, including for the son of poet Robert Graves. Merwin’s early collections—especially A Mask for Janus—reflect the influence of Graves and the medieval poetry Merwin was translating at the time.

In 1956, Merwin was offered a fellowship from the Poets’ Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts and returned to the U.S. His books from this period, Green with Beasts (1956) and The Drunk in the Furnace (1960), show the beginning of a shift in style and tone as Merwin began to experiment with irregular forms. The Drunk in the Furnace, which was written during Merwin’s tenure in Boston when he was meeting poets like Robert Lowell, particularly shows his new engagement with American themes. His obsession with the meaning of America and its values can make Merwin sometimes seem like the great nineteenth-century poet Walt Whitman, L. Edwin Folsom noted in Shenandoah. “His poetry . . . often implicitly and sometimes explicitly responds to Whitman; his twentieth-century sparsity and soberness—his doubts about the value of America—answer, temper, Whitman’s nineteenth-century expansiveness and exuberance—his enthusiasm over the American creation.”



Merwin’s next books are his most critically acclaimed and continue to be influential volumes. The Lice (1967), though often read as a response to the Vietnam War, condemns modern man in apocalyptic and visionary terms.These are poems not written to an agenda but that create an agenda,” wrote poet and critic Reginald Shepherd, “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.” The Lice remains one of Merwin’s best-known volumes of poetry.

His next book, The Carrier of Ladders (1970) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1971. He famously donated the prize money to the draft resistance movement, writing an essay for the New York Review of Books that outlined his objections to the Vietnam War. His article spiked the ire of W.H. Auden, who wrote a response arguing that the award was apolitical. The Carrier of Ladders shows Merwin continuing to engage with American themes and nature, and includes a long sequence on American westward expansion. That same year, Merwin published The Miner’s Pale Children: A Book of Prose. Reviewing both volumes for the New York Times, Helen Vendler noted that “these books invoke by their subtitles the false distinction between prose and poetry: the real distinction is between prose and verse, since both are books of poems, with distinct resemblances and a few differences.”



Merwin moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism in 1976. He eventually settled in Maui and began to restore the forest surrounding his former plantation. Both the rigor of practicing Buddhism and the tropical landscape have greatly influenced Merwin’s later style. His next books increasingly show his preoccupation with the natural world. The Compass Flower (1977), Opening the Hand (1983), and The Rain in the Trees (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. Many of the poems in the last volume “immerse themselves in nature with a fresh sense of numinousness,” said Hirsch, while also mourning the loss of that nature to human greed and destruction.

Merwin has continued to produce striking poems using nature as a backdrop. The Vixen (1996), for instance, is an exploration of the rural forest in southwestern France that Merwin called home for many years. New Yorker critic J. D. McClatchy remarked that “the book is suffused with details of country life—solitary walks and garden work, woodsmoke, birdsong, lightfall.” But Merwin’s later poetry doesn’t merely describe the natural world; it also records and condemns the destruction of nature, from the felling of sacred forests to the extinction of whole species. Migration: New and Selected Poems (2005) exposes Merwin’s evolution as a stylist over half a century but also shows, as Ben Lerner noted in his review of the volume for Jacket, that “Merwin . . . is an unwaveringly political poet . . .  [he] not only tracks the literal impoverishment of our planet, but he makes it symbolize the impoverishment of our culture’s capacity for symbolization.” Migration was awarded the National Book Award for poetry.



Merwin has continued to win high praise for his poetry, however, including the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for his collection The Shadow of Sirius (2008). The book’s three sections deal with childhood and memory, death and wisdom, and are some of the most autobiographical of his career. The Pulitzer Prize committee cited the book for its “luminous, often-tender poems that focus on the profound power of memory.”

In addition to writing poetry, prose and drama, Merwin is an accomplished and prolific translator of poetry. His translation of Dante’s Purgatorio (2000) and the Middle English epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2004) both won high praise for their graceful, accessible verse. Merwin has also translated poets as diverse as Osip Mandelstam and Pablo Neruda. His many honors include, the Bollingen Prize, two Pulitzer Prizes, the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry a Ford Foundation grant, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the PEN Translation Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Wallace Stevens Award, and a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award. He has also been awarded fellowships from The Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Merwin is a former Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets and has served as Special Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1999-2000 and as Poet Laureate in 2010-2011.



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This video is part of the Poetry Everywhere project airing on PBS. Produced by David Grubin Productions and WGBH Boston, in association with the Poetry Foundation. Filmed at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival on location at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. “Yesterday” © W.S. Merwin. Merwin biography courtesy the Poetry Foundation.


By | 2016-11-11T21:52:11+00:00 11.24.12|The Sunday Poem, Words|5 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Sigrun November 25, 2012 at 3:22 am

    Thank you so much!

  2. Maree November 27, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    Oh! I LOVE this… bitter sweet perfection!

    Thank-you, Michelle (also loving the index… will there be a general search function too?!?)

    Thanks again for all these treasures, Michelle!


    • Michelle Aldredge November 28, 2012 at 8:48 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed the Merwin poem. It is indeed bittersweet.

      How terrific that the new Sunday Poem Index is coming in handy. I’m working on creating new indexes for various categories like visual art, creative process, etc. It’s in the works! In the meantime, there is a SEARCH function on the sidebar of the site (just below the Facebook “Town Square” box). This might help you browse until I can make all of these improvements.

      Thanks for reading, Maree!

  3. Maree November 29, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    Oops… Sorry! I have now located the SEARCH function…

    Thanks, Michelle!

    : )

    • Michelle Aldredge November 29, 2012 at 7:27 pm

      No worries, Maree. You are certainly not the first person to have trouble finding it, which means it IS NOT in a good location and needs to be changed. But until then, you now know its “secret” location! 😉

Comments are closed.