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Poetry News: W.S. Merwin wins Pulitzer Prize

April 28, 2009

W.S. Merwin“With no punctuation and a solitary launching capital letter, Merwin’s elegant poems are built to the measure of breath and sweep the page like palm fronds. Yet each word is old, lustrous, and solid. Only a poet as seasoned as Merwin can wrest so much meaning from dark, moon, wake, river, and song.”

For a distinguished volume of original verse by an American author, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

Awarded to “The Shadow of Sirius,” by W. S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press), a collection of luminous, often tender poems that focus on the profound power of memory.

So states the Pulitzer Prize citation for W.S. Merwin,  a pacifist well-known for his anti-war poetry. Merwin has published over 20 books of poetry and almost 20 books of translation. He won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for The Carrier Of Ladders. Known in the 1960s as an anti-war poet, Merwin is now an environmental activist who speaks out about restoring the rain forests of Hawaii.

One of my favorite living American authors, Merwin won his second Pulitzer Prize on Monday April 20–the man who Ezra Pound said had nothing to write about! That was back when he was 18; Pound suggested that he translate other poets to develop his craft and write 75 lines every day. He tells that story here and reads a poem for his wife, Paula:

In the early 90s, I stumbled across his collection The Lice (1973) in a small musty used book store in downtown Los Altos near Stanford. I wish I knew the woman who owned the book before me; I suspect it was a woman’s book, her miniscule carefully penciled notes illuminating the manuscript and her life and mine. I hold in my hands remnants of her life as well, remnants she left stuck in the book: a youthful picture of Merwin, cut to follow the intricate border from its newsprint magazine home. It rests between the poems “”Whenever I Go There” and “Wish.” Tucked between the leaves I also marvel at a request for a book by Tu-fu Yu, Chinese characters penciled in, information on the text typed in triplicate charcoal. I traveled with that slim volume  in my van for years,  there along with Marianne Moore’s O to Be a Dragon, grounding me and comforting me in my restlessness and homelessness, with my struggles with memory.

Here’s “The Waves,” one of my favorite poems by W.S. Merwin from The Lice:

I inhabited the wake of a long wave

As we sank it continued to rush past me
I knew where it had been
The light was full of salt and the air
Was heavy with crying for where the wave had come from
And why

It had brought them
From faces that soon were nothing but rain

Over the photographs they carried with them
The white forests
Grew impenetrable
but as for themselves
They felt the sand slide from
Their roots of water

The harbors with outstretched arms retreated along
Glass corridors then
Were gone then their shadows were gone then the
Corridors were gone

Envelopes came each enfolding a little chalk
I inhabited the place where they opened them

I inhabited the sound of hope walking on water
Losing its way in the
Crowd so many footfalls of snow

I inhabit the sound of their pens on boxes
Writing to the dead in

I in habit their wrappings sending back darkness
And the sinking of their voices entering
Nowhere as the wave passes

And asking where next as it breaks

So back in the mid 90s, when I heard he’d be reading at UCLA Hammer Museum,  I slipped in from the afternoon LA traffic to sit near the front on the cool floor leaning against the wall, amazed at his vitality, his rich, sonorous, melodic, gracious voice, and his shock of white hair. I stood in line to meet him and shake his hand but neglected to bring my book to have him sign it.

I heard him read April 13, 2006 at UCSB in packed Campbell Hall, hundreds of fans there, and lined up after the reading to get him to sign books. I had him sign the page for “Waves of August” in my hardback copy of his National Book Award winner, the massive  Migration which collects much of his life’s work. I told him that I remembered the moment I first read the poem in The New Yorker. It stunned me. It stuns me still.

Waves in August by W.S. Merwin

There is a war in the distance
with the distance growing smaller
the field glasses lying at hand
are for keeping it far away

I thought I was getting better
about that returning childish
wish to be living somewhere else
that I knew was impossible
and now I find myself wishing
to be here to be alive here
it is impossible enough
to still be the wish of a child

in youth I hid a boat under
the bushes beside the water
knowing I would want it later
and come back and would find it there
someone else took it and left me
instead the sound of the water
with its whisper of vertigo

terror reassurance an old
old sadness it would seem we knew
enough always about parting
but we have to go on learning
as long as there is anything

I don’t have the new book–yet. But here’s an excerpt from a review of it:

“Merwin…wants to reproduce something important about consciousness that is lost both in conventional punctuating and spacing….The most salient aspect of the Merwin mind in meditation is its tenacity to its perplexity. Nothing can interrupt it once it has located its chosen difficulty—whether in perception, in thought, in human relations, or in memory. The Shadow of Sirius eddies around such difficulties, each a stone in its current….In his personal anonymity, his strict individuated manner, his defense of the earth, and his heartache at time’s passing, Merwin has become instantly recognizable on the page; he has made for himself that most difficult of creations, an accomplished style.”

—Helen Vendler, The New York Review of Books

The media’s celebrated his win with numerous stories. Here are a few of them:

Fresh Air from WHYY, April 21, 2009 · W.S. Merwin won his second Pulitzer Prize for poetry on April 20 for The Shadow Of Sirius. In a 2008 interview, Merwin read a few of his poems and talked about memory, mortality and acceptance in his poetry.

Merwin has published over 20 books of poetry and almost 20 books of translation. He won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for The Carrier Of Ladders. Known in the 1960s as an anti-war poet, Merwin is now an environmental activist who speaks out about restoring the rain forests of Hawaii.

Union City native WS Merwin wins Pulitzer Prize for poetry – NJ,USA
Today, he was named the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry. It was just a few weeks ago that I found myself standing under WS Merwin’s name at the intersection of New York Avenue and Fourth Street in Union City, begins John Gomez For The Jersey Journal.

Port Townsend publisher home of Pulitzer winner

Seattle Post Intelligencer – USA

Monday’s announcement that WS Merwin won the 2009 Pulitzer prize for poetry marked the second time that an author published by Copper Canyon Press has won.

Later the article states:

Merwin, an 81-year-old poet from New York, said that Copper Canyon’s sole focus on poetry was one of the reasons he went to the small publisher.

“I liked the way Copper Canyon approached the whole thing,” he said from his home in Hawaii. “Their emphasis is entirely poetry. If you’re with one of the big publishing houses, the books are beautiful, but it’s not their main thing.”

This year’s prize marked the second time Merwin had been honored with a Pulitzer. In 1971, he won for “The Carrier of Ladders” and refused to accept the prize money in protest of the Vietnam War. This time, he’ll mark the day more quietly, celebrating with his dog while his wife is out of town.


“The very best of all Merwin: I have been reading William since 1952, and always with joy.”
—Harold Bloom

“[Merwin’s] best book in a decade—and one of the best outright…. The poems…feel fresh and awake with a simplicy that can only be called wisdom.”
—Publishers Weekly

“In his characteristic, contemplative way, Merwin offers simple lines of unpunctuated verse in an incantatory flow, almost hypnotic, like waves washing a beach…. The apparent simplicity of Merwin’s verse is well-earned rather than casual.”
—The Seattle Times

“The experience of coming to realize the nature of ‘the shadow’ through its various manifestations, slowly revealed, poem by seemingly innocuous poem, until one must go back and reread those poems with new eyes, is remarkable.”
—Eclectica Magazine

“It all happens at once: a self-contained burst of creativity—poet and reader joined in the making of meaning…. In The Shadow of Sirius, [Merwin] openly embraces the past as the source of his art, shaping his most accesible and emotionally satisfying book in years…. In The Shadow of Sirius, Merwin has given to 21st-century poetry what Matisse gave to 20th-century painting with his late-in-life paper cutouts: the irreducible essence of his art.”
—The Wichita Eagle

“[Merwin] shows that beauty is constantly being created, even as it fades and dies.”
—Virginia Quarterly Review

“With no punctuation and a solitary launching capital letter, Merwin’s elegant poems are built to the measure of breath and sweep the page like palm fronds. Yet each word is old, lustrous, and solid. Only a poet as seasoned as Merwin can wrest so much meaning from dark, moon, wake, river, and song.”

“Merwin’s gentle wisdom and attentiveness to the world are alive as ever. These deeply reflective meditations move through light and darkness, old love and turning seasons to probe the core of human experience.”

General comments on W.S. Merwin’s poetry:

“The intentions of [his] poetry are as broad as the biosphere yet as intimate as a whisper. He conveys in the sweet simplicity of grounded language a sense of the self where it belongs, floating between heaven, earth, and underground.”
—The Atlantic Monthly

“It is gratifying to read poetry that is this ambitious, that cares about vision and the possibilities of poetry by a poet who is capable of so much change.”
—The Nation

“W.S. Merwin…has created a body of wisdom literature that is unprecedented in our age. I feel lucky to be alive at a time when W.S. Merwin has been creating his startling and incomparable work.”
—Edward Hirsch

“Although replete with the minimal punctuation and natural imagery that characterizes his past works, these new poems are exceptionally crafted, using spare language to elucidate the march of time and the mix of nostalgia and fear that accompanies growing older….These poems are as evocative and subtly colored as the twilights and timescapes they describe.”
—Rain Taxi

“Quite often in this book I think Merwin transcends time, and he succeeds in actually yoking together his whole life….The now, the past, and the present become one, not just because he says so, but because you can feel it through his use of verbs….Yes, Merwin is still relevant, strong, and uncovering more great poetry for us.”

“…these poems seem both crystallizations and recastings of the poet’s longtime concerns—emptiness, silence, vanishing, the illusion of temporality….If these are winter words, they are animated by an evergreen faith in a communion with the natural world and the promise of its continuation beyond the body.”
—American Poet

“There is an alert simplicity in nearly every poem….The old adage, you learn the rules to break the rules, applies profoundly to Merwin, who has melted the strictures of high art into a thoroughly seamless, unlabored, and seemingly simple poetic style….More than an achievement in poetry, this is an achievement in writing.”
—Harvard Review

16 Comments leave one →
  1. totomel permalink
    April 28, 2009 7:40 am

    this is very educational.. ill drop by here often.

  2. April 28, 2009 8:48 am

    Thanks for posting this!

  3. April 28, 2009 2:44 pm

    Interesting advice, to copy others’ work and write 75 lines of your own. There’s a lot of wisdom in that simple statement.

  4. April 28, 2009 3:39 pm

    Wonderful, wonderful post. I drank it all up like water.

  5. April 28, 2009 3:54 pm

    I’m glad you all enjoyed this post! I loved taking the time to find all the info and the poems, immersing myself in Merwin once again.

    I was disappointed that there aren’t better YouTube’s of him reading especially since he has such an amazing voice. I could listen to him all day and night.

  6. April 29, 2009 3:14 am

    Thanks for this, however I must state that the Pulitzer Committee evidences a profound lack of imagination with Merwin as their choice – by this I do not mean to write that his poems lack merit, to the contrary his poems are very good. What I mean is, are there no other poets worthy of the laurel?

  7. April 29, 2009 4:23 am

    1poet4man: Have you read the other books the Pulitzer committee was choosing from? Did you think another selection would have been better?

    Honestly, I have not read any of the other books (just some of the reviews), or even looked at them as Ventucky lacks a decent inde book store…

  8. April 29, 2009 5:08 am

    My criticism is not with Merwin winning once – its that he has won twice, and no I have not read the other two finalists poems…I suspect that I might not have found their work as strong as Merwin’s and if these were the only three poets left on the planet, then I guess Merwin wins…

    Sorry for my tone, just a bit pissy with myself as a poet today…as for a different selection, well they could have picked me…(told you I was pissy, and dang, when are blog poets gonna get to march in the Pulitzer Parade?)

    Poet Man

  9. April 29, 2009 5:42 am

    Poet Man –Did you publish a book using a mainstream press which was reviewed by MSM? If the work is good then I think it deserves the award.


  1. Poetry News: W.S. Merwin wins Second Pulitzer Prize Video
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