W. S. Merwin, one of the greatest poets of a fading generation, died last week at the age of ninety-one. Merwin was a frequent contributor to The Paris Review, and over the years we have published thirty-six of his poems, a short story, an essay, selections from a travel journal, and an Art of Poetry interview. Below, two short memories of his dedication, both to his work and to the earth he carefully tended, from those who knew and loved him.
Lament for the Maker
The sun was setting in Hawaii on a spring day in 1995, when W. S. Merwin invited me into his study to hear him recite a new poem, and since he did not care to turn on the lights I listened to the last stanzas of his “Lament for the Makers” in near darkness. His study had a sacred aspect—its door was to remain locked whenever I house-sat for him and his wife, Paula, during their travels to the mainland and then to their place in the Dordogne. This atmosphere was heightened by his melodic voice, which in my mind bore traces of the hymns he had composed as a child for his Presbyterian minister father in Scranton, Pennsylvania. A palm frond crashed into the ravine beyond the lanai, on which a pair of sleeping chow chows did not stir. William recalled his departed poet-friends: “One by one they have all gone / out of the time and language we / had in common which have brought me”—and here his voice began to crack: “to this season after them.”
“Beware the ides of March,” a soothsayer warns Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s drama, and when news arrived today that William had died in his sleep, at the age of ninety-one, I remembered him telling me that for years he always traveled with a paperback edition of the Bard—which tuned his ear to deeper sources of the English language. But it was the jagged music of the Scottish poet William Dunbar that inspired “Lament for the Makers”: fifty-two rhyming quatrains, one for each week of the year, mourning the passing of his mentors and friends—Dylan Thomas and Wallace Stevens, Edwin Muir and Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost, and on and on, including his teacher at Princeton, John Berryman, all of whom heard the clear note that “never promised anything / but the true sound of brevity / that will go on after me.” Read More