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.”
In the silence after William finished reciting “Lament for the Makers,” which he published the next year, along with poems by, and photographs of, the twenty-three poets mentioned in his text, I had the sense, as I often did in his presence, that he was not only celebrating the art of poetry, which he studied, wrote, and translated with a single-mindedness that never failed to make me sit up straight, and the work of those who had guided his own entry into the world of letters, but also was instructing me in the difficult arts of attention, friendship, and love. These he practiced with the same spirit of generosity that informed his writing, his care for the endangered palms growing in the botanical preserve he and Paula had made of their land, and his abiding concern for every living thing. All around us were scraps of paper and boarding passes covered with lines of poetry, some of which would one day take their places in his books, even though he knew, as we all did, “the best words did not keep them from / leaving themselves finally / as this day is going from me.”
Christopher Merrill has published six collections of poetry and five books of nonfiction. He directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He is an advisory editor for The Paris Review.
What Could Not Be Said
At sunset on Friday, March 15, I received a note from Billy Collins, “We’ve lost Merwin!” Another friend wrote, “OH ALICE. No Merwin. Jesus.”
After that, I set out with my dog Daisy to Merwin Road, one of the most beautiful in Dutchess County. I have no idea if William had ancestors in these parts and how I wish I knew. The faint whistles and cries of farmland birds—bluebirds and blackbirds, swallows and chickadees—could be heard, and on the cornfield, hundreds of geese proceeded toward us in a stately fashion, tilting a little here and there, until in a whoosh they ascended, as they do, honking frantically and heading north—who knows where? Maybe as far as the Montague Hills, addressed so intimately by Dickinson in her poem that begins
Bloom upon the Mountain—Stated
Blameless of a Name—
Efflorescence of a Sunset—
Seed, had I, my Purple Sowing
Should endow the Day
Not a Tropic of a Twilight—
Show itself away—
Who more than Merwin endowed the day with that seed? Who could possibly approach him as a sower of immortal images in our poetry, the sounds and scents of landscapes?
In the summer of 1970, I was taking Helen Vendler’s poetry class at Harvard and working as a waitress at a local restaurant. The rest of my time was spent prowling in the bookstores that featured poetry. Chief among them was the Grolier, where Gordon Cairnie routinely declared with feigned amazement that every book I had chosen was on sale that very day for two dollars. I remember madly underlining in two of those, Merwin’s early collections, The Moving Target and The Lice, at the counter of Zum Zum’s coffee shop in Harvard Square. I was riveted and reverently amazed.
In 1987, after I migrated from the publishing firm of Alfred A. Knopf to The New Yorker, Howard Moss, Merwin’s editor for so many years, died suddenly. When I succeeded Moss at the poetry desk, William visited me. He signed those two dilapidated books that I will always associate with the real start of my adventure in contemporary poetry.
My partner and I will always treasure New Year’s Eve, 2001. We spent the day with William and Paula in their home, along with J. D. McClatchy and Chip Kidd. That afternoon, William, engirdled in his garden belt heavy with tools, gave us a tour of the palm forest, which he had cultivated on the island of Maui for decades. He clipped and pruned for hours a day in the astounding spot that is now the Merwin Conservancy, watched over by Paula until she died in 2017.
Just months ago, he published his last book, The Mays of Ventadorn. It evokes the splendors of Quercy, in southern France, where he had purchased a farmhouse in 1954, a region with stately avenues of trees so like those I saw on Merwin Road on the day he departed the earth.
After September 11, 2001, his poem “To the Words” appeared in The New Yorker, in the October 8 issue. He implored the ancestral spirits “to say what could not be said,” as I do now, faced with this loss:
and helpless ones
Alice Quinn is executive director of the Poetry Society of America. She was poetry editor at The New Yorker from 1987 to 2007 and at Alfred A. Knopf from 1976 to 1986.