W.S. Merwin Biography

Linguist, Poet, Editor (1927–)
W.S. Merwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet known for works such as The Carrier of Ladders. His poetry explores personal ideals within a distinct free-verse style.


Born on September 30, 1927, in New York City, W.S. Merwin is known for his poetry's distinctive, sparse style, and his condemnation of the Vietnam War and destruction of the environment. Merwin has published more than 30 books of poetry, translation and prose. He's also garnered two Pulitzer Prizes, for The Carrier of Ladders in 1971 and The Shadow of Sirius in 2009.

Early Life

William Stanley Merwin was born on September 30, 1927, in New York City. He was raised in both Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania, in a violent household. The son of a Presbyterian minister, W.S. Merwin began to write hymns at the age of 5.

Merwin attended Princeton University on a scholarship. There, he first began to study and write poetry. After graduating in 1948, he spent a year in Europe studying romance languages and working as a translator and tutor. Most notably, Merwin tutored poet Robert Graves's son. While abroad, Merwin married his first wife, Dorothy Jeanne Ferry. The marriage ended quickly after Merwin met his second wife, Dido Milroy.


In 1952, Merwin published his first poetry collection, A Mask for Janus. The acclaimed, neoclassical work won him the Yale Younger Poets Prize, as selected by W.H. Auden (with whom Merwin would later establish a friendship). Merwin returned to America after receiving a fellowship from the Poets' Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1956. That same year, he published Green with Beasts, which reflected a shift in style that continued in 1960's The Drunk in the Furnace and 1963's The Moving Target.

Merwin began to write poetry without punctuation in the '60s. His writing often reflected American themes, and his sparse style seemed to imply disenchantment with the country's value. His work also became more autobiographical around this time. The Lice (1967) drew attention for its anti-Vietnam War allegories. The critically acclaimed work also introduced the poet's passion for environmentalism, a theme that would persist throughout his career.

Merwin won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his collection The Carrier of Ladders. This volume, like The Lice, explored Merwin's political and personal ideals through legendary subjects. Merwin donated the prize money from his Pulitzer to the anti-war movement.

In addition to his poetry, Merwin is known for his translations, of which he's published nearly 20 books. He's also written prose, plays, short stories and two memoirs: The Lost Upland (1992), about living in France, and 2006's Summer Doorways, about his childhood.

Later Life

Merwin moved to Maui, Hawaii, in 1976 to study Zen Buddhism. In 1983, he married Paula Schwartz (he'd separated from his second wife in 1968) and the couple moved onto an old banana plantation, which they gradually restored to its original rainforest state. Passion for nature and Buddhism are evident in Merwin's later works. In 2009, Merwin won a second Pulitzer for The Shadow of Sirius. In 2010, the Library of Congress named him poet laureate.

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