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W.S. Merwin, Prize-Winning Poet and Conservationist, Has Died at 91

W.S. Merwin, celebrated poet and conservationist who wrote about the fragility and beauty of the natural world and the impermanence of human life within it, has died at 91. The Merwin Conservancy, a nonprofit he founded with his wife, Paula Dunaway, confirmed that Merwin passed away in his sleep on Friday at his home in Maui, Hawaii. He is survived by sister Ruth Moser, and stepsons Matthew Carlos Schwartz and John Burnham Schwartz.

Merwin was born William Stanley Merwin on September 30, 1927 in New York City. He grew up in New Jersey and in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where his father was a Presbyterian minister. He attended Princeton University; in 1952, his first book of poetry, A Mask for Janus, was published in the auspicious Yale Younger Poets Series, chosen by W.H. Auden. After, Merwin left the United States to live in Europe, spending time in Spain, France and England where he made a living through translation. His early work was more formal in tone and inspired by mythology, after the poems of Robert Graves (whose son Merwin tutored in Majorca) and Wallace Stevens.

In the 1960s, Merwin moved back to New York, living in Greenwich Village, where his work became more experimental and autobiographical, losing punctuation and other formal elements. During this time he wrote some of his most influential volumes, The Carrier of Ladders and The Lice. He became the poetry editor of The Nation in 1962. Merwin wrote movingly and with despair about The Vietnam War, rejecting his first Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for The Carrier of Ladders in protest. He wrote in the New York Review of Books that “after years of the news from Southeast Asia, and the commentary from Washington, I am too conscious of being an American to accept public congratulation with good grace, or to welcome it except as an occasion for expressing openly a shame which many Americans feel, day after day, helplessly and in silence.” Auden responded to the letter with his own, calling it a “personal publicity stunt,” to which Merwin replied, “I’m sorry if he was troubled by it, but what I did was an act of mourning, and I can’t regret the form of it.”

Merwin was an incredibly prolific poet, writing dozens of volumes, as well as a playwright and esteemed translator. In addition to another Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (2009), he received virtually every distinction a poet could aspire to, including the National Book Award for Poetry in 2005, and the Tanning Prize (now the Wallace Stevens Awards). Merwin became the United States Poet Laureate in 2010.

In 1976, Merwin moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism with master Robert Aitkin. A year before that, in 1975, he had visited the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, also home to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, founded by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. A Halloween Party hosted by Tibetan priest Chogyam Trungpa, who presided over the institute, descended into chaos when Merwin and his girlfriend at the time Dana Naone would not undress. “I was not going to go peacefully,” Merwin told the New York Times in 1994. “I started hitting people with beer bottles. It was a very violent scene.” The incident became known as “The Great Naropa Poetry Wars.”

In 1977, Merwin purchased an 18-acre former pineapple plantation in Ha’iku, Maui, which he and his wife Paula, who he met in Hawaii, restored over four decades. In 2010, they co-founded The Merwin Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the poet’s home and their collection of rare palm trees. The conservancy is the subject of the 2014 documentary Even Though the Whole World Is Burning. Merwin’s last book of poetry, Garden Time, was written while he was losing his eyesight.

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