Celebrating W.S. Merwin, New U.S. Poet Laureate

Reflections on the reclusive 82-year-old Buddhist poet

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Crowning a career filled with laurels, 82-year-old poet William Stanley Merwin has been named 17th Poet Laureaute of the United States. The weighty title, accompanied by a $35,000 stipend, is conferred by the Librarian of the U.S. Congress and carries few specified responsibilities. Literary commentators have responded to the pick with little surprise, given Merwin's eminence in the field, and are more focused on his relative isolation, his elliptical style, and his role within contemporary American poetry. Here's what they're saying:

  • Very Un-D.C. Drew Bratcher of Washingtonian delves into Merwin's personal and aesthetic distance from D.C. Bratcher notes he's a "Zen Buddhist [who] lives in a rainforest in Hawaii," and says his delicate lyrics owe "more to Asian and Latin American poets, many of whose work Merwin has translated, than to Beltway favorites such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Frost."
  • Passionate About Nature  Mike Melia of PBS's News Hour explains that Merwin "designed and built their house at the edge of a dormant volcano. He is an avid gardener and passionate environmentalist. His garden has grown into a sanctuary for a number of rare plants." He brings back a News Hour segment on Merwin with Jeffrey Brown that you can view on their page.
  • A Quiet Poet of Mysterious, Musical Lines  Patricia Cohen of the New York Times provides an excellent account of Merwin's life. She describes him as "reclusive," "extravagantly" handsome, and known for (in the words of fellow poet Dana Gioia), combining "the intensity of English-language modernism with the expansive lyricism of Spanish-language modernism." In an overview of Merwin's late work in the same newspaper, Dwight Garner corrects the view of him as "a man apart from society" by saying "Mr. Merwin is back, and he is having a moment. "
  • Detached Yet Political  Phillip Kennicot of the Washington Post describes the poet as grappling with "powerful connections between the sense of self, the elusive transparency of the present moment, the natural world and the numinous beyond." These concerns may sound abstract, but they are, Kennicot writes, "deeply political." He reports that Merwin will "will visit the Library of Congress, give readings and participate in public sessions" in a Q&A format.
  • Perspective From Another Poet Laureate  Charles Simic recounts his experience as a previous Poet Laureate in The New York Review of Books. He was shocked at what an avalanche of attention the prize brought. "It was very strange to be talking to so many different people about poetry every day: the big television networks whose reporters were astonished to hear that anyone in America reads or cares for poetry... I figured all the hoopla would end after a couple of months, but it continued during the entire year I served." He was clearly delighted to find that contrary to stereotype, Americans do care about poetry. "If I were asked to sum up my experience as the poet laureate, I would say, there's nothing more interesting or more hopeful about America than its poetry."
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