W. S. Merwin, who died last week at age 91, wrote in a lyric register to capture the epic brutality and organized violence of the 20th century. His poems are promontories from which readers can see, in one panoramic view, the catastrophic storm that sweeps together the Nixon era with the Trump era. Merwin’s poetry found its visionary calling in the late 1960s and 1970s as an indictment of U.S. militarism. Today’s readers can recognize in Merwin’s work the lamentations for what humans have done to the world, as well as the exhortations of ethical care for the nonhuman and those no longer living—which for Merwin might include lost loved ones, clear-cut forests, and endangered or extinct species.
There are many W. S. Merwins to remember. Like several other U.S. poets born in the late 1920s, Merwin began by writing an intensely crafted and sometimes elusive formal verse. A shift came in the late 1960s—just as it did for John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, and James Wright—and Merwin’s poetry took on a vatic power and a prophetic tone. Vietnam and anti-war activism catalyzed the change in style for Merwin, although the historical context alone falls short of explaining the earthly fables of destruction and celestial incantations of despair that fill The Lice (1967) and The Carrier of Ladders (1970). Later still, there is the Merwin who became the 2010 poet laureate, best known for his conservancy and for his love of trees. The poems from the late 1960s are the ones where Merwin finds an enduring poetic language and a repertoire of images adequate to his anguish at a disappearing world.