The former U.S. Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin died last week at the age of 91. His writing career was exceptionally long and decorated: It spanned nearly seven decades, generated hundreds of poems and translations, and garnered rare honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award. But even in the early years of his career, with dozens of poetry collections and awards still ahead, Merwin’s writing for The Atlantic was weighted with melancholy expectations of a premature ending.
“Send me out into another life / lord because this one is growing faint / I do not think it goes all the way,” he wrote in “Words From a Totem Animal,” first published in the January 1969 issue. This feeling—that life, and with it the chance to reach some undefined goal, is slipping away—permeates his poetry. “A Door,” published in 1971, anticipates that “long after I have gone … / there in front of me a life / would open.” In 1967’s “Fly,” a pigeon is found “in the dovecote dead” before it can learn to fly or to protect itself. A sun sets; an era ends; a dark figure passes by. Meanwhile, Merwin’s speakers wait, often fruitlessly, for something essential to arrive.
Sometimes, the sense of loss Merwin writes of doesn’t come from death, but simply from standing still in a moving world. In “Chord,” published in The Atlantic’s July 1987 issue, he envisions progress outpacing another poet, John Keats, who “lay with the odes behind him” as “an age arrived when everything was explained in another language.” In his reflective 1967 poem “In the Winter of My Thirty-Eighth Year,” Merwin describes his own hollow sensation of being left behind by the march of time:
There is nothing wrong with my age now probably
It is how I have come to it
Like a thing I kept putting off as I did my youth …
Of course there is nothing the matter with the stars
It is my emptiness among them
While they drift farther away in the invisible morning.
Yet Merwin’s work finds meaning in the apparent emptiness of lost time and fruitless striving. Writing about Merwin’s 1970 poetry collection, The Carrier of Ladders, in The Atlantic, the magazine’s poetry editor, Peter Davison, observed: “As [the] title reveals, a man who carries a ladder holds not only the rungs and sidepieces but the spaces between them, and the ladder enables us to use those very spaces to rise.” Merwin built rhythm and structure not only with words, but also with white spaces by omitting punctuation. He marshaled frustrated moments of stillness toward action and clarity of feeling.