W.S. Merwin: A Poet’s Life and Death

W.S. Merwin

1927-2019, American


  For the Anniversary of my Death



It has been reported that the American poet, W.S. Merwin, died today.     


The poet authored near fifty volumes of poems, translations of poetry, fiction and nonfiction.  His translations were from the Occitan, Spanish and French. 


One would say that he was a poet’s poet, because his whole life was poetry:  he was never associated with a teaching institution and he frequented poets from his college days on. 


Some of the finest American poets taught him and he made a point of visiting and talking with Ezra Pound then in psychiatric hospital in the United States.




Coming late, as always,
I try to remember what I almost heard.
The light avoids my eye.

How many times have I heard the locks close
And the lark take the keys
And hang them in heaven.


 “The Poem” from The Moving Target (1963).



He was a rare creature.

He earned what he needed to live and his personal needs were modest. 

He never seemed to have presumed on anything. But he did not underestimate his poetic achievement.


W. S. Merwin was a practising Buddhist.  He does not seem to have addressed this publicly.  It is in his poetry. 

Sensitive to accusations of obtuseness, the poet’s poetry became, as time went on, at the same time spare, lush and lucid.


He owned two houses:  a farmhouse which he bought above the Dordogne River in France in the mid-1950’s at a time when the old cycle of life in an agricultural village was still widely extant in some parts of Europe.  The poet, who was born in New York and lived in urban New Jersey when young, noted his attachment to this farming community and its long-lived traditions.




Photo by Tom Sewell of the poet and his wife late in her life at their house in Hawaii

His wife, Paula Dunaway, who participated with her  husband in the restoral of the Hawaiian land, died in 2017.


The poet spent the second half of his adult life in the second house which he owned: a house – left now for the residency of writers –  which he built on a piece of land he bought in Hawaii in the late 1970s. He built the house on the lip of an extinct volcano.


There he restored the exhausted earth of a former pineapple plantation by planting palms.  Some now rare and the whole under the review of botanists and in the care of a conservancy.  


 The poems of his path – thinking, sensing, experimenting, believing and acting – in our care now.

 Poems which have sustained me in my American sojourn, in my ‘ordinary’ life.







For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   

When the last fires will wave to me

And the silence will set out

Tireless traveler

Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer

Find myself in life as in a strange garment

Surprised at the earth

And the love of one woman

And the shamelessness of men

As today writing after three days of rain

Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease

And bowing not knowing to what


W. S. Merwin, “For the Anniversary of My Death” from The Second Four Books of Poems (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1993).


2 thoughts on “W.S. Merwin: A Poet’s Life and Death

  1. Un poète américain traduisant des poèmes occitans voilà qui est rare !
    Qu’il repose en paix, il doit bien y avoir un paradis pour les poètes.

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