Courtesy of the Estate of W.S. Merwin

A young W.S. Merwin

March 21, 2020

The Poet Takes His Leave: In Memory of W. S. Merwin, One Year After

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I found out that the elegiac poet W. S. Merwin had passed away the same day I was accepted to Cornell. The Ides of March arrived on a brisk, overcast day in the Upper East Side of New York City, with Winter still holding on to the last vestiges of control on the weather before Spring took over. Sitting in my high school’s library, I decided to read an email I had received earlier that morning from Cornell, thinking it was another message advertising a scholarship opportunity until I noticed that it said I had been admitted. Curiously, my reaction was not particularly ebullient; I was still suspicious of learning the news from a random email rather than a more formal or “official” way. Later, I realized that I had received the news early because it was part of a diversity hosting program.

Before I went home that Friday, I stopped at a bookstore near the 4, 5 and 6 Subway station to “celebrate” my admittance in what probably seems to be the most pathetic way possible to those reading this. Among the various books I picked up was The Essential W. S. Merwin, a collection of Merwin’s work from throughout his entire career, published in celebration of his 90th birthday a little more than one year beforehand. He has remained one of my favorite poets for a while now, and I read from that book then as I had multiple times before.

It is often claimed that additional clarity can be found after a certain event, but never before; still, a certain hint of what was coming might still be discerned. The last poem in the collection, titled “Wish,” was written in 2017 (around the time of the death of his wife Paula Dunaway) and only consists of three austere lines, frighteningly foreshadowing in retrospect:

Please one more

Kiss in the kitchen

Before we turn the lights off

That was the last poem I read that day; fairly soon after that, I left to walk to the Subway and the bus home to New Jersey from Port Authority, passing through his childhood hometown of Union City.

By then he was already gone.


William Stanley Merwin passed away on March 15, 2019 at his home in Maui, Hawaii, land that had once had its luscious forest chopped down to make way for a pineapple plantation (long since abandoned) before he began planting palms and other trees and plants everywhere he could, revitalizing the environment and restoring its natural beauty. He had settled there after living in various other places, remaining observant as he went along; it was an exhaustive list which ranged from New Jersey to Mallorca to France.

As he passed through all of these places, his poetic style shifted notably as he absorbed what he found there and wrote more; his first collection, A Mask for Janus, was mostly written while staying in Deià, Mallorca and was influenced by much of the work he was translating into English at that point, including medieval-era Occitan ballads from French troubadours and Spanish lyric poetry, covering an eclectic range of topics in the process (“Whisper of stream in the green-shadowed place, / Thrush and tanager keeping season,” he writes in “Sestina”). Later, however, he cast aside these formal devices and even stopped using punctuation altogether, writing collections such as The Lice and The Carrier of Ladders in this spare, contemplative style; poems such as “The Asians Dying” and “For the Anniversary of My Death” invoke this to great effect while grappling with the Vietnam War and the eventuality of a date of death, just like a date of birth. Yet still, one common idea flowed through everything he wrote: an absolute reverence for the world around him, as threatened and diminished as it may be from machinations of our own device. And that reverence included many musings on the topic of death, both before and after the event itself — “Loss will wake like the drowsing birds / And have no word […] Be sure that the rain will be released / When it is too late to save the harvest,” a reminder within “View from the High Camp.”

Merwin’s career lasted about 64 years, amassing a large body of work to match. Despite the many poems available, though, I am still drawn to the same one as mentioned before, “Wish,” which also touches upon a significant near-universal truth: no matter how accepting of something we might be, whether it is death or the fact that there is only so much time in a day to do everything desired, we still wish the opposite was so. One might descend into the ether of the inevitable, perfectly understanding how futile it is to resist its pull, but that sense of longing for just a little more time always remains. Simple but timeless observations like this; this was what drew me to his work in the first place.

As time went on, W. S. Merwin grew into something of a role model for me, rather than just a great poet; he was someone who loved the world and was willing to preserve its many wonders however he could, whether through his writing or his conservation work. On that same day, about one year before the time of this writing, I had essentially learned where I would be spending the next four years of my life, a place that would play an integral role in my continuing intellectual and emotional development — it was a place where I had wanted to go, and which many people undoubtedly want more than they can say. It is a place which is supposed to prepare its charges for the world that awaits them.

Suddenly, it did not seem quite as important.


John Colie is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].