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As poet laureate, W.S. Merwin plans to reach out to children

July 2, 2010

W.S. Merwin 17th Poet Laureate, in a recent photo issued by the Library of Congress.

A writer who will remain nameless — he spoke privately — once told me that no first-rate poet would ever be named U.S. Poet Laureate: The job requires a politically nimble mediocrity, he said, someone well liked and good at P.R. I wonder what he would say now that W.S. Merwin –first rate by any standard — has been tapped for the post.

The 82-year-old poet, who lives in Hawaii, has been among the nation’s top tier since the 1950s, when his first book, A Mask for Janus, was published in the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Series. During the 1960s he became known for poetry in opposition to the Vietnam War. He’s published a collection of poetry every two-to-five years since 1952, as well as nonfiction books and plays.

Merwin is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and he’s received the National Book Award, among many other honors. His most acclaimed works are The Lice (1967), The Carrier of Ladders (1970), Migration: New and Selected Poems (2005), which won the National Book Award, and The Shadow of Sirius (2008), which garnered his second Pulitzer.

Obviously, age has not dimmed Merwin’s creative energies. Here’s his poem “For the Anniversary of My Death,” from the 1993 collection, The Second Four Books of Poems. You can find many other Merwin poems at and

For the Anniversary of My Death

by W. S. Merwin

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
Merwin tells the Washington Post that he will visit the Library of Congress often to give readings and participate in

Merwin as a young man.

“public sessions.” NPR reports that he intends to promote poetry by holding “gatherings of children, and talking with children and with students of all ages.”

This echoes portions of an interview I conducted with Meriwn in 1997, when he was promoting his book-length poem The Folding Cliffs — really, a novel in verse about a true incident in the 19th century oppression of Hawaii. You can read the entire profile at the Sun-Sentinel website.
Children, Merwin said then, have a natural love of verse, but it must be nurtured if it is to last past elementary school.
“It is natural to care about poetry, and it starts with children,” Merwin says. “If they aren’t read poetry, they make it up on the playground. And in moments of crisis people turn to poetry. I think this is true more than anyone believes, including me. I’m always amazed when I see it.”
4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 2, 2010 11:38 am

    I don’t think anyone could argue with Merwin as Poet Laureate, though I have to admit I’m surprised that such a reclusive type would agree to do it. Maybe the isolation finally got to him. He’s 82 and his poetic flame still burns brightly. How bloody wonderful. I wonder what sort of fire Keats would have had if he had lived to be 82.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    July 2, 2010 5:04 pm

    As a lesser (but still worthy) poet once wrote, “My candle burns at both ends…” I think it’s pretty rare for a writer of any kind to reach 82 and still have the creative fire. I’m grateful for what we have of Keats, or Shelley, or Stephen Crane or any of the lights that flamed up bright and died away quickly. I, too, am surprised –and pleased — at Merwin’s selection.

  3. Schiao Feng Chou permalink
    May 12, 2011 11:48 pm

    “Hello everyone, I am a professor at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. I teach English Courses and for a long time have wanted to introduce Mr. Merwin’s wonderful work to the Chinese-speaking population here. Anyone know how I could possibly contact him or his publisher regarding this matter? Thanks – Schiao Feng Chou.”

  4. mattvalentinephotography permalink
    June 20, 2011 4:15 pm

    Please credit this photo properly. The image is copyrighted by me, the photographer, and licensed to the Library of Congress for use WITH CREDIT for publicity related to Merwin’s role as U.S. Poet Laureate. Please check the photo credit instructions on the Library of Congress website:


    Matt Valentine

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