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W.S. Merwin, Pulitzer-winning poet and Peahi resident, dies

Former U.S. poet laureate, who grew palm forest on old pine fields, was 91

Poet W.S. Merwin turned an 18-acre abandoned pineapple field in Peahi into a palm forest with more than 2,000 plants. He died Friday at age 91. LARRY CAMERON photo

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin, a former United States poet laureate, died Friday in his sleep at his Peahi home, where he lived for about four decades.

He was 91 years old.

Copper Canyon Press, the Port Townsend, Wash., publisher of Merwin’s work, announced the passing of the poet, literary translator, environmental activist and grower of his beloved palm forest in East Maui.

“While we have lost a tremendous friend, the loss to American poetry is even more profound,” Michael Wiegers, his longtime editor at Copper Canyon Press, said in a news release. “From the stylistic inventions he introduced to the catalyzing force of his work in translation and international poetics, his influence on American poetry has been without equal.”

Merwin published more than 50 books, including “The Shadow of Sirius,” which won the Pulitzer for poetry in 2009; “Migration: New and Selected Poems,” National Book Award winner in 2007; and “The Carrier of Ladders,” poetry Pulitzer winner in 1971.

Paula Merwin is shown with her husband, renowned poet W.S. Merwin. Mrs. Merwin died in March 2017 at age 80. Her husband, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet, died Friday in their Peahi home. He was 91. TOM SEWELL photo

His literary translations include “Selected Translations, 1948-2011,” published in 2013; “The Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson,” as well as verse by Pablo Neruda, Osip Mandelstam and Dante Alighieri.

Merwin’s poems often grappled with the profound power of memory, landscape and a revolutionary engagement with language, the Copper Canyon Press news release said. His poetry, as well as his life as a poet, was flavored with a moral and political imperative, as when, during the Vietnam War, Merwin refused his first Pulitzer Prize and requested that his award money be divided between a peace activist, Alan Blanchard, and the draft resistance movement.

“While Merwin’s poems may have occasionally addressed the topics of their time, they remained singular and immediately recognizable in their approach, as they simultaneously introduced a distinctive style to American poetry, devoid of punctuation, rife with suggestion, irreducibly universal in their perspective and often fabular in their diction,” the news release said.

Writing in the New York Review of Books about “Shadow of Sirius,” Helen Vendler said: “In his personal anonymity, his strict individuated manner, his defense of the earth, and his heartache at time’s passing, Merwin has become instantly recognizable on the page; he has made for himself that most difficult of creations, an accomplished style.”

“W.S. Merwin is one of the greatest poets of our age. He is a rare spiritual presence in American life and letters (the Thoreau of our era),” wrote poet Edward Hirsch.

Born in New York City in 1927 and raised in New Jersey and Scranton, Pa., Merwin was the son of a Presbyterian minister. Of his development as a writer, Merwin once said, “I started writing hymns for my father almost as soon as I could write at all.”

Merwin attended Princeton University and studied with renowned poets R.P. Blackmur and John Berryman.

“It was not until I had received a scholarship and gone away to the university that I began to read poetry steadily and try incessantly, and with abiding desperation, to write it,” he said in an interview.

After graduating from Princeton, he moved to Europe and worked as a translator and tutor, first for the royal family of Portugal, and later in Mallorca, Spain, as a tutor for the son of Robert Graves, the British poet and historical novelist.

He bought a derelict farmhouse in the rural Dordogne Valley of Southern France and restored it over many years. Many of the people and places of that area are recounted in his prose books “The Lost Uplands” and “The Mays of Ventadorn.”

Some of his experiences from France would be built into his Peahi home, including the water catchment cisterns under each building of his home.

In the mid-1970s, Merwin moved to Maui to study Zen Buddhism with Robert Aitken, who encouraged Merwin to purchase a denuded 3-acre parcel of land in 1977. He bought two adjacent parcels in 1986 to bring his Peahi property to 18 acres, which includes the upper bed of Peahi Stream.

Merwin initially attempted to restore the native forest on the land but found the soil depleted of the nutrients needed. The native trees he planted died, but the palms survived.

His head gardener, Olin Erickson, said that the land was overgrown with Christmas berry and java plums, which Merwin crawled through and cut away with a handsaw.

That overgrown landscape was tranformed into a forest with 2,750 palms. Merwin wrote many poems in his forest, including gardening as part of his daily routine.

“While writing his poetry, he is painting his canvas,” said Sara Tekula, director of programs at The Merwin Conservancy, in a 2017 interview. The forest is “an extension of his artistry and vision for the world.”

He built his home in the forest, halfway down the slope. Merwin wrote that he was reminded of John Blofeld and his book on his travels in China in the 1930s and his account of visits to ancient Taoist and Buddhist monasteries. At a turn in the path, Blofeld would be taken by surprise by a monastery or temple suddenly coming into view “as if they had grown out of the mountain,” Merwin said.

“What he was describing sounded to me like an ideal, and I hoped to have a house set among trees and visible only as one actually arrived there on foot,” the poet said.

The cedar home is post-and-pier and split-level built into the side of a hill with open beams.

Merwin married Paula Dunaway in 1983 and together they brought life back to the Peahi land. She was a children’s book editor, according to a 1995 New York Times profile of Merwin. The couple met for the first time in 1970 and again 12 years later at a dinner party in New York.

Her care for her husband and attention to the details of their lives and relationship helped Merwin “to produce some of the greatest poetry of the last half-century,” the conservancy said in 2017.

In the later years, she took care of her husband, who lost his eyesight to macular degeneration, the conservancy said. She would read to him to keep him in touch with the happenings of the world.

She died in March 2017 in Peahi with Merwin at her side. She was 80.

The couple established the nonprofit organization The Merwin Conservancy prior to her death in 2010 to preserve and protect their home and its landscape and to advance the poet’s literary legacy and his goal to create a Merwin Fellowship program to support poets, writers and artists. Plans include an artist-in-residency program that would use the home.

The conservancy will receive the home, land and palm forest now that Merwin has passed. The land is protected from future development by a conservation easement with the Hawaiian Island Land Trust signed in 2014. Matthew Carlos Schwartz, Paula Merwin’s son, is conservancy board president.

In 2015, Merwin and his lifetime of work, both poetical and environmental, was the subject of the documentary film, “Even Though the Whole World Is Burning” and his poems and palm forest were part of an exhibition in the new American Writers Museum in Chicago in 2017.

“William Merwin leaves this life having fearlessly and gracefully practiced and expressed his care for this world,” said Sonnet Coggins, executive director of the conservancy. “In so doing, he touched the lives of countless people, and enriched our lives beyond measure. In his spirit, we will look upon our work at the Merwin Conservancy with the same sense of wonder that beckoned his poetry and his garden into being and will embody in our every gesture the same integrity with which he lived his life.”

Merwin’s final original collection of poems, “Garden Time,” was published in 2016, and two retrospective collections, a 50th anniversary edition of “The Lice” and “The Essential W.S. Merwin,” were published in 2017.

He is survived by sister Ruth Moser, and stepsons Matthew Carlos Schwartz and John Burnham Schwartz.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers or cards, donations in W.S. Merwin’s honor be made to the The Merwin Conservancy. Its website is merwinconservancy.org.

In the poem “For the Anniversary of My Death,” Merwin wrote:

“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”

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.

** This story includes corrections from the original published on Saturday, March 16, 2019.

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