In 1954, at age 26, he and his then-wife, the former Dido Milroy, bought a ruined farmhouse in Lacam-d'Ourcet, France, in the Pyrenees, for $1,100.
"This completely broke the pattern," adds Merwin. "A lot of my contemporaries were going into teaching and things like that. I certainly don't want to live at a university.... Also, it wasn't even French that they were speaking, it was Occitan."
Steeped there in this medieval language, Merwin developed a use of images from nature and history that followed the elusive, informal lineage of Pound and T.S. Eliot but diverged from the work of his modernist contemporaries, such as the late James Wright (a lifelong friend), Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Seamus Heaney and the New York School poets including John Ashbery and the late Frank O'Hara. The results are a plain-spoken but ephemeral style that is unique and seems to lift its subject into a larger discussion of language and existence — whether it's about loss, memory or love.
He did engage the poetry world, taking a fellowship at the Poets' Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., and joining a circle there that included Robert Lowell. Throughout his life, however, Merwin has been locked in dialectics that had him needing and rejecting the literary world, embracing and critiquing the phenomenal world. With the tumult of the 1960s, Merwin was not afraid to go political. His 1967 collection, "The Lice," contained devastating commentary on the Vietnam War and ecological collapse, with poems like "For a Coming Extinction," about endangered gray whales. His 1970 collection "The Carrier of Ladders" won his first Pulitzer Prize, and he donated the $1,000 award to antiwar activists.
Like several of his contemporaries, Merwin was criticized — then and now — for allowing an agenda to creep into his poetry.
"That's ignorant … is what that is," barks Gary Snyder, another poet widely recognized for his engagement with environmentalism, and often touted (with his books "Turtle Island" and "The Practice of the Wild") as the father of a contemporary critical approach known as ecopoetics. "A poet can … address any kind of issue at all."
Merwin agrees and has been identified with ecopoetry, but dislikes the term, saying, "I'm very suspicious of it.... It's too formulaic. Everything's supposed to cluster under this heading."
Jonathan Skinner, editor of the journal Ecopoetics, explains that the work of both Snyder and Merwin represents a significant break with nature poetry.
"Juliana Spahr, a poet in San Francisco, put it brilliantly," says Skinner. "She said the nature poet focuses on the bird and the bird's nest, but doesn't turn around to confront the bulldozer … Ecopoetry expands the frame to include the bulldozer."
"Nature poetry is observational," adds Snyder. "It is gazing at nature, and also about the psychological state of the observer. Whereas ecopoetry ....is looking for wildness wherever one can find it. Not just in wilderness areas, but everywhere human beings let go of the controls."
Merwin says the main thing is the poem, and that has to contain surprises. "I think the way of living is probably the most clear and certain political statement, more than anything one could say," he notes.
From "Rain at Night":
but the trees have risen one more time
and the night wind makes them sound
like the sea that is yet unknown
the black clouds race over the moon
the rain is falling on the last place
In the 1970s, Merwin moved to the island of Maui to study Buddhism, and in 1980, he bought the land on which he lives now, on the slopes of the volcano Haleakala, with a small inheritance from his mother. He built a tall stilt house, living off the grid with a rainwater catchment system he'd copied from the house in France and solar panels on the roof. He's already got a grave prepared there too, next to six of his dogs.
In 1982, he met Paula Schwartz, an editor of children's books, and they were married in a Buddhist ceremony a year later. Merwin never had any children, but Schwartz has two, John Burnham Schwartz (who wrote the book "Reservation Road") and Matt Schwartz.
Today, they are concerned about the legacy of their rainforest. The Merwin Conservancy, in conjunction with the Hawaiian Coastal Land Trust, will preserve the place in perpetuity, while also maintaining the house as a literary center.
Merwin has always said that "poetry is about listening," and he hopes others will understand that these trees are only where the poetry starts. "I think that everything that you know goes into your poetry, but it doesn't make the poetry. You never know where poetry comes from. The more it takes you by surprise, the better it is."
For more information on W. S. Merwin and his work, visit http://www.coppercanyonpress.org/merwin/.