For many years of wonderful poetry!

The U.S. national poet laureate for 2010-2011—technically, the “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry”—was appointed in July by the Librarian of Congress. It is William Stanley Merwin, who published his first book, A Mask for Janus, in 1952, and his most recent, The Shadow of Sirius, in 2008.

A laureate is, literally, one who is honored with a crown of laurel. In Greek and Roman mythology, laurus nobilis was sacred to Apollo, god of light, prophecy, healing and poetry; defender of flocks; singer of songs. It’s a fitting tribute to a man with many “leaves” upon his head. Not only has W. S. Merwin won a gazillion poetry awards (including the Yale Younger Poets Prize; the Pulitzer—twice—the latest win for his most recent collection; the Bollingen Prize; and the National Book Award). Not only is his list of publications long and distinguished, but Merwin is also a committed ecologist and Buddhist who lives on a former pineapple plantation in Hawaii, which he has restored to support endangered plant species.

Not surprisingly, Merwin often writes about nature—but in ways that complicate the traditional role of the poet who celebrates nature. Here is the first stanza of “For A Coming Extinction,” one of his most famous poems, from the collection The Lice (1967).

Gray whale

Now that we are sending you to The End

That great god

Tell him

That we who follow you invented forgiveness—

And forgive nothing

You can read works by and about Merwin through Literature Online and the Literature Resource Center. Or, browse the library’s holdings of W. S. Merwin’s poetry, prose works, plays and memoirs by doing an author search in the catalog for Merwin, W. S. (William Stanley), 1927-. You will also see his many translations of Latin, French and Spanish poetry. If you’d like to know more, Merwin is featured in the television series The Power of the Word about contemporary poets and poetry.

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