The Making of a Poet

During the summer of 1948, when he was twenty-one, the poet W.S. Merwin made his first trip to Europe. Merwin had graduated from Princeton and was newly married, but the voyage was hardly a honeymoon. His unraveling first marriage was part of the old life Merwin was leaving behind: his cramped childhood in a Presbyterian minister’s household in Pennsylvania; his stint in a boarding school for the children of Protestant ministers; his proposal on a whim to the secretary of the physics department at Princeton. An invitation to serve as tutor to the nephew of a rich and shadowy American provided the means of escape, “the arrival of the beginning of freedom.” Merwin’s book opens with a beautiful and enigmatic sentence: “A summer descends on us from earlier years, heir to ancestors it never knew.” The summer of 1948 is the major “doorway” of Merwin’s title, the threshold he had to cross to discover—as all the classic writers of autobiography discover—the new life waiting for him on the other side.

There are fairy-tale elements to Merwin’s narrative of the summer that changed his life. He enters an enchanted world of princesses and movie stars, villas perched like migratory birds on the cliffs of the French Riviera, and forests in the heart of New Jersey where deer and elk walk amid trees hundreds of years old. One advantage of writing nonfiction is that it doesn’t have to be plausible; it just has to be true. A fine writer of prose as well as a major poet—his volume of new and selected poems, Migration, gathers work from a score of books and won a National Book Award for 2005—Merwin has written a wise and moving book about how he became a writer.

The opening chapters of Summer Doorways, which evoke the life that Merwin left behind, have a dark, nineteenth-century tone, punctuated with small illuminations. Merwin’s father, a “distant, unpredictable, and harsh” man who frowned on dating and dancing, seems a figure out of Stephen Crane, another minister’s son who escaped to Europe: “He had punished me fiercely for things I had not known were forbidden, when the list of known restrictions was already long and oppressive.” It is a measure of the claustrophobia of the household that Merwin’s job cleaning the science labs at his boarding school, in “the big, square, dark red brick building that I associated…with the end of the Civil War and the presidency of Ulysses Grant,” seems like a release.

There is a magical moment when, already accepted at Princeton in the spring of his senior year of high school, Merwin and another boy are washing upper-story windows:

We had straps with swivel hooks to hold us in place as we stood on the cement window sills, up among the rustling leaves, watching the street and the campus from the birds’ height. The sense of risk, the recurrent rush of vertigo, nourished an elation, a foretaste of freedom, a floating happiness that accompanied me, and my…

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