The Pulitzer Prize–winning poet’s stylish coming-of-age memoir.
Born in 1927, the son of a Presbyterian pastor, Merwin (The Ends of the Earth, 2004, etc.) grew up poor in Pennsylvania. His father was harsh and distant, rarely speaking to him unless a disciplinary issue needed addressing. (The author’s mother is shadowy, largely absent from this account.) Merwin worked his way through Princeton, where he discovered modern poetry: García Lorca, Stevens, Eliot and Pound. He wasn’t the only budding poet in Tigertown; he waited tables with none other than Galway Kinnell. Merwin captures the seriousness of that period, recalling his shock when the atom bomb was dropped on Japan: “I felt a wave of cold, then of disbelief and denial, reactions which have affected the world ever since that evening.” After college, Merwin married and found work as a private tutor. His lovely text offers more than autobiography; it’s also a setpiece that evokes a more gracious era, in which those in the leisure class seemed to enjoy their leisure. In the summer, Merwin’s tutoring gig took him to Europe. There, he flirted with older women, mixed with an Irish novelist who “liked his red wine at all hours of the day,” witnessed an attempted suicide and listened to his intellectual interlocutors hold forth on everything from Franco to fine art. Merwin offers less insight when writing about himself. He seems, for example, oblivious to the Freudian reading invited by his constrained descriptions of women and marriage. (His first marriage was “thoughtless,” his wife “agreeable, equable, and attractive.”) Readers accustomed to memoirs that spill every gratuitous, salacious detail might grow frustrated with this mannerly approach.
Masterful: a refreshing break from our tell-all world.