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October 26, 1975Guggenhiem MuseumFrom the Academy Audio Archive

About this poet

William Meredith was born in New York City on January 9, 1919. He attended the Lenox School in Massachusetts and in 1940 graduated from Princeton University with an AB in English, Magna Cum Laude. His senior thesis was on the work of Robert Frost, a major influence for Meredith throughout his career.

He worked briefly as a reporter for The New York Times before joining the U.S. Army Air Force in 1941. In 1942 he served as a carrier pilot for the U.S. Navy, achieving the rank of lieutenant. During his service, Meredith's first book of poems, Love Letter from an Impossible Land (Yale University Press, 1944), was chosen by Archibald MacLeish for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. For the next few years he taught English at Princeton University as Woodrow Wilson Fellow in Writing and Resident Fellow in Creative Writing while still in the U.S. Navy Reserves.

In 1948, his second collection, Ships and Other Figures (Princeton University Press) was published. Meredith then taught briefly as Associate professor of English at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu before returning to the Navy as a pilot in the Korean War. During his service, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Commander and recieved two Air Medals.

During this time, Meredith continued to focus on his poetry, and for several years after his return to the States, he divided his time between teaching and writing. An opera critic, dramatist, translator, editor, and public servant, Meredith was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1964.

Since then, he has published several books of poetry, including Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems (TriQuarterly Books, 1997), for which he won the National Book Award; Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), which won both the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; The Cheer (Alfred A. Knopf, 1980); Hazard, the Painter (Alfred A. Knopf, 1975); and Earth Walk: New and Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1970).

Meredith also edited Poets of Bulgaria (Unicorn Press, 1986) and Shelley: Selected Poems (1962), and translated Alcools: Poems 1989-1913 by Guillaume Apollinaire (Doubleday, 1964). A selection of William Meredith's prose, including memoirs, critical essays, reviews, and an interview, has been published as Poems Are Hard to Read (University of Michigan Press, 1991).

According to the poet Edward Hirsch, "[Meredith] has looked generously and hard at our common human world. He doesn't slight the disasterous, the 'umpteen kinds of trouble' he has seen—accountability weighs heavily in his poems—but his work reverberates with old-fashioned terms such as fairness, morale, cheerfulness, joy and happiness."

Meredith's honors include the Loines Award and a grant from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, the International Vaptsarov Prize in Poetry, a grant and senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and two Rockefeller Foundation grants. He was a Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1978 to 1980 and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1963 until 1987.

Meredith began to suffer from expressive aphasia after a stroke in 1983. This means that he has lost the ability to express himself at will. As the poet Michael Collier explains in his foreword to Meredith's most recent publication, Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems: "Trapped, as it were, inside his body, which has profoundly betrayed him, for the past decade and a half Meredith has remained occupied with the poet's struggle—the struggle to speak."

For several years, he divided his time between Uncasville, Connecticut and Bulgaria, where he was granted honorary citizenship, with Richard Harteis, by decree of President Zhelev ini 1996.

Meredith died on May 30, 2007, at the age of 88, at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London, CT.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems (TriQuarterly Books, 1997)
Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987)
The Cheer (Alfred A. Knopf, 1980)
Hazard, the Painter (Alfred A. Knopf, 1975)
Earth Walk: New and Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1970)
Ships and Other Figures (Princeton University Press, 1948)
Love Letter from an Impossible Land (Yale University Press, 1944)


 

Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

Rhode Island

William Meredith, 1919 - 2007
Here at the seashore they use the clouds over & over
again, like the rented animals in Aïda.
In the late morning the land breeze
turns and now the extras are driving
all the white elephants the other way.
What language are the children shouting in?
He is lying on the beach listening.

The sand knocks like glass, struck by bare heels.
He tries to remember snow noise.
Would powder snow ping like that?
But you don't lie with your ear to powder snow.
Why doesn't the girl who takes care
of the children, a Yale girl without flaw,
know the difference between lay and lie?

He tries to remember snow, his season.
The mind is in charge of things then.
Summer is for animals, the ocean is erotic,
all that openness and swaying.
No matter how often you make love
in August you're always aware of genitalia,
your own and the half-naked others'.
Even with the gracefulest bathers
you're aware of their kinship with porpoises,
mammals disporting themselves in a blue element,
smelling slightly of fish.  Porpoise Hazard
watches himself awhile, like a blue movie.

In the other hemisphere now people
are standing up, at work at their easels.
There they think about love at night
when they take off their serious clothes
and go to bed sandlessly, under blankets.

Today the children, his own among them,
are apparently shouting fluently in Portuguese,
using the colonial dialect of Brazil.
It is just as well, they have all been changed
into small shrill marginal animals,
he would not want to understand them again
until after Labor Day.  He just lays there.

From Hazard, the Painter, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1975 by William Meredith. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

From Hazard, the Painter, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1975 by William Meredith. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

William Meredith

William Meredith

William Meredith was born in New York City on January 9, 1919.

by this poet

poem
Going abruptly into a starry night
It is ignorance we blink from, dark, unhoused;
There is a gaze of animal delight
Before the human vision. Then, aroused
To nebulous danger, we may look for easy stars,
Orion and the Dipper; but they are not ours,

These learned fields. Dark and ignorant,
Unable to see here what
poem
What it must be like to be an angel
or a squirrel, we can imagine sooner.

The last time we go to bed good,
they are there, lying about darkness.

They dandle us once too often,
these friends who become our enemies.

Suddenly one day, their juniors
are as old as we yearn to be.

They get wrinkles where it is
poem
   For Robert Lowell

I
In the tunnel of woods, as the road
Winds up through the freckled light, a porcupine,
Larger than life, crosses the road.
He moves with the difficulty of relics—
Possum, armadillo, horseshoe crab.
To us they seem creatures arthritic with time,
Winding joylessly down like burnt-out