W.S. Merwin, prize-winning poet

NEW YORK — W.S. Merwin, a prolific and versatile master of modern poetry who evolved through a wide range of styles as he celebrated nature, condemned war and industrialism and reached for the elusive past, died Friday. He was 91.

A Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate, Merwin completed more than 20 books, from early works inspired by myths and legends to angry protests against environmental destruction and the conflict in Vietnam to late meditations on age and time.

He wrote rhymes and blank verse, a brief report on the month of January and a book-length story in verse about colonialism and the birth of modern Hawaii. Like his hero, Henry David Thoreau, he was inspired equally by reverence for the planet and anger against injustice.

He died in his sleep at his home on the Hawaiian island of Maui, according to publisher Copper Canyon Press and the Merwin Conservancy, which the poet founded.

“He is an artist with a very clear spiritual profile, and intellectual and moral consistency, which encompasses both his work and his life,” fellow poet Edward Hirsch once said of him.

Merwin received virtually every honor a poet could ask for — more, it turned out, than he desired. In protest of the Vietnam War, he declined a Pulitzer in 1971 for “The Carrier of Ladders,” saying he was “too conscious of being an American to accept public congratulation with good grace, or to welcome it except as an occasion for expressing openly a shame which many Americans feel.”

William Stanley Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. He soon moved to Union City, New Jersey, living for years on a street now called “W.S. Merwin Way,” then to Scranton, Pennsylvania.

In a long, autobiographical poem, “Testimony,” he remembered his father as a weary, disappointed man, subsisting on “pinched salaries” and “traveling sick with some nameless illuminating ill.” His mother was orphaned early in life and grieved again when her baby, a boy she meant to name after her father, died “when he had scarcely wakened.”