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This review is taken from PN Review 198, Volume 37 Number 4, February - March 2011.

LES LAURIERS SONT COUPÉS... W.S. MERWIN, The Shadow of Sirius (Bloodaxe) £9.95

Aged 83, W.S. (for William Stanley) Merwin is still going strong. In 2009 he won the Pulitzer Prize, his second, for The Shadow of Sirius and he was recently appointed America's seventeenth Poet Laureate. His publicist informs us that Merwin, who lives in Hawaii, is so shy that he may not take up his duties in Washington at the Library of Congress. This continues a habit of diffidence of American laureates toward the office to which they have been appointed and by which they are honoured. Some of this diffidence seems political, deriving from a wariness that they be seen as spokesmen for the administration and government which appointed them. Distaste for particular politicians aside, there seems to be a knee-jerk anti-establishment impulse at work here, one that simultaneously asserts a writer's independence along with a rejection of the English precedent that the laureateship is an official office with public duties. Very few American laureates have embraced the idea, which Ted Hughes did so enthusiastically in England and which Carol Ann Duffy is continuing, of actually writing public and occasional verse about their country.

Many laureates have begun their two-year term by recoiling at the notion that they should write poems to order. Many also seem to find that the office precludes creative thought; Kay Ryan, who preceded Merwin, sighed with relief that leaving office would allow her to get back to works of the imagination. Most laureates, when they don't disappear from view altogether, decide that ...


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