William Meredith, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Connecticut College emeritus professor, dies at 88

May 31, 2007

Pulitzer Prize recipient William Meredith, one of the most influential contemporary American poets and Connecticut College professor emeritus, died on Wednesday, May 30 in New London. He was 88.

Meredith was born in 1919 in New York City and graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University in 1940. His first book of poems, "Love Letter from an Impossible Land," was published in 1944.

Meredith was a professor of English at Connecticut College from 1955 to 1983 and was awarded the College Medal, the college´s highest honor, in 1996. He was named a professor emeritus upon retirement in 1983 and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1988. During his career he also held professorships at Princeton University, University of Hawaii-Honolulu and at the Bread Loaf School of English.

In 1987 he won the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and in 1988 won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection "Partial Accounts." He won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1997 for his collection "Effort at Speech." Meredith won these awards after suffering a stroke in 1983 that limited his ability to speak and write.

Meredith was the author of 11 collections of poetry, a prose collection, and more than 100 appearances in anthologies, other books and journals.

Connecticut College President Leo I. Higdon, Jr. said Meredith´s contributions to literature, to Connecticut College and to the region were invaluable.

"In Connecticut College´s history there are a number of great public intellectuals who have been associated with the college. William Meredith is certainly in that very select group," Higdon said.

Meredith is perhaps best known for his 1963 poem "The Wreck of the Thresher," which describes the sinking of an American submarine off Cape Cod in which 129 crewmen were lost. After working briefly as a reporter for The New York Times, he joined the U.S. Army Air Force in 1941 and served as a carrier pilot for the U.S. Navy, achieving the rank of lieutenant. In the service he received two Air Medals.

George Willauer, professor emeritus of English who taught at the college from 1962 to 2002, said Meredith was enormously appreciated at Connecticut College since he encouraged creativity amongst students and regularly brought pre-eminent poets to campus for readings.

"William Meredith was a great poet, a great friend and a great mentor," Willauer said.

"He was a great figure in the life of Connecticut College."

Janet Gezari, professor and department chair of English, said Meredith, despite being much in demand by other colleges and institutions, made Connecticut College an exciting place to be. "He was a powerful and profound influence on the college community," Gezari said. "He was an inspired teacher at all levels and was always generous with his time, including with young poets."

In 1996 the college created the William Meredith Endowed Professorship at Connecticut College. Writer Kurt Vonnegut was on hand at the event announcing the professorship. David Dorfman, acclaimed dancer, choreographer and professor of dance, currently holds that professorship.

Also in 1996, Meredith and his partner, Richard Harteis, were granted honorary Bulgarian citizenship, and in 1999 Meredith received the highest honor that Bulgaria bestows on foreigners. Meredith had made contact with the Bulgarian literary community when he served as poetry consultant/poet laureate at the Library of Congress in Washington in the late 1970s.

In 2004 the college celebrated Meredith´s 85th birthday with a reading and discussion by various guests including: Michael Collier, Connecticut College alumnus, and director of the Bread Loaf Writers´ Conference; Edward Hirsch, president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation; and Ellen Bryant Voigt, the Vermont State Poet and poetry instructor at Warren Wilson College.

Collier said that although Meredith possessed a genius for language and an ability to make literature accessible and necessary to those of us he taught, he remembers him most for the interest he took in "what we might become - not necessarily the professions we would pursue or the accomplishments we would attain - but of the way we would inhabit our lives and participate in the variegated and complex relationships with others and the world.

"He was in awe of humanity and its strange and troublesome nobility fascinated him completely," Collier said. "His great genius as a poet, teacher, and person was to make us see that it was our job to love and embrace the world from the inside of our experience, to make of our lives solid and joyful habitations."

The funeral will be held on June 6 at 11 a.m. at St. James Episcopal Church in New London. A memorial service will be held at Connecticut College in the fall.