Our New Poet Laureate
July 1, 2010 § 3 Comments
When I was in college, I took a contemporary poetry class, taught by Russell Banks, where I first read three poets who changed my idea of what poetry could be: W.S. Merwin, Robert Bly and Robert Creeley. Merwin was my favorite then, Bly nudged him out a few years later, and Creeley lasted the longest. Lately, I’ve begun appreciating Merwin again, just in time to see him receive even more honors than he already had—in 2009, the Pulitzer, and now the Poet Laureate-ship.
What I’ve been admiring is the supple, subtle rhythms of his late work, the kind of mastery you can’t get without decades of experience. There’s no dearth of great poets who died young, but there’s a profound pleasure in the skill of age that goes beyond “greatness” or whether the particular poem moves you. Perhaps you have to have written poetry to appreciate it, but I don’t think so. You do have to have read a lot. You have to love words passionately. I would even say (though I have no evidence for this beyond my own experience) that you have to love poetry more than music.
When I was a teenager, and most people I knew weren’t very interested in poetry—if they were interested at all—I was continually surprised at how excited people would get by a piece of music when they couldn’t seem to hear the beauty of poetic lines. I loved music, too; I just loved poetry more. I loved it the way I loved nature, which was so much more beautiful than I could take in that it made me crazy, and the way I loved advanced argument (Kant, for instance) that was just at the edge of my ability to understand. No, I loved poetry more than Kant, but it was like that, the way it took me (almost) further than I could go.
I think I loved poetry best in the days when I didn’t really understand it, either because I hadn’t decoded poetic diction or I was too young for the insights. Not that I was simply wallowing in the gorgeous jumble of syllables—I was thrilled by the flashes of meaning in the undergrowth, the promise of more, the mystery that was like the mystery of other people, who only ever rarely made sense.
I read poetry all the time until I was in my late 20’s, then on and off, sometimes a lot off, for the next 25 years. But I think as I continue to age, should I be so lucky, I will love it more and more until maybe at 85 I’ll be like a 16 year old again, shivering in ecstasy and pitying the throngs of people living their lives without poetry, as if any of the world’s other marvels could remotely compare.
I wanted to include a poem from Merwin’s latest book, The Shadow of Sirius, which is what made me think I would soon be shivering in ecstasy, but I gave it to a friend. The books I do have are from the 60’s-80’s. So for later work, I’m stuck with what I can find online. This is from 1999.
At the last minute a word is waiting
not heard that way before and not to be
repeated or ever be remembered
one that always had been a household word
used in speaking of the ordinary
everyday recurrences of living
not newly chosen or long considered
or a matter for comment afterward
who would ever have thought it was the one
saying itself from the beginning through
all its uses and circumstances to
utter at last that meaning of its own
for which it had long been the only word
though it seems now that any word would do