October 24, 2010 § Leave a comment
Today, W.S. Merwin is being inducted by the Library of Congress as Poet Laureate of the United States. Friday night, I went to hear him speak at the New York Public Library. I’ve been reading his poems for 36 years, since I took a contemporary poetry class taught by Russell Banks in my sophomore year of college (which I can’t thank you for enough, Russell, especially since I don’t have your email). I remember the semicircle of chairs, the way the lines fell on the page, being asked to read aloud and being afraid I didn’t understand the poems well enough to place the stresses properly. I wrote my final paper on Merwin as a Visionary Poet, struggling for insights that seem obvious now; the other night he saved his highest praise for Blake.
In the 70’s, Merwin was a man in his prime, often compared to a Greek God, though to me he’s always looked like what he in fact is, Welsh. “Merwin” means “friend of the sea.” Today he has downy white hair, a delicate, lovely face, and the kind of faultless courtesy that comes from having a truly top-shelf soul. In his presence I was a) overcome with love for him, and b) aware of everything I had failed to learn or do. I appreciated his erudition and his goodness in the way you only can when you’re old enough to know how precious both of those are, and how rare the combination is.
His stepson, John Burnham Schwartz, introduced him. Schwartz talked too long, but as Lisa kindly put it, he was laboring to explain just how amazing Merwin has been as a stepfather and mentor, and it was an impossible task. And since one of Merwin’s main themes for the evening was that poetry—and language—came into being to say what cannot be said, it was perhaps apropos that he rendered his stepson garrulous and his interviewer nearly mute, at least in the beginning.
Merwin talked about visiting Ezra Pound at St Elizabeth’s when he was 18, and knew little of Pound’s politics except that he had pissed off the authorities with his anti-American broadcasts, which the young Merwin saw as a good thing. Pound told him that if he wanted to be a poet, he should translate, because that’s the best way to learn one’s own language. Merwin has, of course, spent his life translating: he read one of his favorites, from his latest book, a poem attributed to the emperor Hadrian. “Little soul, little stray/ little drifter/now where will you stay/all pale and all alone/after the way/you used to make fun of things.”
He said he had decided to accept the Poet Laureateship, which has refused in past years, because of Obama. He thinks the things he wants to say—about the earth and vanishing species—have more of a chance to be heard. He also pointed out that Obama’s famous cool is a very Hawaiian thing, and that’s what the rest of us don’t get. (Merwin has lived on Maui for 30 years.) Discussing Humanity’s treatment of animals and plants, he became passionate, though he kept interrupting himself to say that he didn’t want to preach because his father was a preacher.
He talked a lot, as he writes a lot, about disappearance, how everything you see you are seeing for the first and the last time, and I struggled to know this as he does, with the body and instinct, but I couldn’t and can’t. This moment as I write is not opening up to me its utter uniqueness; instead I feel the weight of sameness, of Sunday, of a little boredom, pain in my knees, and the gallop of my faithful hounds of thought who keep bringing back the same slimy sneaker.
From a recent interview
Q: You seem continually astonished by nature, love, and words. What else astonishes you?
Merwin: What else is there?
Q: Any advice?
Merwin: Yes, one important thing: Read for pleasure. Read junk. Read every kind of book. But read for pleasure. The reason the Puritans wanted to stamp out poetry was because it gave pleasure. It’s about things you love, things that you care about. Sir Philip Sidney, in the generation before Shakespeare, said, “Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” And it will never end in wisdom if it doesn’t begin in delight and continue in delight. When you read a poem and you think, “God, that is so beautiful, I don’t want to forget that,” and you go on saying it to yourself because you love it, that’s pleasure. That is real pleasure.
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