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.
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