W.S. Merwin, US Poet Laureate

by Steve Heilig, February 23, 2011

Well over 200 people came to West Marin from far and wide on a recent Sunday to hear United States Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin give a rare reading in West Marin. His appearance was arranged by and at Commonweal, an environmental and health institute where I work at times. It was the only reading he did in California, I believe, and we were honored, even if many of those in attendance, including myself, were likely not too aware of what exactly being a “poet laureate” entails.

Winner of too many awards to list — OK, two Pulitzers and the National Book Award, for starters — and renowned not only for his verse and prose but his environmental advocacy where he lives in Hawaii and beyond, Merwin, born in 1927, was engaging and almost intimidatingly scholarly and erudite. As a poet laureate should be, but something about the depth of feeling and commitment of his presentation evoked the longest spontaneous standing ovation I've ever seen at a literary event.

I attempted copious notes but gave up on trying to capture the spell his words cast at times, mixed in with memories of other legendary poets Merwin has known, and other reflections. As noted in an LA Times profile last summer, Merwin has long labored in his Hawaiian garden, creating a “dark wet canopy of towering, philodendron-draped mangoes and looking at some 700 species of palm trees, every one of which he has planted by hand.” It was also noted that he “has always been something of a recluse.” So again, we were very fortunate to have him, and here are a few things he had to say.

“If there is a 'theme' to my taking this laureate position, it is something opposite to the direction our society is going,” Merwin said, by way of introduction. “I see us as rushing head-on to a stone wall, or over a cliff. It is self-destructive. We are extremely arrogant. What makes us think we are superior to other species — is it just because we think so?

“The thing that distinguishes us from other animals is neither intelligence nor language — it is imagination. But even imagination is not unique to us — we have footage of other mammals saying goodbye, mourning, and so forth. But is imagination that allows us compassion... If we dishonor that, exploit that, destroy that, we destroy ourselves. And if poetry disappears from our language, we will be less of a species, and have a bleaker future.

“I know these words will not change anything. People will go on behaving as they will. But to not even try to say them, I know I would regret that. When people ask, “Why are you interested in other animals, in other life?,” well, I think that strange. I think that really feeling for the rest of life is natural to us, but as we go through life we are often distracted from that. But if we are fortunate, we are brought back to that feeling, even if only by crisis.”

Merwin had much more to say, and read, of course. Some of it was beyond me. Some of it was beyond words, as he said the best poetry often is.

So I'll just relay this little exchange I had with the poet, who was generous with his time:

When I looked at the “author's photo” on his 2005 book Present Company, which he had just signed for me, I couldn't help but ask “Who is that pup with you there?” He looked at the photo, paused a minute, took a deep breath, and said quietly “That's Makana — the one I will mourn forever.”

Now that's a poet after my own heart.

* * *

Rain Light

All day the stars watch from long ago

my mother said I am going now

when you are alone you will be all right

whether or not you know you will know

look at the old house in the dawn rain

all the flowers are forms of water

the sun reminds them through a white cloud

touches the patchwork spread on the hill

the washed colors of the afterlife

that lived there long before you were born

see how they wake without a question

even though the whole world is burning.

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