My kind of poet: W. S. Merwin

Congratulations to poet W. S. Merwin on his 84th birthday (September 30). Of contemporary poets, I love him most now that Philip Larkin is gone. I was privileged to actually attend a reading by Merwin at the University of Kentucky so long ago that he was relatively young then.

Congratulations, too, on his selection last year to succeed Kay Ryan as our Poet Laureate. What took so long?

I find Merwin compelling for several reasons:

1. I admire his dexterity in translating. Like Merwin, I’ve always been drawn to languages. Merwin, along with writing 15-volumes of verse, excels in translating, with masterful renditions of Greek and Roman classics, Dante’s Purgatorio and Latin American poets such as Pablo Neruda among his many credits.

2. I adore his lyricism. It’s the way I try to write; indeed, am moved to write, the sense of articulating meaning through cadence, the transmitting of inner emotion to outer page, the reaching towards others via pathos. Poetry has its roots in music and good poets, like Merwin, resonate powerfully, coalescing imagery, sound, and rhythm into a human tapestry. Merwin is a poet better heard than read, returning us to the oral genesis of poetry.

3. I cherish his environmental centrism. I know of no other poet so imbued with such fervency for Nature, a concern for its restoration and sense of urgency for the rest of us to mind and mend our ways. Merwin’s own life bears out his witness to simplified living holding communion with landscape. In the early seventies, he and his wife retired to a remote area of northern Maui, building a house fully green and restoring a waste land former pineapple plantation into a verdant sanctuary, cultivating more than 750 species of endangered indigenous flora. Each day, Merwin plants a new palm.

4. I like his affinity with the East. In fact, he originally moved to Hawaii to study Zen. If I were of religious bent, I’d choose Buddhism with its inherent simplicity, gentleness and life-reference as the better way. Merwin, a devout Buddhist, says he shares the Eastern view for its emphasis on “being part of the universe and everything living. You don’t just exploit it and use it and throw it away anymore than you would a member of your family. You’re not separate from the frog in the pond or the cockroach in the kitchen.” To some like me who carries spiders from the house to the outdoors, this is sweet stuff.

Merwin isn’t the easiest to read with his antipathy towards punctuation and hovering mystery, but the yield rewards the effort. I‘ll close this post with an early Merwin poem I’ve especially liked:

“For the anniversary of My Death”

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beams of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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