Mixed Messages as W. S. Merwin Is Named Poet Laureate at 82
July 3, 2010
News stories reporting this week that W. S. Merwin had been named the 17th poet laureate of the United States were quick to note that the 82-year-old poet leads a relatively reclusive life on a former pineapple plantation in Hawaii. (I always thought poets were supposed to lead relatively reclusive lives. Isn’t that how poetry gets written?)
These stories seemed to ask, albeit gingerly, whether Merwin would be vigorous, public, or peripatetic enough to promote poetry in our celebrity and internet-dominated age. After all, Merwin (Heavens!) even eschews the computer for his writing of poetry.
I found myself wondering about the subtle ways of ageism.
Were Merwin younger, wouldn’t reporters have been curious if the poet, who has written deeply for years about the environment, saw irony in being named poet laureate as the worst environmental accident in history, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, was still unfolding? I wondered, too, at the curiosity that one of America’s most mindful poets would assume office at the very moment there is a debate roiling over whether life on the web is harming our ability to concentrate and think profoundly.
Forty years ago, Merwin, the Princeton-educated son of a Presbyterian minister who won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1971, was well-known as a powerful voice in protests against the Vietnam War. Last year, he won his second Pulitzer for his most recent collection, The Shadow of Sirius, in which he writes about memory and mortality.
The Christian Science Monitor’s Elizabeth Lund reported that there were those who were disappointed that a poet more like “Robert Pinsky, the most effective laureate to date,” had not been selected. She commented that Pinsky had, as laureate, exhibited the “zeal of an activist and the charisma of a celebrity. The George Clooney of the poetry world, if you will.”
New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen, noted that Merwin “retains traces of the extravagant handsomeness of his youth,” and reported that after he had learned of the announcement of his appointment, he told her by telephone he wasn’t looking forward to having his life disrupted, though he does “relish” taking a more public part in the conversation about poetry. “I do like a very quiet life,” he said. “I can’t keep popping back and forth between here and Washington.”
It should be said that in their stories both reporters ultimately embraced Merwin’s masterful, elliptical, and frequently mysterious poems. Rooted in mindful attentiveness to the everyday, his poems often have a quicksilver quality to them.
“It’s a joy to be part of everything that’s living, and to be able to give something back sometimes,” Merwin, who moved to Hawaii in the 1970s, told NPR’s Melissa Block. His move to Hawaii was inspired by his interest in Zen Buddhism and the notion of living a wholistic life. He has said that he plans to use his new post to draw attention to the poetry of indigenous cultures and the power of translation, something at which he has also given great service in his career as a poet.
What’s important about naming Merwin poet laureate is the degree to which his mind, not the lineaments of his face, has retained and deepened a life and a body of work made of the mix of devotion to craft, consciousness, and imagination. Perhaps his tenure will be quieter and more contemplative than Pinsky’s was, but it will be the manifestation of his way of being in the world, not solely a function of age. And it seems that we could, at this moment, profit considerably from his mindful example.
Here’s “Separation,” a beautiful 3-line poem he wrote early in his career and which Block asked a surprised Merwin to read on air.
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
And here’s one I like a great deal:
“I Live Up Here”
I live up here
And a little bit to the left
And I go down only
For the accidents and then
Never a moment too soon
Just the same it’s a life it’s plenty
The stairs the petals she loves me
Nothing has changed
Oh down there down there
The glass knights lie by their gloves of blood
In the pans of the scales the helmets
Brim over with water
It’s perfectly fair
The pavements are dealt out the dice
Every moment arrive somewhere
You can hear the hearses getting lost in lungs
Their bells stalling
And then silence comes with the plate and I
Give what I can
Feeling It’s worth it
For I see
What my votes the mice are accomplishing
And I know I’m free
This is how I live
Up here and simply
Others do otherwise
And here’s Merwin talking to NPR’s Terry Gross in 2008 on memory, mortality, and the writing process.