An Idaho resort hotel's verdure is not the wild tumble around W.S. Merwin's beloved Hawaiian home, but disciplined grass and orderly stands of trees. Not, perhaps, the sort of trees Merwin had in mind when he wrote, "On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree." But the Sun Valley Writers' Conference bears an annual crop of words and ideas, and Merwin is here as a master gardener of that. He just ended a year's term as the nation's poet laureate. He has to his name two Pulitzer Prizes and more than 30 books of poetry and prose, and a hand-planted forest at home of rare and endangered palms. The Merwin Conservancy is dedicated to keeping his works green -- the ones he created with words, and the natural ones that exist before and beyond them.
Now that you've passed the torch to the new poet laureate, does that make you the laureate laureate?
Yes, although they say once you are, you have it for good. But you don't have to be active. Both Kay [Ryan, U.S. poet laureate 2008-2010] and I viewed the whole thing with great skepticism. She didn't like the idea of all the publicity, and I didn't like it either.
Britain's poet laureate is a post that's been around for about 900 years. The pay includes "a butt of sack" -- a barrel of sherry. Did you get anything like that?
Oh, believe me, there's none of that!
What are the laureate's duties?
James Billington [the librarian of Congress, who appoints the poet laureate] said to me, "You can do it on your own terms." They wanted a couple of trips to Washington a year and a few readings. In the old days, you were expected to live in Washington. Robert Penn Warren did it. I said: "I don't want to transplant myself for months at a time. I don't like Washington. I don't want to wear suits."
It wasn't onerous. The thing that was onerous, saving your presence, was months of wall-to-wall interviews, and the huge variation between very good interviewers and people who really didn't know anything. There were a few unguessable things, like [an interview for] Oprah's magazine. Wasn't a bad one, either. Then they sent a crew of photographers; it was like Barnum & Bailey arriving with three or four huge trucks.
You told Bill Moyers, "When you hear a poem, you hear something that you always knew, but it's completely new."
One of the mysterious things about the arts is that they make a demand that you stop whatever you're doing and pay attention, whether it's a painting of persimmons or a few notes on a bass violin or a few lines of Shakespeare.
And you have a feeling of recognizing it although you never saw it or heard it before, this feeling that "I know this," even if it's totally strange.
The U.S. sometimes seems proud of being anti-intellectual, and yet even people who've never read a poem by choice will, under emotional stress -- a family death, or 9/11 -- sit down and try to write a poem. What is happening there?
We begin to say something that cannot be said. When you see on the front page a woman in Iraq who's just seen her husband blown up, you see her there, her mouth wide open, you know the sound coming out of her, a howl of grief and pain -- that's the beginning of language.
Trying to express that, it's inexpressible, and poetry is really [there] to say what can't be said. And that's why people turn to it in these moments. They don't know how to say this, [but] part of them feels that maybe a poem will say it. It won't say it, but it'll come closer to saying it than anything else will.
[Interviewers asked, after 9/11,] what poems I was reading. I said I remembered that Dylan Thomas poem, "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London." Oh it's a great poem. Shall I recite it to you? [He does, and lingers on the last line:] "After the first death, there is no other." He was 25 when he wrote that.
You once wrote that you believe "too much in words." We humans want language to express things that existed in us before language did.
According to Aristotelian logic it doesn't work that way, but I think there are always two sides, and one of them is the unsayable. The utterly singular. Who you are; who you can never tell anybody. And on the other hand, there is what you can express. How do we know about this thing we talk about? Because we talk about it. We're using words. And the words never say it, but the words are all we have to say it.
Writers want the words to capture something perceived fleetingly, from the corner of your eye -- and then it's gone.
Thoreau says, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." People [think it's] "wilderness." It's not "wilderness," it's "wildness." Wildness is not suddenly having a lion in the garden. It's that sense you described, that it just got away from you.
You run across this all the time. A poem you've known for years by heart, you get to the end and feel it just got away from you. The difference between poetry and prose -- in prose you set out to say something and you get to say it. In poetry you set out to say something and you get as near to it as you possibly can, but that's still not it.
You knew Ted Hughes and Robert Lowell; W.H. Auden was an early promoter of your work. What were the first poetic notes you heard?
My grandmother, one thing I'm really grateful to her for [is] one line; she would just go off into a daze and say, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help." My mother, bless her, read to us -- "A Child's Garden of Verses," which I still simply adore. I love Stevenson.
"Dark brown is the river, golden is the sand -- "
"It flows along forever, with trees on either hand." [He recites "Where Go the Boats?" ] It makes me cry. It moves me as much as most poems.
Speaking of crying, I can't read some of your poems about the dying of the natural world without weeping, like "For a Coming Extinction," about the gray whale.
In Corvallis in the late '70s, this biologist said we're losing a species a week. I thought this was terrible. You can't say, "Whoops, we made a mistake," and fix it. It's over. Now we're losing a species every few seconds. And it's accelerating. I used to go out and listen to nine nightingales. Now I haven't heard a nightingale for two or three years.
And people think all green is interchangeable, that a golf course is as good as a forest.
This may shock somebody: It begins with agriculture, when we start taking a piece of land and marking it off and saying, "This is mine here, I'm going to get rid of everything that's growing here and make it grow what I want." Who says it's yours?
Some people regard your poems of the natural world as political.
That's wonderful! I don't make a distinction between nature and us and between the natural world and the urban world -- the urban world is part of the natural world, not the other way around.
And you've written about your beloved dogs; in "The Shadow of Sirius" there's a line "hoping to touch your long amber fur."
That was Koa. Koa was a collie-shepherd. He was a puppy abandoned on the beach. He was one of the great dogs I've ever known.
Why did you give up punctuating your poems?
Certainly I've nothing against 18th century prose punctuation, but it's basically made for prose and it sort of nails the poem to the page. I think it's very important to keep the lifeline to the spoken language. This is one of the reasons why I'm suspicious of writing on the computer, because I think that's a further step away. Poetry begins with hearing something. "This is no country for old men" -- that may have been a phrase Yeats carried in his mind for years without having a poem to go with it.
You can still hear Yeats reading [online], "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree." He reads it so beautifully. And I think, "Willie, that's one thing you're not going to do -- arise and go now to Innisfree"!
Does a poetry bestseller mean you've done something wrong?
Why should it? [But] I think it's unlikely that a really good poem is going to be a bestseller. For one thing, people read them wrong. When people say, "I don't read poetry because I don't understand it," I think, "Do you understand your sandwich? Do you understand combing your hair?"
What's all this about understanding? You read poetry for some kind of pleasure you can't quite put your finger on.
How is poetry changing?
What I'm looking at is a landscape of young writers; there are probably more than one would expect, an awful lot of young writers being published. There are a lot more poets than there were 50 years ago and more places to publish them. Some [poets] are much better than others, but that's the way it always is. You can't expect that everyone who writes poetry is going to write wonderful poetry.
When I interviewed Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired magazine, I asked him what he would like me to ask you. He wondered what you'd think of creating a post of U.S. science laureate.
Why not? It's a good idea. Except that science gets so much money and attention already, at the expense of the humanities. I'm not worried about science.
This interview is edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of past interviews is at latimes.com/pattasks.