Easy being green
We’ve been batting our way through W.S. Merwin’s yard for a couple hours, swatting mosquitoes in the streambed under the 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. He stops to touch them, saying things like, “Oh, this is Carpoxylon macrocarpa; they were thought to be extinct on Madagascar, but here it is.” Many of these trees are exceptionally rare. Then he pulls up in front of a short broad palm, rather unimpressive next to the other trees on his property on Maui’s northern shore, but he smiles as he fondles the leaf.
“We think this Pritchardia minor is from the Kalalau Valley,” he says, referring to a spot in the rugged Na Pali cliffs on Kauai, also a key setting in Merwin’s epic narrative poem about Hawaii, “The Folding Cliffs.” “It gives me goose flesh to think of it being here.”
He and his wife, Paula, are still out here every day, where he has been for 30 years, like the shepherd in Jean Giono’s book “The Man Who Planted Trees,” reforesting a formerly barren 18-acre stretch of pineapple plantation. But now he is also the next U.S. poet laureate, and he has a lot on his plate. The author of more than 40 books of poetry, prose and translation is working on the follow-up to his 2009 collection, “The Shadow of Sirius,” a book of powerfully quiet poems asking large philosophical questions that earned him his second Pulitzer Prize. At 82, he’s always been a bit of a recluse and doesn’t plan on bouncing back and forth to Washington, D.C., or anywhere else.
Merwin’s demeanor is soft when talking about the trees and his beloved dog, a chow named Pe’a, but he stiffens when confronted with bureaucracy. He’s taken the poet laureate job for at least two reasons: to encourage translation in literature, and to promote deeper examination of the interplay between imagination and nature -- especially on his own Merwin Conservancy. Given the enormous focus on the global ecological crisis, Merwin’s one-year appointment seems right on target.
It’s all political
“I said something about the conservancy to [Librarian of Congress] professor [James] Billington, and he said, ‘Well, I hope you won’t make this political.’ I said, ‘James, every position is political. But I’m certainly not going to use the position to blow my own horn.’ ”
Billington, who selects the poet laureate, says Merwin is making some of his most universal work right now, adding, “His environmental concerns are very powerful, but they grow out of an even deeper sensibility about human beings and their relation to life and the rest of nature itself.”
Michael Wiegers, Merwin’s editor at Copper Canyon Press, notes that Merwin’s ability to infuse the personal with the timeless is partly a product of his Zen Buddhist practice. “It’s a daily practice, and in a daily practice, you follow your breath. He’s removed all the punctuation. The words seem to float above the page -- they follow the breath. He’s making a poetry less fixed in time.”
Merwin spends his afternoons in the muck of the streambed, and when his famously elliptical poetry arrives, he jots it on an envelope or in a spiral notebook.
“I’ve never believed that the imagination, the thing that made poems, is separate from the rest of life at all. It’s a part of it,” Merwin says. “But we have a tradition as a society that is saying the rest of life is there purely for us to exploit without any concern about the consequences of it. It’s very short-term, and in my view it’s suicidal.”
From “The Last One”:
Well they cut everything because why not.
Everything was theirs because they thought so.
It fell into its shadows and they took both away.
Merwin has won just about every prestigious poetry award there is to win, beginning with his selection by W.H. Auden to take the Yale Younger Poet Prize in 1952 for his first book, “A Mask for Janus.” There was the Tanning Prize, the Ruth Lilly, the Lenore Marshall, the National Book Award for his 2005 collection, “Migration,” and rafts of other citations. For this reason, he is claimed as an establishment poet, but he has made a habit of assiduously avoiding the academy.
“I’ve always liked marginalized existence,” Merwin says of his independent streak, his bright blue eyes flashing.
Merwin grew up in Union City, N.J., and Scranton, Pa., the son of an authoritarian Presbyterian minister, and went to Princeton on a scholarship at age 16 to study with critic R.P. Blackmur and poet John Berryman. He waited tables in the dining halls there with fellow poet Galway Kinnell.
It was Ezra Pound who first suggested Merwin’s poetry would benefit from doing translation, which he took to heart. Beginning with a reworking of “ El Cid,” he translated primarily from the Spanish and French, but also Italian, Greek, Japanese and other Asian languages, Russian and Sanskrit in more than 20 published works.
In 1954, at age 26, he and his then-wife, the former Dido Milroy, bought a ruined farmhouse in Lacam-d’Ourcet, France, in the Pyrenees, for $1,100.
“I think these were the most important years of his life,” says Paula. “He was very young and had grown up in a repressive family and was finding his voice.”
“This completely broke the pattern,” adds Merwin. “A lot of my contemporaries were going into teaching and things like that. I certainly don’t want to live at a university.... Also, it wasn’t even French that they were speaking, it was Occitan.”
Steeped there in this medieval language, Merwin developed a use of images from nature and history that followed the elusive, informal lineage of Pound and T.S. Eliot but diverged from the work of his modernist contemporaries, such as the late James Wright (a lifelong friend), Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Seamus Heaney and the New York School poets including John Ashbery and the late Frank O’Hara.
The results are a plain-spoken but ephemeral style that is unique and seems to lift its subject into a larger discussion of language and existence -- whether it’s about loss, memory or love.
He did engage the poetry world, taking a fellowship at the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., and joining a circle there that included Robert Lowell. Throughout his life, however, Merwin has been locked in dialectics that had him needing and rejecting the literary world, embracing and critiquing the phenomenal world. With the tumult of the 1960s, Merwin was not afraid to go political.
His 1967 collection, “The Lice,” contained devastating commentary on the Vietnam War and ecological collapse, with poems like “For a Coming Extinction,” about endangered gray whales. His 1970 collection “The Carrier of Ladders” won his first Pulitzer Prize, and he donated the $1,000 award to antiwar activists.
Like several of his contemporaries, Merwin was criticized -- then and now -- for allowing an agenda to creep into his poetry.
“That’s ignorant ... is what that is,” barks Gary Snyder, another poet widely recognized for his engagement with environmentalism, and often touted (with his books “Turtle Island” and “The Practice of the Wild”) as the father of a contemporary critical approach known as ecopoetics. “A poet can ... address any kind of issue at all.”
The bigger picture
Merwin agrees and has been identified with eco- poetry but dislikes the term, saying, “I’m very suspicious of it.... It’s too formulaic. Everything’s supposed to cluster under this heading.”
Jonathan Skinner, editor of the journal Ecopoetics, explains that the work of both Snyder and Merwin represents a significant break with nature poetry.
“Juliana Spahr, a poet in San Francisco, put it brilliantly,” says Skinner. “She said the nature poet focuses on the bird and the bird’s nest, but doesn’t turn around to confront the bulldozer ... Ecopoetry expands the frame to include the bulldozer.”
“Nature poetry is observational,” adds Snyder. “It is gazing at nature, and also about the psychological state of the observer. Whereas ecopoetry ... is looking for wildness wherever one can find it. Not just in wilderness areas, but everywhere human beings let go of the controls.”
Merwin says the main thing is the poem, and that has to contain surprises. “I think the way of living is probably the most clear and certain political statement, more than anything one could say,” he notes.
From “Rain at Night”:
but the trees have risen one more time
and the night wind makes them soundlike the sea that is yet unknown
the black clouds race over the moon
the rain is falling on the last place
In the 1970s, Merwin moved to the island of Maui to study Buddhism, and in 1980, he bought the land on which he lives now, on the slopes of the volcano Haleakala, with a small inheritance from his mother. He built a tall stilt house, living off the grid with a rainwater catchment system he’d copied from the house in France and solar panels on the roof. He’s already got a grave prepared there too, next to those of six of his dogs.
In 1982, he met Paula Schwartz, an editor of children’s books, and they were married in a Buddhist ceremony a year later. Merwin never had any children, but Schwartz has two, John Burnham Schwartz (who wrote the book “Reservation Road”) and Matt Schwartz.
Today, they are concerned about the legacy of their rainforest. The Merwin Conservancy, in conjunction with the Hawaiian Coastal Land Trust, will preserve the place in perpetuity, while also maintaining the house as a literary center.
Merwin has always said that “poetry is about listening,” and he hopes others will understand that these trees are only where the poetry starts.
“I think that everything that you know goes into your poetry, but it doesn’t make the poetry,” he says. “You never know where poetry comes from. The more it takes you by surprise, the better it is.”
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.