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Remembering poet W.S. Merwin: ‘What you remember saves you’

poet
Poet W.S. Merwin in 2000. He died Friday.
(Don Tormey / Los Angeles Times)

In his 1964 poem “Soon I will be gone,” W.S. Merwin wrote: “It is March and black dust falls out of the books.”

It wasn’t soon, but it was too soon. The poet, who died on Friday at age 91, had always seemed to be preoccupied with his mortality, although never afraid of it — a Buddhist, he had no reason to spend his days living in fear of the day he’d be reborn.

“Every year without knowing it I have passed the day / When the last fires will wave to me,” he reflected, his tone more wondering than mournful, in a poem that has circulated widely since his passing. “Then I will no longer / Find myself in life as in a strange garment ...”

Maybe he wasn’t of this world, although of course he was. He seemed to know and feel more than anyone, even as a young man. In his third book, “Green With Bears,” published when he was still in his 20s, he wrote beautifully about learning dead languages:

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What you remember saves you. To remember

Is not to rehearse, but to hear what never

Has fallen silent. So your learning is,

From the dead, order, and what sense of yourself

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Is memorable, what passion may be heard

When there is nothing for you to say.

His early work was precise and, at times, formalist, but it wouldn’t take long for the punctuation to disappear, for his poems to become freer. He became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s; his work during that era was mournful, angry and unforgettable. The last verse of his poem “The Asians Dying” is a stunning example:

The possessors move everywhere under Death their star

Like columns of smoke they advance into the shadows

Like thin flames with no light

They with no past

And fire their only future

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In the last four decades of his life, after he moved to Hawaii, he dedicated much of his time to environmentalism. The focus of his poetry moved to the natural world, another lens through which he would examine birth, death and all that comes between. In “The Snow,” a poem from his 1977 collection “The Compass Flower,” he wrote:

You with no fear of dying

how you dreaded winter

the cataract forming on the green wheated hill

ice on sundial and steps and calendar … you are my child

we are one body

one blood

He was content to spend his days with his beloved wife, Paula Dunaway Merwin, on the former pineapple plantation in Hawaii they called home until her death in 2017. He couldn’t fathom the appeal of life in big cities and their attendant entertainments — in his poem “Late Wonders,” he considered the Universal Studios theme park in Los Angeles:

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you can see Los Angeles

destroyed hourly

you can watch the avenue named for somewhere else

the one on which you know you are

crumple and vanish incandescent

with a terrible cry

all around you

rising from the houses and families

of everyone you have seen all day

Sometimes, poetry has a way of finding you when you need it the most, and Merwin’s poems seem to have found their way into the hearts of countless young writers. When his death was announced, Twitter was filled with remembrances from people he’d touched through his decades of work.

I was one of those people.

W. S. Merwin. Poet. Photo ©1982 Thomas Victor. From the Times Files.
W.S. Merwin in 1982
(Thomas Victor)

Merwin was the first poet I ever saw read, and the first poet I ever loved.

I went to one of his readings at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1993, when I was a high school student. Two of my best friends, admirers of his, had urged me to come. At the time, my main association with poetry was this vague idea of black-clad hipsters reciting inscrutable verses over the thwack of a double bass, so I told my friends I’d consider attending, in much the same way I would later tell my college friends that I would totally think about going to see their grindcore band play some sad house party.

They wore me down, though, and in retrospect, I’m glad they did. I no longer remember all of the poems he read, although I do remember the stunned silence when he’d finish with one, and the laughter when he’d read some of his slyly funny verses. I remember being moved in a way I hadn’t known was possible, and I remember feeling like a new language had been revealed to me.

Merwin’s poetry became a companion to me. It was there for me in my darkest times — when I went through a long period of depression, I’d read his poems over and over again. I couldn’t articulate it then, and I barely can now, but his work made me feel less alone, less afraid.

I don’t know that I would have become a writer without him. Whenever I’ve gone through periods of writer’s block, I’d read his poem “Berryman,” a tribute to his beloved mentor:

I had hardly begun to read

I asked how can you ever be sure

that what you write is really

any good and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure

you die without knowing

whether anything you wrote was any good

if you have to be sure don’t write

It seemed like he’d never leave us, and of course he hasn’t, really. He’s still here, through his poems, teaching us how to live, how to hope, how to refuse to give in to despair. We can honor him by recognizing that even when the world seems bleak, there’s always hope, there’s always possibility. As he wrote in his 2005 poem “To the New Year”:

so this is the sound of you

here and now whether or not

anyone hears it this is

where we have come with our age

our knowledge such as it is

and our hopes such as they are

invisible before us

untouched and still possible


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