“I think there’s a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there’s still time.
We try to save what is passing, if only by describing it, telling it, knowing all the time that we can’t do any of these things. The urge to tell it, and the knowledge of the impossibility. Isn’t that one reason we write?”
I’m just reading some Merwin poetry tonight with my after-dinner cup of tea on the deck on an unusually warm November evening in Paradelle.
American poet, translator, and environmental activist W.S. (William Stanley) Merwin was born in New York City and lived for a time in Union City, New Jersey, then to Scranton, Pennsylvania, when he was a small boy. His father was a Presbyterian minister.
In Pennsylvania, William connected with nature. I’ve read that as a boy he talked to the backyard trees, liked creating stories for them and also wrote hymns for his father’s church. All good writer and poet training. Once, when some men came to trim the trees in his backyard, he was so angered that he attacked the men.
In 1948, after graduating from Princeton University, Merwin did a lot of traveling while he studied: across Europe, in Portugal (tutoring the children of the Portuguese royal family) to Spain, where he met poet and translator Robert Graves (he tutored Graves’ kids too), and to London, where he befriended poets T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
His first collection of poetry was A Mask for Janus and it won the 1952 Yale Younger Prize, judged by W.H. Auden. They became friends but had a falling out in 1971, when Merwin refused the Pulitzer Prize for his collection The Carrier of Ladders.
Merwin was an anti-war activist and with the Vietnam War peaking (a time I recall, as I was headed to college and in the last class that could be drafted), Merwin declined the prize money. Auden saw this as an “ill-judged… publicity-stunt.” I remember that and saw it as admirable.
Merwin wrote in a public letter: “After years of the news from Southeast Asia, and the commentary from Washington, I am too conscious of being an American to accept public congratulation with good grace, or to welcome it except as an occasion for expressing openly a shame which many Americans feel, day after day, helplessly and in silence.”
The committee must have been okay with his decision too. Merwin won a second Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for The Shadow of Sirius.
Merwin moved to Hawaii where he decided to take a former pineapple plantation on Maui and restore it to its original rainforest state. His poetry has always connected to nature and ecology.
I think I agree with and try to follow his writing precept of regular practice.
“I’ve found that the best thing for me is to insist that some part of the day — and for me, it’s the morning until about two in the afternoon — be dedicated to writing. I go into my room and shut the door, and that’s that. You have to make exceptions, of course, but you just stick to it, and then it becomes a habit, and I think it’s a valuable one. If you’re waiting for lightning to strike a stump, you’re going to sit there for the rest of your life.”
I have that quote from his poem “Place” that is at the top of this post pinned near my writing desk as a line of hope in a desperate time.