The new poet laureate has words for animals.
While visiting the Hawaiian island of Maui, he bought three acres of land on the side of a mountain that had been destroyed by pineapple and sugar cane entrepreneurs. Together with his wife, he transformed it back into a small rain forest, brimming over with ironwood and heliconia trees, yellow and red hibiscus flowers, huge mango, banana, and papaya trees, looming palms, white gardenia plants, white birds-of-paradise, ferns of all kinds.
There is a large vegetable garden and a small enclave of native plants—some of them endangered Hawaiian species—which he keeps in plastic pots protected by a roof of palm fronds and chicken wire.
W.S. Merwin, the new poet laureate of the United States, does something similar with words, turning them into lines of poetry that just flow along, unimpeded by punctuation, conjuring up ideas and pictures of beauty and surprise. His new appointment may be an honor for him, but is perhaps more an honor for the country.
at last the wind in December
lashing the old trees with rain
unseen rain racing along the tiles
under the moon
wind rising and falling
wind with many clouds
trees in the night wind
“Everything has to do with listening,” he says. “Poetry is physical.”
The house itself, like the income of an uncompromising poet, is quite small, built on the edge of a dormant volcano. His dogs, chows, snooze under the table where he writes. When he’s not writing, he’s working in his forest.
“The rain that formed the valleys made possible the forests all along the mountain, and allowed particular species of plants and insects, tiny brilliant tree snails and birds, to evolve for each variation in the terrain. In the poetry of the Hawaiians, rain almost always is the rain of a particular place, with a specific character and an allusion to an erotic element of some story draped with names. The garden waits for the rain, responds to it at once, opens to it, holds it, takes it up and shines with it. The sound and touch and smell of the rain, the manner of its arrival, its temper and passage are like a sensuous visit to the garden, and the light among the trees after rain, with its own depth and moment, iridescent, shifting and unseizable, is an intensified image of the garden at that instant.
“But what I saw on the dry afternoon when I first picked my way down the pot-holed track was long parched grass, an area deforested by enterprising Caucasians, first for grazing imported cattle, then for planting sugar and a pineapple plantation. They plowed the sides of the valley vertically so that whatever topsoil had remained until then was washed away in a few years and the entrepreneurs lost their investments and left.
“It was the shadowy stream bed with its rocks under the huge trees that made me want to stay and so to settle, and have a garden in this valley. But also the thought of having a chance to take a piece of abused land and restore it.”
So Merwin carted in natural fertilizer and better soil by himself, planted native trees and flowers, and cultivates them like precious words.
I will have to speak
in a forgotten language
William (not Bill, please) Merwin grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. His father was a Presbyterian minister in an underprivileged parish. There was a fair amount of violence in the household. His father beat him from time to time. At age 13, when he was just big enough, he turned on his dad and warned him never to touch him again. But his father also encouraged him to write. His first poems were hymns for his dad to use in church. His mother was a pacifist. Merwin, in turn, became a Buddhist. It touches into his sense of being “part of the universe and everything living … You’re not separate from the frog in the pond or the cockroach in the kitchen.”
The cruelty he saw in his childhood led him to be appalled by cruelty of any kind: to people, to animals, to the land.
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing
In an interview with Bill Moyers, he talked about his relationship to the countryside, but also to the city, having lived in New York for several years. “I love the city, but I also love the country and I realize that when I’m in the city I miss the country all the time, and when I’m in the country I miss the city some of the time. So what I do now is live in the country and go to the city some of the time.”
Moyers comments that Merwin’s poetry harkens back to Walt Whitman in what Moyers calls “its deeply felt connection to the natural world that makes all the more poignant his despair over our assault on the Earth through war and pollution.”
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning
Now in his 80s, Merwin is bothered by the fact that his eyes aren’t as good as they used to be. But in an interview with Terry Gross, he says that one of his dogs taught him to deal with things like that:
“And she would guide me if the light got — if I was out somewhere and I was taking her for a walk and forgot a flashlight, and it got dark, she’d take me home. And I thought, you know, the way she confronted absolutely everything without fear, without panic, without anything of the kind, this is one of the great guiding spirits of my life.
“And so as my eyes get worse, I think of Muku more and more often. And that’s a very pleasant thing to do because I think, how would Muku have dealt with this situation, and you know very well how she would have done it.”
In New York City’s Central Park Zoo, there’s a quote by Merwin at the entrance to the small rain forest preserve. It says:
Asked why he would want to do that, Merwin replies:
More about W.S. Merwin:
An insightful interview by Bill Moyers on PBS TV.
A delightful piece of Merwin in his rain forest garden.
A recent interview with Terri Gross on NPR.