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Poetry Moment: W. S. Merwin and living in the dark

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This weekend, we give in to the dark. At least for the winter.
On Sunday morning, we turn our clocks back, and our evenings grow darker and darker until the shortest day of the year, the solstice, Dec. 21, 2020. It’s not just the upcoming Halloween (or election) that sends shivers in the dark.

North of Dublin, along the River Boyne in Ireland, lies a one-acre prehistoric phenomenon called Newgrange. Before Stonehenge was pushed into place, before the Egyptians built the pyramids, the Irish brought stones from all over the island to build this circular passage tomb, 90 meters in diameter. Massive carved stones ring the 39-foot-high grass-covered mound over a central stone tomb, where remains of the dead were burned and sometimes buried.

But at the entrance of the passage into Newgrange’s interior, the builders calculated carefully and constructed an open slot in the stone roof, through which at dawn on the solstice, the sun’s first light streams through and lights up the tomb’s caverns. There’s a lottery every year to celebrate the solstice inside the tomb.

Photo: The David Hobby.

My family felt chills in that tomb when the docents doused the artificial lights, then replicated the sunrise spilling into the stone chamber. The Stone Age builders, so connected to the seasons and the land when winters were cold, long, and hungry, were determined to show that the light would return. They celebrated the turn in the season that assured their clan that spring and another planting was possible.

W. S. Merwin understood the significance of the solstice, the way people wait for a sign of hope or light in the dark winter, and the way it reminds us of the fleeting nature of life.

A practicing Buddhist and environmental activist, Merwin wrote much of his poetry after the 1970s from a rambling disused pineapple plantation in Hawaii that he carefully restored to rainforest. He watched the seasons, the plants, and the skies from his hillside house, which is now a conservancy dedicated to supporting arts and ecology.

A double Pulitzer Prize-winner, Merwin was anti-war (he donated his Pulitzer money to the Vietnam War draft resistance movement), but very much in favor of humans connecting with the natural world. Merwin visited HoCoPoLitSo audiences for a triumphant reading in 1994, just after he’d won the first annual Tanning Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He recorded the television program that same week, reading “Solstice” in his jeans and chambray shirt in the company of host poet Roland Flint. Merwin died in March 2019.

This week’s Poetry Moment verse, Merwin’s “Solstice,” addresses the ideas of light disappearing and time passing quickly, but also the comfort humans can provide one another. The final lines are, “but we are together in the whole night/ with the sun still going away/ and the year/ coming back.”
Merwin wasn’t convinced poetry could save the world. But he believed not only that he had to try, but that despair over a natural world rapidly being blighted was useless.

“The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us,” Merwin said. “And you know in a way, if you don’t pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness.Whether poems, human contact, the natural world, or just sheer tenacity, humans need something to pull them forward in time, to think beyond fear and anger, to see a turning point toward the light. There is much that is dark in the world today, including the coming winter. But it has been dark before and will grow light again, as Merwin and the ancients foretell.


Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer


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