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Poetry Moment: W. S. Merwin and living in the dark
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.
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
Remembering W.S. Merwin — Susan Thornton Hobby
W. S. Merwin, a fellow pacifist, writer, and gardener, was a hero in all things to me.
The poet died this weekend at the age of 91 in his Hawaiian home. He was one of the first authors who wrote verse about the catastrophes of the Vietnam War and its effects not just on the American soldiers, but on the devastated Vietnamese countryside and people. He refused to accept his Pulitzer Prize for his book The Carrier of Ladders in 1971 because of the tragedies occurring in southeast Asia centering on the Vietnam War.
Merwin reclaimed his “garden,” nineteen acres of Hawaiian pineapple plantation land that had been wrecked by agricultural abuse. Over forty years, he hand-planted the dirt with 3,000 palm seedlings and transformed barren fields into a native rainforest. That land is now in permanent conservation.
But most of all, I admire Merwin for his gem-like poems of sheer beauty. What this writer could do with words – both his own and with those of French, Spanish, Latin and Italian poets that he translated – was astonishing.
Merwin visited HoCoPoLitSo in 1994, just after he had won the first Tanning Poetry Prize, which was awarded to a master American poet, but before he won his second Pulitzer in 2009. He spoke to a small group of 50 people about the craft of writing, then read his poetry to the audience that crowded the ballroom, lobby and stairways of Oakland Manor.
Earlier that day, he taped an episode of The Writing Life, HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-to-writer talk show. On that show, he spoke with poet Roland Flint about a coming environmental crisis in the world: “What is happening to the great forests in the world, I feel it like an illness,” Merwin said, thumping his fist into his belly. Because people have cut themselves off from the world outside their windows and screens, “we find ourselves in a place that is false and dangerous, and increasingly destructive.”
To watch him read his exquisite verse, “Late Spring,” “West Wall,” and “The Solstice” from The Rain in the Trees, and two poems from Travels, “Witness” and “Place” watch The Writing Life episode.
In the unmade light I can see the world
as the leaves brighten I see the air
the shadows melt and the apricots appear
now that the branches vanish I see the apricots
from a thousand trees ripening in the air
they are ripening in the sun along the west wall
apricots beyond number are ripening in the daylight
Whatever was there
I never saw those apricots swaying in the light
I might have stood in orchards forever
without beholding the day in the apricots
or knowing the ripeness of the lucid air
or touching the apricots in your skin
or tasting in your mouth the sun in the apricots
To learn more about Merwin and his life, watch the documentary about his life. Or visit the tribute page on his publisher’s site.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Against the Ruins, Her Book of Poems
These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
by Tara Hart
If nothing else, I am a reader. Perhaps because I always had my face in a book, my parents logically wondered when I would finally write one. As much as I love reading novels (the longer the better), I have also always been aware that I am not driven to create them. Characters do not haunt me, demanding I write their stories, as in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Extended, magical narratives do not spring into my mind on the train. My few hesitant attempts at starting a story and seeing where it would go led . . . nowhere.
And then our first child died, our Tessa. And that experience was too large to hold, and I was helpless to know where to put it. I only wanted poems. I had always loved poetry, but in the casually passionate way we love favorite foods. Now I came to poems in a state of complete surrender, starving to know I was not alone, that the world is not all just a darkling plain. Lucille Clifton. Mark Doty. W. S. Merwin. Sharon Olds. They said many things that helped. They said some things that called to other things inside me. Slowly, I found relief in getting a few words down: a line, an image, a phrase. Sometimes I could write a whole page, breaking the lines like twigs wherever they were weakest, and create what might look like poems from arm’s length, but they had no music. I kept writing a little at a time, though, grateful for tiny shards of light, and I’d throw the scraps in a box. Or I’d think of something at work – like a new fear of crocuses – and type it into a document called “bits.”
I wondered if I would ever be able to find sustained time to shore the fragments, and after a few years, the answers were all, suddenly, yes. My angriest, saddest lines, after thirteen discordant tries, flew into place like a blackbird and won a Pushcart Prize. I applied for a sabbatical, and received it. A friend taking a graduate course in design asked if she could work with me to produce a chapbook. And so in the spring of 2012, when Tessa would have been eight, I filled our birdfeeder, said a prayer of thanks, shook out the pieces, printed the drafts, and spread everything out on a table. I looked at my notes in the margins of great poets. In the softly silent house, for six hours a day, I listened to what I remembered. I followed those fragments, my breadcrumbs, my torches, planchettes. They were tickets, too, to a prize I was finally able to claim – the gift of understanding how I and my whole here and absent family are connected to a much, much larger story of love and loss, and what comes after. So I guess I do have that blessed clamoring that leads to the work, the words, and the release. It is one of my daughter’s many gifts, to turn me into a writer, after all.