W.S. Merwin: A Passion for Poetry and the Natural World

December 29, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT
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W.S. Merwin is one of the nation's greatest living poets and is the author of more than 50 books. In a house he built on the island of Maui, he cultivates his other life long passion: gardening.

RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, memory, language, and the poetry of W.S. Merwin. Jeffrey Brown has that story.

W.S. MERWIN, poet: I think we make poems out of what we remember.

JEFFREY BROWN: At 81, W.S. Merwin is counted as one of the nation’s greatest living poets.

W.S. MERWIN: And our memories as we get older get longer than when we’re younger.

JEFFREY BROWN: More to remember?

W.S. MERWIN: More to remember.

JEFFREY BROWN: Author of more than 50 books of his own poetry, translations of others, memoirs and more, Merwin’s major prizes include the Pulitzer in 1970 for “The Carrier of Ladders” and the National Book Award for “Migration” in 2005.

His new volume is called “The Shadow of Sirius.” And as he told us in a recent talk at the 92nd Street Y, one of New York’s leading cultural centers, it picks up themes that have been there from the start: the boy who was raised in New Jersey and Scranton, Pennsylvania, and wrote his first verses inspired by the hymns sung at the Episcopal Church where his father was a minister.

W.S. MERWIN: As soon as I could move a stub of pencil and put words on paper, I wanted to be a poet. I mean, I was fascinated by the poems that my mother had read to me and by the hymns that we sang in church, which had a different — I mean, the “Spacious Firmament on High,” I thought, “That’s pretty interesting.” But I was kid who couldn’t read yet, you know?

But I was always interested in the sounds of language and how they were related to — what were they related to? Were they really related to people talking and to — why were they standing singing? Then I wanted to write words that they would stand and sing, you know?

“From the Start.”

“Who did I think was listening

when I wrote down the words

in pencil at the beginning

words for singing

to music I did not know

and people I did not know

would read them and stand to sing them

already knowing them

while they sing they have no names”

I think that’s what we’re made of, is memory. We’re talking to each other in a language we remember, that we didn’t invent, that came to us. I’ll be washing dishes or doing something like that and think, “Why is that moment in my life in London and that moment of my childhood when I was 9 in Scranton, why are they calked on top of each other and what do they have to do with each other?”

Activist, poet of natural world

JEFFREY BROWN: For more than 30 years, Hawaii has been Merwin's home. He lives with his wife, Paula, in a house he designed and built at the edge of a dormant volcano on the island of Maui. There he cultivates his other lifelong passion, gardening. And he is passionate as both activist and poet of the natural world.

W.S. MERWIN: I can trace that all the way back into early child, and I think it's always been there. But I think I've always -- the thing that makes me want to write is the same thing that makes me love that blade of grass in the -- and I can't separate them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another thing that comes through here in a kind of simplicity of language, of form.

W.S. MERWIN: I'm so glad you say that, because I've been trying since I was 30, at least, to write more simply and more directly. I like the idea that sometimes one hears poetry as though one were overhearing it, you know?

And sometimes my favorite passages of poetry seem like that. They're something that -- they're just around in the air somewhere, you know, and they seem so simple, the way Mozart seemed so simple, you know? He certainly is not, but neither is Shakespeare, but, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" I mean, it takes your breath away. You stop and think, "My god, how beautiful that line is."

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, you're trying to pare down to a kind of clarity?

W.S. MERWIN: I would like it -- if people respond to a poem of mine at all, I would like them to feel finally that they might have written it, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: Really, that they might have written it?

W.S. MERWIN: They might have written it, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: On a New York street, that clarity of memory and the natural world came together in the poem "Rain Light."

W.S. MERWIN: All day the stars watch from long ago

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