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Author W.S. Merwin Named U.S. Poet Laureate

July 1, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: The Library of Congress has just named the new poet laureate of the United States. He is W.S. Merwin, long one of the nation’s most prominent poets, author of more than 50 books of verse, translations, memoirs and much more, and winner of numerous literary prizes.

In 2008, I met Merwin in New York, where we talked about his life and work. Here’s an excerpt from that report.

W.S. MERWIN, U.S. poet laureate: 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 a kid who couldn’t read yet, you know?

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: Well, I can trace that all the way back into early childhood. I think it’s always been there. But I think I have always — the thing that makes me want to write is the same thing that makes me love that blade of grass in the — in — in — and I can’t separate them.

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

W.S. MERWIN: I’m so glad you say that, because I have 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 to — 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.”

JEFFREY BROWN: W.S. Merwin will assume his one-year post as the 17th poet laureate in the fall.