W.S. Merwin on Becoming the New Poet Laureate

October 27, 2010 at 6:25 PM EDT
Loading the player...
Jeffrey Brown has a conversation with W.S. Merwin, who was appointed as the 17th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry by The Library of Congress.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: a talk with the nation’s newest poet laureate. And to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: As one of the country’s leading poets for decades and author of more than 50 books of verse, translation, and prose, W.S. Merwin has won just every major award available, from his first volume in 1952, “A Mask for Janus,” selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, to his most recent in 2009, “The Shadow of Sirius,” which earned him his second Pulitzer Prize.

In July, Merwin was named the nation’s 17th poet laureate, officially the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. He lives in Hawaii and has recently given his inaugural reading here in Washington. And welcome to you. And congratulations.

W.S. MERWIN, poet laureate: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s nice to talk to you again. Now, one obvious question here is, why did you accept this position? I know you were sort of reluctant about it.


W.S. MERWIN: Yes. I try not to dwell on that. But it’s a more public position and role and so forth than I normally would like. And it’s not — it’s not for likes that I did it. I thought that once, before I stopped talking about it, I wanted to talk in an official situation, in a very public place, as public as I’m ever likely to be, about the — what I think of as the one thing, the one talent, the one gift of human nature that does distinguish us from every other form of life.

And I don’t mean intelligence. I’m not sure that we’re the most intelligent of species. We use our intelligence differently. Nor am I sure that language is a good definition, because we define language. And, in fact, there are forms of language among all species, or they wouldn’t survive, communication.

But I think what does distinguish us — what distinguishes us really is imagination.

JEFFREY BROWN: Imagination?

W.S. MERWIN: Yes, the ability to sit here in Arlington and feel distressed by the homeless people in Darfur, or by the starvation of the whales in the Pacific, or by the species that are being snuffed out as we talk, or by the people who are suffering in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you have to take that sense of imagination and turn it into poetry that connects with people. That’s what you have been doing for a long time.

When we talked a few years ago, you talked about a simplicity of language. Is that — is it part of trying to reach people, to express that imagination?

W.S. MERWIN: I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I think it is that. But the — I think any poet would sound extremely selfish, because, when I’m asked if — you know, who am I writing for, I think about that, and I think about writing a poem, and I think, I’m not writing that poem for anybody, including me. I’m writing it because I want to write that poem.

And the poem is the most important thing at that point. And I think that’s true of the arts. I think that’s — the — when the bird sings — this is the thing that we have in common. In this sense, it’s in common with other species. When the thrush sings, the thrush sings with every cell of his body at the same time.

And I think that the only way for — to — for Vermeer to have painted a picture or for Mozart to have written a sonata or Shakespeare to have written “Hamlet” is, you’re not writing it for anybody. You’re obsessed with — I think art is creatively obsessed and to be completely involved in the thing that they’re doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you look out in this public role at the world around you — and I mean particularly the world of writing and poetry — a lot of writers I talk to, sometimes, they surprise me when they talk about — mostly, we talk about the problems, you know, the lack of literacy or reading.

Sometimes, poets talk to me and writers talk to me about, there’s never been so many poetry readings. There’s a kind of vibrancy. There’s never been so many people writing. There’s rap music, whether you like it or not. But it’s — it’s — you know, there’s something going on out there. Other people see — feel very despondent about the place of literature in our cultural life.

Are you a glass-half-full or empty person?

W.S. MERWIN: No. It’s wonderful, and I think both are true.

I think that the — literacy, as we know it, is declining very fast, and our language is falling apart. But, at the same time, the urge to listen to poetry, to make poems, and, I mean, that’s a real urge, and that — it doesn’t matter what kind of poetry it is — but it’s more prevalent than it was when I was young.

It’s much more prevalent, more people involved. And people say, do you like rap poetry? And I think, I don’t know whether I like rap poetry or not. I listen to all kinds of poetry, and sometimes I like it, and sometimes I don’t.

But it’s — as long as it involves people and that same — that urge, I think it’s wonderful. I think it should be there, and it’s marvelous. And, sometimes, I have heard rap poems that I like very much and that made me laugh or that I thought said something extremely pointed, and very clearly and sharply.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, to come back to this public role, you live not — it’s not right to say you live completely off the grid in Hawaii, but you live away, shall we say.

W.S. MERWIN: Pretty well off the grid.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, pretty well off the grid. And I know you don’t e-mail…


JEFFREY BROWN: … because we have talked about this before.

W.S. MERWIN: Oh, no, no.

JEFFREY BROWN: But how — explain that, the importance of living that life for you and your wife away, as opposed to coming here. And I know you have lots of friends, and you have lots of — and you’re very active in the world of literature. How do you distinguish this — these…

W.S. MERWIN: Well, I love them both, you know?

I thought, for years, oh, it’s terrible to have — to have this pull between the city and the country, and between the past and the present, and between this — you know, all of these different pulls.

When I’m in the country, I miss the city some of the time. When I’m in the city, I miss the country all the time. And that helped me to decide. I think the two are possible. I think the sort of public and private thing is, too.

I mean, I love being with people. I love having a lot to do with people. And then I like having times of complete quiet and living there with the trees and the dog, and thinking about things.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, here, we will welcome you back to your public role here as poet laureate. W.S. Merwin, nice to talk to you.

W.S. MERWIN: Thank you.