W. S. Merwin, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, reads his poem “Rain Light” from his home in Hawaii. You can find the text of the poem below.
It was at our second meeting, in New York for an interview in 2008, that William Merwin first said, “You should come visit us in Maui.”
Yes, I thought, wouldn’t that be fine! But did he really mean it? People say things all the time, don’t they? Merwin, I came to realize, means what he says. I’d been reading his work off and on since the mid-’70s, beginning with his collections, “The Carrier of Ladders” and “The Lice“. I didn’t meet the man himself until years later while doing a story on writers and other artists protesting the Iraq war.
He is a man of passions — particularly when it comes to the environment — but in my experience, at least, he wears those lightly. I’ve found him a pleasure to be around: dignified, whimsical, a twinkle in his blue eyes, a storyteller with a lot of stories to tell. (Read his memoir, “Summer Doorways“, just for a start).
So, Maui. It was where William and his wife, Paula, had bought land on an old pineapple plantation. When they came in the ’70s, it was considered an agricultural wasteland of depleted soil ruined by chemicals and deforestation. Slowly, slowly, the Merwins began to build it back and plant trees, first native Hawaiian species and later with seeds from all over the globe. Decades later, it’s considered one of the largest and most important private collections of palm trees in the world.
But would I ever see it? We all have our regrets, the shoulda’, woulda’, coulda’s of life. About a year ago I started thinking that I didn’t want this to become one of those. There was a sense of urgency: William and Paula are getting older and both have had serious health problems. I wondered whether it was too late. But I started talking to mutual friends, then to Paula’s son John Burnham Schwartz, and then to the Merwins themselves. They said: Yes, come. I’m very glad I did.
One afternoon my wife and I joined the Merwins on the ‘lanai,’ or patio, of their house in the forest, talking for several hours while drinking Chinese tea that William brewed. The next day I returned with a camera crew and we walked all through the palm forest, talking to the chief gardener, the head of the National Tropical Botanical Garden who’d come over from Kauai, and to William himself. It’s a spectacular, even magical, place, part wild forest, part garden.
And William is a magical person. At 87, he has lost much of his sight and even reading is difficult. But he knows his way among the palm trees — he planted most of them himself. And when I asked if he would recite a poem for our cameras, he stood in a little opening in the potting area and gave us, as you’ll see here, “Rain Light.”
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
Stay tuned: the PBS NewsHour will broadcast chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown’s conversation with W. S. Merwin in the coming days.