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Maui’s W.S. Merwin becomes nation’s poet laureate

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W.S. Merwin acknowledges that his relatively reclusive life on a former pineapple plantation built on the slopes of Haleakala on Maui will be disturbed by the Library of Congress’ announcement this morning naming him the country’s poet laureate.

“I do like a very quiet life,” Merwin said by telephone after learning of his appointment. “I can’t keep popping back and forth between here and Washington.” He said he does relish “being part of something much more public and talking too much,” however, and the job of the nation’s premier poet will enable him to do both.

Of course, no matter how many public appearances Merwin might ultimately make, for most people he speaks most eloquently through his verse.

At 82, Merwin is an undisputed master, having written more than 30 books of poetry, translation and prose through the course of six decades.

“W.S. Merwin is an inevitable choice for poet laureate,” said Dana Gioia, a poet and a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “He has created a distinctive style. His poetry is lyrical, elliptical and often slightly mysterious.”

Merwin, who retains traces of the extravagant handsomeness of his youth, has won just about every major award an American poet can, among them two Pulitzer Prizes, for “The Shadow of Sirius” in 2009 and for “The Carrier of Ladders” in 1971; and the National Book Award in 2005 for “Migration: New and Selected Poems.”

William Stanley Merwin is one of a bumper crop of poets born in 1926 or 1927 that included A.R. Ammons, James Merrill, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, James Wright and John Ashbery. What distinguishes his work from the other poets of his generation who were forging a new style in the wake of modernism, Gioia said, is how he “combined the intensity of English-language modernism with the expansive lyricism of Spanish-language modernism.”

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Merwin grew up in Scranton, Pa., and Union City, N.J. At the age of 5 he started writing out hymns for his father, who ran a tense, strict and sometimes violent household.

Fathers figure in his 1983 poem “Yesterday”:
My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand
he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

At 18 he sought out the advice of Ezra Pound, who told him to write 75 lines every day. Pound also suggested taking up poetry translation to learn what could be done with language — advice that Merwin followed.

He attended Princeton University on scholarship, studying with the critic R.P. Blackmur, whom he has called “a kind of mentor and parent,” and John Berryman, whom he said was one of the brightest people he ever met. He has said that he used his initials because doing so seemed serious and adult, in the manner of T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden.

From his earliest scribblings, Merwin has had a conception of poetry that is strongly tied to music.

“It’s close to the oral tradition,” he said. “It’s close to song. You have to hear it before you can understand it.”

His first collection, “A Mask for Janus,” was selected for the Yale Younger Poets Prize by Auden, whose style of long un-spooling sentences had influenced the novice’s own verse.
In the 1960s he began writing poems without any punctuation, and later, without capital letters, except for the beginning. “I came to feel that punctuation was like nailing the words onto the page,” he once explained. “I wanted instead the movement and lightness of the spoken word.”

Merwin came to wider attention for his hard-edged political allegories that condemned the Vietnam War and environmental destruction, starting with his 1967 collection, “The Lice.”

James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, heard advice from several writers and scholars before choosing Merwin to succeed Kay Ryan as the nation’s poet laureate, its 17th. Merwin plans to be in Washington on Oct. 25 to open the library’s annual literary series with a reading. The position does not carry many formal duties, though laureates have traditionally undertaken projects that reach out to potential audiences. The one-year term carries a $35,000 annual stipend.

Billington said he is confident that Merwin can broaden the audience for poetry through technology, if not in person: “We even discussed the possibility of doing something using remote technology from Hawaii.”

Merwin moved there in the mid-1970s to study Zen Buddhism, and now lives with his wife, Paula. He said he has cultivated more than 700 endangered species of indigenous plants on the formerly denuded plantation, including the Hyophorbe indica, a palm tree he helped save from extinction.

Using his home as a backdrop would illustrate the connection between Merwin’s work and “his extraordinary interest and devotion to the natural world,” Billington said, adding that no definite plans have yet been made.

A high-tech solution to the geographical problem is somewhat unexpected for Merwin, who said he has never composed a poem on any sort of mechanical or electronic device, preferring a small spiral notebook or even a paper napkin. “It’s the nearest thing to not writing,” Merwin said. “The more self-conscious it gets, the stiffer it gets.”

During his tenure as laureate, Merwin said, he wants to emphasize his “great sympathy with native people and the languages and literature of native peoples,” and his “lifelong concern with the environment.”

Although raised in the Western tradition, he said he feels more affinity with an Eastern one, “being part of the universe and everything living.” With that exhilarating connection comes responsibility, however.

“You don’t just exploit it and use it and throw it away any more than you would a member of your family,” he said. “You’re not separate from the frog in the pond or the cockroach in the kitchen.”

That sentiment can be heard in his poem “For a Coming Extinction,” from “The Lice”:

Gray whale
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing

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