HAIKU, Maui » When Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William S. Merwin began to plant palm trees at his estate on former pineapple land in East Maui during the mid-1970s, his goal was to restore a native forest.
But Merwin learned there were limits to what can be created by simply transplanting a variety of palms without an understory of interdependent plants and insects and suitable microclimates for each species.
"Only a forest can make a forest," he said.
Still, the benefits of more than four decades of country life in Hawaii helped thousands of his palms to thrive, much as Merwin, an East Coast transplant, has set roots deep in the rich island soil and risen to be appointed the nation’s poet laureate — the first from Hawaii and only the 17th in history chosen for the honor.
An environmentalist before the word became fashionable, Merwin began composting and growing vegetables in the 1960s while living in southern France.
Born Sept. 30, 1927
Resides in Haiku, Maui, with wife Paula
Major awards include Yale Younger Poets Prize, "A Mask for Janus" (1952); Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, "The Carrier of Ladders" (1971); Governor’s Award for Literature, Hawaii (1987); Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award (2004); National Book Award in Poetry for "Migration: New and Selected Poems" Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, "The Shadow of Sirius" (2009)
Appointed by Librarian of Congress as 17th U.S. poet laureate in July 2010; term runs from October to May.
He built his own house in a remote and rural spot on Maui in the mid-1970s and relies on solar energy to power his home, which he shares with his wife, Paula.
When asked how someone living on the edge of the United States in a far corner of Maui could reach such literary heights, Merwin smiles.
"You live your life," he replies.
Frank Stewart, a poet and University of Hawaii professor in English, said respect for Merwin’s more than 30 published works of poetry, prose and translations — many focused on nature and native culture — continues to grow.
"I can’t think of any living poet who’s more respected and … who’s going to be read for a long time," he said.
Among the country roads that cut across the volcanic slopes of Haleakala are traces of 19th-century life in Hawaii — an old church and stones that once supported taro loi. The narrow winding road leading to Merwin’s home passes cows in a pasture, then dense foliage of high grass and trees.
At 82, Merwin’s firm handshake reveals the strength required to work his nearly 19 acres daily, composting and planting palms in an area regarded as rough and remote even by Maui standards.
"Some people don’t talk of it as though it’s part of the United States at all. … It was in the boonies," he said. "When I first came out, it was so quiet some people (visiting me) couldn’t stand it. They had to get on a plane again."
Merwin spends his mornings meditating and writing. He works as a gardener in the afternoons, planting and maintaining his palm forest.
The land was severely eroded when he bought it almost 40 years ago, full of scrub brush, guava trees and Christmas berries. But he liked the atmosphere and setting.
"The plovers were flying overhead. I went down to the stream bed. Thrushes were singing in the afternoon. I thought, ‘This is a beautiful place,’" he said, his words forming new bits of sparse poetry.
"I’ve always wanted to take a piece of ruined land and restore it."
Merwin’s passion for the environment and native peoples was stoked in boyhood, when his mother read verses from poets such as Alfred Tennyson and Henry W. Longfellow, author of "The Song of Hiawatha," an epic poem about an American Indian hero. Merwin said that in his youth he was curious to learn more about the lifestyle of native Americans who lived in the wilds of the forest.
His father was a Presbyterian minister, and he said he also enjoyed listening to sermons and church hymns when the family lived in Union City, N.J., and later Scranton, Pa. He can still recite many Bible passages from his youth.
Merwin recalls his father speaking against racism and going into town to make sure an African-American who had been arrested was not abused while in custody.
While attending Princeton University on scholarship, Merwin met some "remarkable people," including music composer Charles Rosen and poet Galway Kinnell. Merwin and other students receiving financial aid served as waiters in a large dining hall that resembled a church.
"Galway and I laugh because we say we’re the only two guys who worked waiting tables who never got promoted because people thought we had the wrong attitude. We didn’t take it seriously," he said.
The conviviality of college life was interrupted by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. "We were all stunned by that. We realized the world had changed that day," he said.
After graduating from Princeton in 1947, Merwin worked as a tutor in Europe and a freelance translator of Latin, French, Spanish and Portuguese, working for a time as a teacher to the children of the poet Robert Graves in Majorca. He also developed a close friendship with Ted Hughes, who became a British poet laureate and was married to poet and "Bell Jar" author Sylvia Plath.
During the 1960s, Merwin spent several years in southern France living in a farm village where people spoke Occitan, the language of 12th- and 13th-century troubadours known for their lyric poetry.
"They didn’t even speak French among themselves," he recalled.
According to Merwin, the villagers, a cultural minority, knew well the history of their heritage and understood the connection between the land and their kinsfolk.
Back in the United States, Merwin and some of his poetry became critical of Western expansionism, the idea of manifest destiny and the Christianity-based attitude that man had dominion over all animals.
"I grew up in it. It doesn’t work for me," he said.
The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 served as another formative event, personally and politically, for the poet, when the prevailing public mood of fear and militarism forced him to examine his own inadequacies.
"If someone said, ‘How would you like to live?’ I wouldn’t have a good answer. I said, ‘I better find out. I don’t even know how to feed myself,’" he said.
In 1971, during rising protests of the Vietnam War, Merwin received his first Pulitzer Prize for his book "The Carrier of Ladders" and asked that part of the money be given to the draft resistance movement.
His interest in Eastern religion brought Merwin to Maui in 1975 to be close to Zen Buddhist master Robert Aitken.
Stewart, the UH professor, said without punctuation or capitalization, Merwin’s poems create a feeling of lightness but fall with a kind of certainty and inevitability.
Stewart said that as Merwin began living increasingly in Hawaii, he wrote more about nature, including plants and landscapes.
"His work became more translucent … more ephemeral in the way he tries to say the unsayable thing," said Stewart, editor of Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing.
Merwin’s reputation continued to grow within his adopted state and elsewhere. In 2005 the poet won the National Book Award for his retrospective collection, "Migration: New and Selected Poems."
In "The Shadow of Sirius," winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, Merwin’s poem speaks of how a valley holds its own kind of recollection.
Where the roaring torrent
raced at one time
to carve farther down
those high walls in the stone
for the silence that I hear now
day and night on its way to the sea.
—"The Shadow of Sirius"
On Maui, Merwin found common ground in his environmentalism to support Hawaiian causes. He helped to sponsor a statewide conference with native Hawaiians about the importance of keeping stream waters flowing and recently established a nonprofit group as a conservancy to eventually maintain his palm forest in East Maui.
"You can get lost up in here. It’s really silent. You don’t hear the road, and I want to keep it that way. … I want to keep it like a bit of a Hawaiian forest but for palms," he said.
By Merwin’s count there are some 850 tree species. His forest has saved one, Hyophorbe indica, from extinction when other growers were unsuccessful in propagating it from seeds, he said.
IN AN EPIC POEM published in 1998 after 12 years of research, Merwin carefully resurrected a story about the Hawaiian anti-hero Koolau, the outlaw leper who battled against government forces that had overthrown Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, and fled to Kauai’s Kalalau Valley.
Some native Hawaiians say the story of Koolau in Merwin’s "The Folding Cliffs" represents as a major contribution to Pacific literature.
"I thought the book was excellent. … I thought it was compelling," said Pualani Kanahele, a Hawaiian educator.
Kanahele, president of the Edith Kanakaole Foundation, said that in writing "The Folding Cliffs," Merwin studied the Hawaiian language, and his understanding was evident in the way he "got into the head" of the characters.
"You could feel the emotion, " she said.
Merwin’s verses reveal the dark side of Western expansionism in the early 1890s and expose readers to native Hawaiian myths and values, and their alignment with the indomitable power of nature, in which all living things have a spirit and life.
Koolau’s understanding of Kalalau Valley proves more powerful than the cannon and dozens of soldiers sent in a failed attempt to capture him.
… Ko’olau stood braced between
rocks with his rifle raised and then a soldier’s head appeared
in front of the ledge and he shouted — I have found
the trail — and Ko’olau shot twice and the man was gone"
—"The Folding Cliffs"
Stewart said Merwin displayed his versatility in writing long lines of poetry for the work.
"It’s really a masterpiece. He’s not just a one-style writer. … It’s difficult to write a book-length poem, especially today. It takes an entirely different turn of mind to create such a thing," Stewart said.
Merwin takes up his poet laureate duties next month, opening the Library of Congress’ annual literary series on Oct. 25 with a reading of his work.
In announcing the poet’s appointment in July, Librarian of Congress James Billington said, "William Merwin’s poems are often profound and, at the same time, accessible to a vast audience. He leads us upstream from the flow of everyday things in life to half-hidden headwaters of wisdom about life itself."