W. S. MERWIN: FINISHING A TERM AS POET LAUREATE
Story by Casey Nichols
There is an old man who lives on a former pineapple plantation on the island of Maui. Years ago, before his hair turned white and before he developed a spiritual desire to live as ferns live: full, splayed, rooted amongst endangered indigenous plants, W. S. Merwin was a blue-eyed boy of 5 writing hymns on a scrap of paper in a church pew. Even at 5 years old, he recognized the special, distinct language of the King James Bible; he wanted to reproduce it, to save it; and although much of its meaning surpassed him, he tried to imitate those beautiful sounds of Sunday service on the notepad in his lap.
Nearly 77 years after his love for language began with song, W. S. Merwin was named the 17th Poet Laureate of the United States by the Library of Congress in July 2010. The honor of the position is great, and the duties of the Poet Laureate are few: to promote poetry and inspire a greater consciousness of art.
Poets have freedom to work on projects of large or modest scale to raise poetic awareness and enjoyment. According to the Library of Congress, the Poet Laureate receives a $35,000 annual stipend and $5,000 toward travel expenses for the length of his or her term.
Many poets choose to spend their term traveling the country attending poetry readings, lectures and conferences as Merwin has done. Former Poet Laureate Rita Dove of Akron, Ohio encouraged African American writers to vocalize their culture through jazz and poetry events. Billy Collins commenced Poetry 180, a program that provides one poem per day to be read in the classroom for an entire school year. The importance of a poet laureate is to spread activism, to fuel the poetic conversation, and to remind us that poetry is not a dying breed succumbing to our nanosecond culture; it still remains one of the best ways to tell our tales of tragedy, triumph and love.
Over 30 collections of prose, poetry and translation make up Merwin's published works. He is a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize; first in 1971 for "The Carrier of Ladders" (of which he notoriously donated the prize money to the draft resistance movement), and again in 2009 for "The Shadow of Sirius." He has also won numerous awards, including The Yale Younger Poets Prize.
Dana Gioia, poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has said Merwin's "poetry is lyrical, elliptical and often slightly mysterious." As a poet first and an ecologist second, Merwin's devotion to the natural world is patterned in his eventual ridding of punctuation and capital letters, allowing for movement and light throughout his verse.
His profound love for the environment coupled with his pacifist beliefs and practice of Zen Buddhism has allowed Merwin to explain the natural world through poetry, and make certain that it remains an abundant necessity rather than a ruined artifact.
Extinction of the arts is like extinction of an endangered species; we must foster a passion for cultivating poetry in anyone who will listen, because as Merwin says, poetry is our desperate hope to save what we love.
Merwin's role as Poet Laureate is nearly up. On Aug. 9 Philip Levine was selected as Merwin's successor. Among Merwin's last responsibilities as the nation's poet, he will visit Kent State University on October 10 as part of the Wick Poetry Center's Reading Series. He will speak at 7:30 p.m. in the Student Center Ballroom.