By DONNA URSCHEL
In his inaugural reading as U.S. poet laureate, W.S. Merwin read 25 poems and talked, poetically, about the trait he believes sets humans apart from other species: imagination.
Merwin spoke to a packed house in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium in October. But before he took the stage, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who appointed him in July, offered introductory remarks, which in themselves were poetic.
“Our new poet laureate is a master craftsman of the poetic art,” Billington said. “His poetic voice is as unique as the island on which he lives, that small flowering state in the midst of the boundless ocean, where our far West meets the Asian Far East. He blends luminous thinking from the East into the literary structures of the West. His voice periodically takes us back to those prehistoric times when poetry was heard rather than read.
“Yet he speaks clearly to our own time and to all time, leading us upstream from the flow of everyday things in life to the half-hidden headwaters of wisdom about life itself.”
During a 60-year writing career, Merwin, who lives in Hawaii, has received nearly every major literary award. He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, just recently in 2009 for “The Shadow of Sirius” and in 1971 for “The Carrier of Ladders.” In 2005, he won the National Book Award for “Migration: New and Selected Poems.” His poetry is known for its lack of punctuation and for conveying Merwin’s deep concern for the natural world.
Merwin told the audience, “Several months ago, Dr. Billington asked if I had a particular theme I would like to invoke as poet laureate. I answered without hesitation: The essential relationship between poetry and the living world, in all its forms, is the source and sustenance of all the arts.”
Merwin quoted a letter written by his lifelong hero William Blake, the English poet and painter who lived from 1757 to 1827: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my propositions. And some see no nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”
The poet laureate continued, “More than 200 years after Blake’s statement, I tend to be cautious about using words such as nature and environment, because to me they usually suggest that we are distinct from what they refer to. But what about this imagination that Blake refers to with such regard?”
Merwin explained that others have cited reason, language or the possession of a soul as traits that render man superior to all other forms of life, whether animal or botanical. “Each of these has been used to assert our sole right to have dominion over, to dominate, exploit and destroy any and every other form of life, yet each of the special qualities seem to me partial and dubious.
“I’ve come to think that if there is a single capacity or trait that distinguishes our species, our true gift—because of the persistence of it, being present among us, and the authority it assumes even in the context of falsehood—must be the imagination.
“Imagination gives us the capacity to feel stress upon hearing of the abuse of a child in another country; or the torment of an animal one has never seen; to grieve at the fate of polar bears and to grieve about the homeless in Darfur. I think this is our talent. This is what is us—the imagination to rejoice in the happiness of others and in the surroundings, even told in another place and in another time,” Merwin said.
He urged the audience to use that talent—the imagination—and to respect it, honor it and make it a part of their lives. “If you don’t, it will turn against you,” he said.
“I think that’s what we’re seeing now. We’re seeing the exact opposite of what we’re talking about. We’re seeing greed and anger running the world.
“The imagination that we’re talking about made Mother Theresa and it made Mozart. It made Shakespeare and it made Albert Schweitzer. This is exceptional, but it’s still us. How are we going to live up to that?”
After his discussion on the importance of imagination, Merwin read his poems. He included poems that were 50 years old, poems from his recent book “The Shadow of Sirius” and a handful of brand-new poems.
The evening finished with a reception and book-signing in the Great Hall.
Donna Urschel is a writer-editor in the Library’s Office of Communications.