By DONNA URSCHEL
W.S. Merwin, at his May 4 poetry reading at the Library of Congress, told the capacity audience in the Coolidge Auditorium that he had a specific message to convey as U.S. poet laureate. It was a message concerning both the natural world and one’s inner world.
“Last year, when I accepted the position of poet laureate, I was aware of the great honor,” Merwin said. “But my reason, above all, to accept it was that I wanted to say something. It is a unique opportunity to say something that has been a part of my life since I was a small child. Something I couldn’t put into words as a child, but something that has been a point on my compass all my life.
“It has to do with what makes us human—what distinguishes us from other species. It’s not intelligence. For me, it was and always has been, without any doubt, the imagination.”
Merwin said that imagination enables us to feel compassion for other people, for plants and for animals. It is the source of creativity for the arts, for the environment and for humanitarian efforts.
The poet laureate lamented: “We are now losing species every few seconds and this is irreplaceable. Climate change—largely our fault—is getting worse more rapidly than we realize. We cut down the forests of North America, and we skinned 90 million beavers for the riches of a few.”
Merwin continued, “We are encouraged to value knowledge at the expense of many other parts of our world, and this becomes our arrogance. Our knowledge is wonderful and we’re lucky to have it, but it’s tiny, compared to what is not known.
“Nature is not something that’s out there. Nature is who we are. If we forget that, then it really doesn’t matter what happens to us. As long as we remember this, it matters very much.”
The May 4 reading closed the 2010–11 literary season.
Merwin read 18 poems dealing with the natural world and the mysteries of life. The first one was “Nomad Flute,” which begins:
“You that sang to me once sing to me now/ let me hear your long lifted note/ survive with me/ the star is fading/…”
“Anniversary on the Island” was his second poem. “I want to run through poems about where I’ve been living for nearly 40 years,” said Merwin, who lives on the north side of Maui with his wife, Paula. They have raised a forest of endangered palm trees on land that used to be a ruined and barren pineapple plantation.
“I love Hawaii, and I love it more all the time. The tourist industry pushes the Mai Tais and bikinis, but that’s not what’s there. Hawaii is one of the last great places. It’s a joy to be there,” Merwin said.
His third poem was “Unwritten.” The poet laureate said, “This poem is related to what I was saying about knowing and not knowing. All that we know is essential and important to us, and we do good and bad things with it. But the imagination, in all its respects, we don’t know where it comes from. It comes from itself, and that’s amazing.”
An excerpt from “Unwritten”:
“Inside this pencil/ crouch words that have never been written/ never been spoken/ never been taught/ they’re hiding/ they’re awake in there/ dark in the dark/ hearing us/ …”
Merwin read “Yesterday,” a poem about loss, which he said is another sense of the unknown. It begins: “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/ even when I was living in the same city he says/ maybe I would go there once/ a month or maybe even less/ I say oh yes/ …”
Another poem about loss followed, “The Blind Seer of Ambon,” about herbalist Georg Everard Rumphius, who suffered greatly, losing his scholarly works, his wife, his daughter and his eyesight.
There were more poems about Hawaii, including “Empty Water,” “Chord” and “Waking to the Rain.” Merwin also read poems about language: “Losing a Language” and “Hearing the Names of the Valleys.”
He read an excerpt from the book-length poem “The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative,” about the Hawaiian Ko’olau, who contracted leprosy, along with his son, and refused to be isolated on Molokai.
Merwin read several recent poems, including “Convenience,” “Chained to Her Leg” and “A Message to Po Chi-I.”
He also read what he said were “two poems that have to do with so much in my life.” One was “Witness,” a very short poem, hitting on two concerns of Merwin’s, nature and language:
“I want to tell what the forests/ were like/ I will have to speak/ in a forgotten language/.”
The second poem was “Place,” which begins, “On the last day of the world/ I would want to plant a tree.”
He ended the reading with “Waves in August” and “Rain Light.” The audience, entranced by his wise and luminous words, gave the master of poetry a standing ovation. A reception and book signing followed in the Great Hall.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Office of Communications.