A master gardener of verse
Despite more than 20 books of poetry and a Pulitzer Prize, W.S. Merwin sounds more confident about his tree-planting than his writing. In fact, this major American poet, long known as a master craftsman, insists that he may never write again: "Poetry can't be done as an act of will. You can't say, 'I will now write a poem.' "
Still, each morning Merwin does write, always on scrap paper - "It has to be a piece of paper that is worthless. The idea of taking a blank sheet would be very intimidating." Later, he plants a few palm trees, some of which are rare or extinct except in captivity, on his 18 acres in Maui, Hawaii. The land was almost ruined, he says, when it was used unsuccessfully to raise pineapples in the 1930s.
Merwin doesn't view his endeavors as two forms of restoring a landscape, but those who know his writing could easily draw that conclusion. He is, after all, a poet who renders images and places with great precision. He feels deep connections to the environment. And like the great haiku masters, he sees both the present moment and something more eternal:
a man with his eyes shut swam upward
through dark water and came to air
it was the horizon
he felt his way along it and it opened
and let the sun out
(From "The Dreamers")
Merwin's attention to detail permeates both his forms of "cultivation." He can speak at length, for example, about the trees he plants, some of which are only two feet tall at maturity. "You can fall in love with palms because they're incredibly ancient," he says. "They go back at least 60 million years, yet they're still evolving. Palms can be grown quite close to each other, and when they grow up they make a canopy, but they work out their relationships with each other very well."
Working out relationships is something Merwin does with every poem. He begins with a sound, he says, "some phrase or sentence that suddenly seems to be very much alive, but I don't know where it is going. I find out by listening."
This listening leads him to the shape of the poem and even to the images. "Imagery is something that one can hear suddenly in the language, but very often you don't notice it," he says.
His ear developed, in part, because of the hymns and Bible stories he heard as the son of a Presbyterian minister. "I tried to write hymns when I was 4 or 5," he says.
His environmental awareness also dates back to childhood, as does his attachment to landscapes - and his acute sense of loss when they disappear.
Merwin's father was "very severe," he recalls, and his childhood was "very, very restricted." There were few things he could do to get away from that house, that world. Going for hikes in the mountains near his Scranton, Penn. home was "one of the things I could do," he remembers. "I suppose those places came to represent freedom, beauty, and some sort of exhilaration."
But on his 11th birthday, he went for a hike with a friend, and when they got to a ridge in the mountains, "the whole valley was gone. It had been strip- mined."
Even now, more than 60 years later, he still recalls "the horror and grief and rage and unspeakable emotions that I felt at that destruction, the complete obliteration of a place that would never be there again."
The experience "became part of a theme that was running through my life," he says. "I had nowhere to put it; I still don't." But again, readers would disagree. Some of Merwin's most famous poems deal with this very subject:
Well they cut everything because why not.
Everything was theirs because they thought so.
It fell into its shadows and they took both away.
Some to have some for burning.
(From "The Lost")
The principle that guides Merwin's writing is simple: Always find something surprising. Let the language blossom in a new way each time. Over the years, this has led to profound changes in his style and approach. In his early books, Merwin's poetry was tight and traditional. Later work, however, was hazier, more abstract, more experimental. Punctuation completely disappeared. Some critics called the work obscure. The challenge in achieving clarity, Merwin says, is that poetry "tries to convey some inner experience that there is no way of expressing. Language evolved not to convey information so much as to convey some inner experience that there was no way of expressing. It was an attempt to convey an inner sense of passion - although it did have information in it - but the feeling was more powerful."
That mystery can never be unraveled, Merwin says, but he has searched for tools that help him gain greater control of language. Translating - from Latin, French, Spanish, and Portuguese - has been one of his best teachers, because it has shown him different ways of linking words, and over the years Merwin has become one of America's most acclaimed translators.
But no matter what he tackles, from Dante's "Inferno" to the poems of Anonymous, Merwin lets himself be guided by sound. "I simply pay attention to the words," he says, "listening for the life in the language." Once he finds that life, he looks for ways to convey it in English, to capture some sense of what the original poet tried to express. Call it cultivation with a foreign twist, or saving landscapes that would otherwise be lost to English readers. Either way, translation has given Merwin even deeper "roots" that extend back through the ages and across oceans.
But no matter what time or place his writing may inhabit, Merwin himself prefers to stay firmly planted on Maui with his wife, Paula, and his two chows, Muku and Makana. He leaves home this week to do several readings and lectures before heading to France (where he once lived) for several weeks.
The last time he left the island, he flew to Washington to read in protest against what he calls the unjustified Iraq war. As a Buddhist and pacifist, he couldn't stand silent while more life and habitat was being lost. "Poets are supposedly thoughtful people," he observes, "and I can't imagine feeling completely indifferent to or divorced from history."
Merwin fans would never describe the writer this way. After all, his commitment to replanting his land springs from his awareness of how the island once looked and how difficult it would be to re-create an authentic tropical rain forest. Tree by tree and poem by poem, however, this master craftsman will save what he can.
To come back like autumn
to the moss on the stones
after many seasons...
is to waken backward
down through the still water
knowing without touching
all that was ever there
and has been forgotten....
(From "Under the Day")
• Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry regularly for the Monitor and helps coordinate the paper's online poetry site, www.csmonitor.com/poetry.