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A master gardener of verse

By Elizabeth Lund / April 24, 2003

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.' "

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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: