ON Monday evening (May 16) W.S. Merwin will give a public reading as a participant in the Los Angeles Theater Center's Poetry/Literary Series. A longtime admirer on the wrong coast may envy the easy access to the poet's presence - for a mere $8! But lionization, even if it is the favorite way for journalism to pay homage to literature, can be a dangerous business for all concerned, catering to a taste for the more picturesque clich'es of an artist's biography adaptable to second-class novels and miniseries on TV.
Through four decades of writing his own poems (and translating those of others), Merwin has avoided bravura displays of personality. Let us follow his lead - enough of popping flash bulbs and autographs and those interviewer's questions! (``Do you use pen or typewriter or word processor - and where do you get your ideas?'') Surely the most appropriate way to celebrate this least assertive of Pulitzer Prize-winners on the occasion of his latest book of poems, ``The Rain in the Trees,'' is to pay attention to the text: the words.
With Merwin, the act of poetry begins as far as possible from the ego's self-obsession. The reader is brought aboard at an outer edge of the universe, as if it were the first day of creation. Indeed, verses are devoted to ``the first year,'' and ``the first day'' of the first year, and ``the first light'' of the first day.
Merwin is not a nature poet in the old-fashioned, serenading style, nor even in the usual sense of a contemporary poet, appropriating bits and pieces of the elements to serve as fixed symbols, like the artifacts of a Japanese garden. He writes too sparely to be either descriptive or philosophical. But everything starts from Genesis, as it were, with the world existing as an independent fact. Only then does the poet get down to the business of the poem, as if he wants to say: ``Not quite in the beginning is the word - or at least, my word.''
According to Merwin, the poet is the witness who sees the world for the first time and reports the perennial news: ``Here is ancient today/ itself/ the air the living air/ the still water.''
Trees hold a special meaning for Merwin as the oldest living material objects, stretching back in time, mystical ring by ring, while remaining so solidly in the present: ``In the morning you can look at any tree/ and see it has no age.''
When he comes to civilization, Merwin sees endings as well as beginnings - nothing but the temporal. In the razing of forests he measures the destructiveness and self-destructiveness of the human race: ``While Keats wrote they were cutting down the sandalwood forests/ while he listened to the nightingale they heard their own axes .../ when he lay with the odes behind him the wood was sold for cannons .../ and an age arrived when everything was explained in another language.''
A tree deserves the adjective sacred with Merwin, and in its systematic cutting down - in the turning of the universe into a man-made commodity - not only is the sacred tree lost, but the very meaning of the word sacred topples with it. Coming as close to bitterness as he allows himself, he asks: ``What is sacred about any place/ what is sacred about a language/ what is sacred''?
Language discovered and language lost - this, for Merwin, is the history of civilization.
In his shortest poem, titled ``Witness,'' he writes: ``I want to tell what the forests/ were like/ I will have to speak/ in a forgotten language.''
Words are ``made to prophesy,'' he observes in a poem titled significantly, ``Losing a Language.'' But what if sacred events are no longer sacred, he asks, what if - dulled to the meaning of a truly sacred event - ``nobody has seen it happening/ nobody remembers''?
Well, there is always Merwin - there is always the poet - being sacred, while the rest of us are being modern, a word Merwin despises and equates to forgetting, to losing the vision of the sacred.
And so he hangs on for dear life to his trees, he hangs on for dear life to his words.
``On the last day of the world/ I would want to plant a tree,'' he concludes. Or would he, being a poet, want to write a poem about planting a tree? And if he did it just so, would the two inspired acts prove to be the same thing?
A Wednesday and Friday column