W.S. Merwin, Hawaii-based poet, will serve as 17th U.S. laureate

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2010; C01

W.S. Merwin, one of this country's most distinguished, decorated and productive poets, has been named the 17th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry of the United States.

The position, created in 1985, is mostly honorary and awarded by the Library of Congress to recognize poetic merit. Poet laureates generally serve from one to two years, appear occasionally at the library's literary events, and usually promote the role and importance of poetry in American cultural life.

Merwin, who was born in 1927 and lives in Hawaii, has twice won the Pulitzer Prize, most recently in 2009 for his collection "The Shadow of Sirius." Over a 60-year career, he has consistently explored the usual poetic themes -- man's relation to the natural world, memory and the mix of resignation and wisdom that makes life bearable. But he has done so with uncommon rigor, clarity, ecstatic vision and depth.

Merwin's poetry makes powerful connections between the sense of self, the elusive transparency of the present moment, the natural world and the numinous beyond. In a 1967 poem, he described what he called the "anniversary of my death."

"Every year without knowing it I have passed the day/When the last fires will wave to me/And the silence will set out/Tireless traveler," he wrote, in the unpunctuated form that has defined his style. "Then I will no longer/Find myself in life as in a strange garment . . . "

"William Merwin is universally regarded as a premier figure in the literary world," Librarian of Congress James Billington said in a statement. "His poems are often profound and, at the same time, accessible to a vast audience." The Librarian of Congress selects the poet laureate. Previous writers to hold the title include Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, Rita Dove, Joseph Brodsky, Robert Pinsky and, most recently, Kay Ryan.

"I am very happy to do it at a time when there is someone that I respect so much in the White House," Merwin said from Hawaii, where he has lived since 1976. "One always hopes that one is going to draw more attention to poetry and get more people to pay attention to it," he said, but added, "I am not primarily a disseminator. I just like to write poems."

Merwin, who was born in New York and educated at Princeton, was recognized early by W.H. Auden, who selected Merwin's first book for publication in 1952. But Merwin came into his own as a poet during the volatile years of the Vietnam War. When he was first awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1971, he used the occasion to speak out passionately against the war and alienated Auden in the process. He has embraced environmentalism and spent decades helping to reforest the former pineapple plantation he calls home. He maintains a genial but distant relationship with American literary life.

"I love leading a very, very quiet life, and then having little binges of seeing other people," Merwin said. "I love them both. I don't want to have either of them all the time." Perhaps his poetry, steeped in myth and tradition but deeply personal and meditative, reflects that dichotomy.

Dana Gioia, a poet who also served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and is now director of the Harman-Eisner Program in the Arts at the Aspen Institute, said that Merwin was "an inevitable choice" and "one of the last great members of the generation of the 1920s that has dominated American poetry." Gioia distinguishes three recurring themes and traits in Merwin's work: a sense of internationalism, a deep engagement with myth and religious vision, and a fascination with the natural world.

"There is something monklike about Merwin," Gioia said. "He is trying to achieve a contemplative distance from desire and ambition."

In an interview Tuesday, Merwin remembered turning points in his life. His father, a Presbyterian minister, had a church in Union City, N.J., overlooking Hoboken, which was then a busy port. Merwin remembers watching the river from on high.

"I could just spend all afternoon gazing at the river," he said, which may have inspired his early love of the novels of Joseph Conrad. It also made him restless for a life beyond the "rather claustrophobic" one he seemed destined for as a child.

After deciding to be a poet, he went to visit Ezra Pound, then incarcerated at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington (for his support of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini during World War II).

"I didn't know about his politics, fortunately," said Merwin, who was a pacifist and incarcerated in a naval mental hospital near the end of the second world war, according to an interview he gave to NPR in April 2009. "He said: Translate. You haven't got anything to write at 18, and you have to write every day. The only way to do it is to learn languages and translate." Merwin has translated ever since, from French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, among other languages.

Merwin's encounter with Buddhism also had a profound impact on his life, though he describes it with chicken-and-egg ambiguity: "Did I become interested in Buddhism because it was going to change me, or because of some affinity I found in Buddhism?"

The power of poetry, and art in general, to connect us more deeply with ourselves, rather than the empty rodomontade and blather of public life, is fundamental to Merwin's mix of ecological and personal vision. A sonnet by Shakespeare, or a painting by Picasso, says Merwin, "belongs to each of us in a completely distinct and original way."

And that is deeply political.

"It means you are paying attention to it as yourself," he says, not as someone merely mouthing the platitudes of public discourse.

Merwin, who travels to the mainland about twice a year, says he will visit the Library of Congress, give readings and participate in public sessions.

"I like the Q and A format best of all," he says, "because people get to ask their own questions."

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