Thursday, July 1, 2010

W.S. Merwin: New U.S. Poet Laureate

W.S. Merwin has been nominated as the country's 17th poet laureate. "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. We are very happy about the nomination because Merwin, in addition to being an exceptional poet, is someone who has always stood up for peace and the environment.

During the Second World War, Merwin enlisted in the Navy but then discovered he was a pacifist. He asked to be put in the brig, saying that he had made "a terrible mistake" by enlisting, but instead was confined to the psychiatric ward of a naval hospital in 1946 for the rest of his military service. He talked about this experience during an interview on the NPR program Fresh Air. Merwin told his interviewer he was uncertain how his father, who had been a Presbyterian military chaplain, would handle the news, but that his father came to visit him in the hospital and told him he had to follow his conscience.

Merwin was deeply affected by the Vietnam War and the brutal police violence towards anti-war protestors at home. Upon receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for The Carrier of Ladders, he wrote in The New York Review of Books:

I've been informed that I have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for 1971.

I am pleased to know of the judges' regard for my work, and I want to thank them for their wish to make their opinion public.

But after years of the news from Southeast Asia, and the commentary from Washington, I am too conscious of being an American to accept public congratulation with good grace, or to welcome it except as an occasion for expressing openly a shame
which many Americans feel, day after day, helplessly and in silence.

I want the prize money to be equally divided between Alan Blanchard (Cinema Repertory Theater, Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, California)— a painter who was blinded by a police weapon in California while he was watching American events from a roof, at a distance — and the Draft Resistance.

Here are a couple of Merwin's best known anti-war poems:

The Asians Dying

When the forests have been destroyed their darkness remains
The ash the great walker follows the possessors
Nothing they will come to is real
Nor for long
Over the watercourses
Like ducks in the time of the ducks
The ghosts of the villages trail in the sky
Making a new twilight

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead
Again again with its pointless sound
When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

The nights disappear like bruises but nothing is healed
The dead go away like bruises
The blood vanishes into the poisoned farmlands
Pain the horizon
Overhead the seasons rock
They are paper bells
Calling to nothing living

The possessors move everywhere under Death their star
Like columns of smoke they advance into the shadows
Like thin flames with no light
They with no past
And fire their only future

(Incidentally, this poem has just been given an amateur rap treatment on YouTube by some young ladies at the G20/G8 protest in wonders what the poet would think...)

When the War Is Over

When the war is over
We will be proud of course the air will be
Good for breathing at last
The water will have been improved the salmon
And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly
The dead will think the living are worth it we will know
Who we are
And we will all enlist again

In addition to his pacifism, W.S. Merwin has distinguished himself as an environmentalist in Hawaii, where he resides. He served as one of the directors of Environment Hawai'i for many years, though he has not been on the board for several years. He tried to reforestate his own property which had been a former sugar cane and pineapple plantation and in the mid-1990s, he helped to organize a watershed preservation conference that was held in Keanae on Maui, Waipio on the Big Island and Waiahole on Oahu.

W.S. Merwin has also done a lot of literary translation on the advice he received from poet Ezra Pound in his youth. Says Merwin: "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 works in all of the major romance languages, including such classics as Dante's Purgatorio, El Poema de Mio Cid, and Le Chanson de Roland. Here is one of the poems from his translation of Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair:

Tonight I Can Write

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, 'The night is starry
and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.'

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is starry and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight tries to find her as though to bring her closer.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. As she was before my kisses.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.


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