In 1976, the poet W.S. Merwin ’48 bought a 20-acre patch of dirt, weeds, and ferns in Maui and decided to turn it into a palm forest. It was “exactly that simple,” says his wife, Paula, though even she can see how others might think it was absurd. Merwin had moved to Hawaii to study with a Buddhist master, and he and Paula decided to spend their lives there, closer to nature. And so they transformed their land — a failed pineapple plantation — by hand, hacking away at ferns with machetes and planting trees one at a time; shunning heavy bulldozers and backhoes that would have made their lives easier but further compacted the already ravaged earth. The point, after all, was not simply to have the forest, but to grow the forest.
Over the last three-plus decades, the land flourished so much that today it cannot be recognized for what it once was. The plantings grew acre by acre, and the land teems with life; Merwin still tends to most of the forest himself. More than 700 species of plants populate the forest, and dozens of species of rare or endangered palm trees — the poet has a network of growers who help him track down new ones all the time — house everything from geckos to raspy-voiced myna birds. Under the palms, it is hard to tell what time it is. It’s not dark — beams of sun permeate the canopy and dapple the forest floor — but the light is distinctly green and seems thicker than elsewhere.
The house Merwin built is invisible from the road, nestled halfway down a path on the lip of the dormant volcano Haleakala that winds mazelike into the valley of the forest. It juts out like a tree house into the palms, creating the impression of hovering in the canopy. He and Paula kept the house off the power grid, and electricity comes from the solar panels that cover the roof. He helped to design a series of water catchments, cisterns, and filters so that they get by using only rainwater, stockpiled during the wet season. Drought, Merwin admits, is inconvenient, but he is not about to start compromising now.
It is not in W.S. Merwin’s nature to compromise — just as he decided to plant a forest, he resolved, as a junior at Princeton, to be a poet and nothing but a poet. Over the years he has done just that — writing more than 30 books of poetry and prose, translating poetry written in other languages, and amassing some of poetry’s most important honors along the way, including the first Tanning Prize for “outstanding and proven mastery” in poetry in 1994, two Pulitzer Prizes (for The Shadow of Sirius in 2009 and The Carrier of Ladders in 1971), and the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry (for his retrospective collection Migration: New and Selected Poems). This summer, he was appointed national poet laureate by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington ’50, becoming the 17th poet to hold that position.
In the news release, Billington described Merwin’s poems as “often profound and, at the same time, accessible to a vast audience” — a poet who “leads us upstream from the flow of everyday things in life to half-hidden headwaters of wisdom about life itself.” Speaking to PAW, Billington cites the three-line poem “Separation,” a sparse yet deeply resonant work that Merwin wrote as a young man, in 1962:
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
The poem, Billington says, illustrates Merwin’s ability to create out of “something ordinary” an insightful observation about life, relationships, language, or nature.
Or, consider “For the Anniversary of My Death,” one of Merwin’s most frequently anthologized poems, written in 1967:
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
Though the poem’s subject is vast, its language is distilled. It expresses not only the sadness of mortality, but the strangeness and improbability of life to begin with, along with the connection to nature that defines so much of Merwin’s life. Such poems, Paula says, help explain why her husband often gets letters from “people writing from the depths of their hearts,” saying that “he’s been their companion for many years, through their lives or through difficult times.” He puts our anxieties into words.
Gentle, fiercely intelligent, and quick to laugh, Merwin, now 82, is willing to lead a conversation about his life and his writing through loops and digressions for hours. As a young child in working-class Union City, N.J., during the Great Depression, he found comfort in gazing at the Hudson River. A few times he accompanied his father, who could be distant and punitive, to study in the church where he was a Presbyterian minister, and young Merwin gazed through the window at the river, with the ferries and freighters passing by. He was, he writes in his 2005 memoir Summer Doorways, “utterly rapt in the vast scene out in front of me ... Whole trains were crossing the river on railroad ferries, all shades of orange in the sunlight. White puffs of steam climbed out of unseen whistles and horns, the distant sounds arriving, faint and faded, a long breath afterward. I was seeing something that I could not reach and that would never go away.” His love of the water would remain, fueling a desire to travel as well as a tug toward the author and mariner Joseph Conrad.
Merwin was moved by the rhymes and rhythm of the hymns in his father’s church, first in Union City and then in Scranton, Pa. He delighted in the poetry that his mother read aloud. For Merwin, poetry was first an aural sensation, and to this day he has a strong sense of the music of a poem and believes that a poem must be read aloud to be truly understood. The young boy began writing poems himself — “atrocious poetry, as children do,” he says of his earliest efforts — but he kept at it through adolescence.