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Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin: Doing the Impossible

The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner accepted an appointment as U.S. poet laureate so he could offer just one simple warning.

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The Laughing Thrush
O nameless joy of the morning

tumbling upward note by note out of
the night
and the hush of the dark valley
and out of whatever has not been there

song unquestioning and unbounded
yes this is the place and the one time
in the whole of before and after
with all of memory waking into it

and the lost visages that hover
around the edge of sleep
constant and clear
and the words that lately have fallen silent
to surface among the phrases of some future
if there is a future

here is where they all sing the first daylight
whether or not there is anyone listening
—W.S. Merwin

“The Laughing Thrush,” From The Shadow of Sirius, copyright 2009 by
W.S. Merwin, published by Copper Canyon Press.

Drive past the white fence, across from the barn, there’s an unmarked gravel road. Pull in, park, and then walk downhill through a palm forest. Pass the enormous compost pile where the humus from palm fronds and other debris will help regenerate the soil of this former pineapple plantation. Then call out! W.S. Merwin will appear and show you the way. Those were, more or less, the directions YES! board member Puanani Burgess and I used to find the simple home on Maui of the 17th poet laureate of the United States. If we had arrived some years earlier, we would have found eroded soil and few trees. Instead, as we sat on the porch overlooking a rainforest planted and tended by Merwin, it was as though the birds whose songs filled the air had always been there. Perhaps they had. They just needed a poet to reclaim the ruined landscape. As we left later that evening, Merwin gave each of us a signed copy of The Shadow of Sirius, the book of poems that earned him his second Pulitzer Prize in 2009—just one of many awards he’s won for his poetry and prose.

Sarah van Gelder: Your place here is so peaceful and clearly makes a wonderful place for writing. Why did you accept the appointment as United States poet laureate?

W.S. Merwin: They gave me two months to think about it, and I thought I would like to say, once, something that I don’t think is said enough:

I think that as a species we’re in a very dangerous place. I’m not optimistic about it at all. I think it’s because of an attitude we’ve got which is deeply ingrained, which is that we have some right to treat all the rest of life just the way it suits us and throw it away when it doesn’t profit us at all. I don’t think that’s realistic. I don’t think that’s true.

I think that the thing that distinguishes the human species is the imagination—the ability to imagine people suffering in Darfur, and the whales dying in the Pacific, and the little girl getting a prize in China for playing a piece of Mozart. These don’t touch on us immediately, this afternoon, but they do.

I thought I’d like to get a chance to say that. I’d like to say it once, and then be quiet about it.

What's the point of talking about it and not doing anything in your own life about it?

van Gelder: If you met President Obama, what would you like to say to him?

Merwin: I did have a chance. He asked me about the laureateship, and I said what I just told you about the imagination and life as a whole. He said, “I’ll go along with everything you say.” That’s what he says privately.

van Gelder: But as we’re having these conversations, we continue to soak the atmosphere with carbon and acidify the oceans, and this is moving so rapidly, and we don’t seem to be able to work this out among ourselves.

Merwin: I think it’s important to think about those things in large terms—globally and all of that. But it’s also important to try to deal with them right in your own life.

This house—we’ve had solar electricity from the very beginning and our own water supply. I think it’s important to do those things. Ecologist friends would come out and say, “You really have solar electricity?” What’s the point of talking about it and not doing anything in your own life about it?

van Gelder: What does it matter what one person does?

W.S. Merwin photo by Tony Novak-Clifford

W.S. Merwin, at his home on a former pineapple plantation in Maui, Hawai'i.

Photo by Tony Novak-Clifford.

Merwin: When I was 18, I refused to obey orders in the Navy. When I got in, having enlisted when I was 17, I was training to be a pilot, and I realized that I didn’t believe in organized violence. I just hated the whole idea. I didn’t want to be trained to be a killer.

I got more and more upset about it and finally refused to obey orders. I asked to be put in the brig. I spent about seven months in the psycho ward. They were trying to scare me.

My father came; he was a chaplain in the Army. He’d come back—the war was over by then—and he came up to talk to me. We never got along very well. He’d been very severe and difficult as a father. I told him what I’d done and why. He said, “If those are your convictions then you must have the courage of your convictions.” I thought that was pretty good.

I said, “I don’t think I can end the violence in the world, but somebody has to try. If nobody tries, it’s never going to end.”

Puanani Burgess: That’s your great epitaph. “Somebody has to try.”

Merwin: All the things that really matter to us are impossible, you know. They say translation is impossible; sure it is. We do it because it’s necessary, not because it’s possible.

Writing poetry is impossible. I don’t know how to write a poem. A poem—there has to be part of it that is not my own will; it comes from somewhere that I don’t know. There is so much that comes out of what we don’t know and what we don’t have any control over. I think that one of the only things we can learn as we get older is a certain humility.

Burgess: So the alternative that you offer people in your poetry and in your life makes people think again about what is possible if you try.

van Gelder: One thing that struck me in reading your work was that, several decades ago, you were identifying the fragility of the human species and the damage we’re doing to the planet. More people are coming to realize that now, but quite late.

Merwin: I think it’s natural—literally, in every sense—to love being in the world around us.

When you get into the world of pure economics, where everybody’s supposed to be devoting their waking hours to making money ... if that’s the central thing in your life, it changes your value system completely. You certainly can see that. It makes you very selfish. You want to have it instead of somebody else having it. We’ve always had that side of us too.

van Gelder: How did you come to live like this, immersed in the Hawaiian landscape?

W.S. Merwin garden

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Merwin: I came here in the ’60s, and I thought it was wonderful and beautiful, but it wasn’t real to me. I came back in the ’70s, and I hung out here longer, met people, and got more and more interested in the place itself.

I love it more all the time. I take my tea leaves down first thing in the morning, as it’s getting daylight, to some little tree that I planted, and I walk back 10 minutes later, and I’m just happy.

I love seeing the individual trees. That one and that one and that one are all Hawaiian. The others, you know, that’s from New Guinea, and that’s from the Everglades. They’re all from all over the place. They get along together.

Burgess: This feels very much like Hawai‘i, you know. This and that all living together and figuring it out as they grow. What do you call this place?

Merwin: Peahi … It’s part of the district of Peahi. But Peahi Kahawai is our stream, which has been dry for 100 years thanks to Henry Perrine Baldwin, who cut off the water and drove the Hawaiians out. So the Hawaiians haven’t lived here for 100 years because of that.

A bunch of guys bought the whole valley in the ’20s and ’30s and decided they were going to make a pineapple plantation, and they plowed the whole valley vertically.

I wanted to have a native rainforest here. It was like planting things on the dirt road to begin with, it’s been so damaged. Paula and I planted about 300 Koa trees [a highly valued native Hawaiian species—Eds.] Very few of them survived, and the ones that did got killed off by weevils, which weren’t there back in the old days.

van Gelder: And the water that used to be in your creek? What was it diverted for?

Merwin: The big cane fields in the middle of the island. They had an incredibly sophisticated system of tunnels and ditches all along this coast. They stole every drop of water they possibly could.

The fight over the water—of all the Kahawai between here and Hana—is still going on. They’re still stealing water. They’ll have to be forced to stop—like on Oahu where there was the same old fight, with the developers on one side and the Hawaiians on the other.

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Burgess: Can I ask you what you want to happen to this place?

Merwin: Well, we made a conservancy. We’ll put a conservation easement on it to prevent any development. It’s to save the land and a Hawaiian grave down at the bottom here. I want to save that link with [old] Hawai‘i, however tenuous it is. And save the trees.

I’ve planted over 800 species of palms—many of them are rare and endangered. There’s one they say we saved here in this garden. It was technically extinct when we got the seeds, and the tree the seeds came from has never flowered again and probably won’t. I’ve grown enough of them to send to nurseries, so it’s back in circulation again.

We’re losing a species every eight or 10 seconds. That’s something you can’t put back. Nobody can put that back. So if we care about it, we’ve got to care a lot. It’s very important.

I would like to have this place saved as much as possible, just because of what it is and what it can reassure people of. It can be a place that people can come and think, “Oh yeah, the world is really here, still.”

That’s what I want. 


Sarah van GelderSarah van Gelder interviewed W.S. Merwin for New Livelihoods, the Fall 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is executive editor of YES!

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