Under the stone sky the water waits with all its songs inside it
— from W.S. Merwin’s “The Well,” in the collection The Carrier of Ladders
REVERENT POET: The much-admired poet W.S. Merwin returns to Santa Barbara as the crown jewel of another extensive April Poetry Month. On this visit, he serves as distinguished visiting fellow at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies and will read from his work at Campbell Hall at 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 13.
The first recipient of the prestigious Tanning Prize — not to mention the Bollingen, Pulitzer, and Ruth Lily awards — Merwin has most recently won the National Book Award for his gleanings from a life’s work in the 400 poems of Migration: Selected Poems 1951-2001. His stylistic brilliance lives at ease with a depth of subject and a clarity of suggestion unrivaled among the greatest poets of our day, or of any other day for that matter.
Autobiographical and intimate, Merwin’s writings marvel at the mystery of our presence in a world of pain and outrage, beauty and wonder, releasing a shimmering vibrancy like tuning forks struck on the rock of the real. Among poets he is a spiritual force, a lover and protector of daily being in this fragile existence we share. His art nourishes us by its marriage of subtle perception and plain speaking. Listen to a few lines from an evocation of springtime from his collection The River Sound. The poem “Before a Departure in Spring” concludes in a garden:
just risen from darkness and days of rain …
it is only a moment the birds fly through it calling to each other and are gone with their few notes and the flash of their flight that had vanished before we ever knew it we watch without touching any of it and we can tell ourselves only that this is April this is the morning this never happened before and we both remember it
“Poetry is physical,” the poet pointed out in an interview. “As Pound said, poetry has one pole in reason and one pole in music. It’s like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of a joke, you’ve lost the whole thing.”
A master at getting words right, Merwin has been much honored, too, for his extensive translating — most recently of Dante’s Purgatorio and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — and for his ecological activism, where again he offers us a healing force. When he recently won the Orion Society’s John Hay Award for Nature Writing and Eco-Consciousness, the occasion’s citation pointed out how “lightly he lives on the land” in his home in Maui with its restored plantation in progress and its garden of 600 types of endangered palms.
In personal projects and political engagement with environmental causes, Merwin displays a concern for the peril of the planet in a rapacious era; if he cannot restore the rain forests, he can “plant a tree every day.” His very life exemplifies the care that makes him a crucial writer for our time.
“Reverence” seems the crucial word for this man’s engagement and for his art; reverence for the planet, for what grows and for those who move upon it; reverence for the poetic, knowing that it brings us back again and again, with profound simplicity, to our best selves.
Let me conclude with the final words from the poem “To the Words” in this year’s Merwin book, Present Company:
you that were formed to begin with you that were cried out you that were spoken to begin with to say what could be said
ancient precious and helpless ones
4•1•1 W.S. Merwin reads from his work on Thursday, April 13 at 8 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535.