It was an otherwise mundane Thursday night in February, but when Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin began to read at Campbell Hall, channeling something ancient and luminous and absolutely necessary, grace shone upon us. A thin man with a fine-boned face and a cloud of white hair, Merwin is the creator of an epic body of work that acknowledges our connection to all of life, and views the world with astonishment and clarity, reverence and profound love.
Santa Barbaran Barry Spacks started the evening with an elegant introduction. “Merwin’s writings marvel at a realm of pain and outrage, beauty and wonder,” said Spacks, “releasing a vibrancy like tuning-forks struck on the rock of the real.” Then Merwin read chronologically, choosing among poems that span more than fifty years, beginning with “Learning A Dead Language” (What you remember saves you…) and including a few recent ones that have not appeared in books, such as “How It Happens”, which opens:
The sky said I am watching
to see what you
can make out of nothing
I was looking up and I said
I thought you
were supposed to be doing that
Between readings, he was informal, wise, and generous, sharing background, context, and insights. He spoke about a beloved rural area in France he has returned to since his twenties, and the loss of geographic continuity among Americans. He shared thoughts on where poetry comes from, the centrality of imagination that is uniquely human, and dogs as guiding spirits.
But mostly he read his poems, and when he did, he cast a spell. They sounded at times like hymns, exquisitely haunting, and they filled our souls. There was “Green Fields”, for example, with its intentional feel of elegy, or the stunning “Rain Light” from his 2009 book, The Shadow of Sirius, (see how they wake without a question/even though the whole world is burning) or “Youth”, which addresses through memory that elusive state we cannot recognize until it is gone, and concludes: from what we cannot hold the stars are made
“Yesterday” evoked the familiar pain of missing one’s father and wondering what could have ever been more important than spending time with him. “To Paula in Late Spring” expressed the depth of a love no-longer-young. More than once, I was moved to tears, and all around me I saw people leaning forward, heads down, drinking in the words, being nourished. I left with these lines from “The Nomad Flute” still playing in my heart:
I have with me
all that I do not know
I have lost none of it