Setting aside an evening to listen to a poet read his work is as much of a privilege as joining an artist in his studio and watching him paint, noting the order of colors on his palette, the position of the brush in his hand, the time he takes between strokes. W.S. Merwin’s recent reading at the Hammer Museum was a chance to hear a poetry master’s words from his own lips, and verified the museum’s commitment to a form rooted in oral tradition. “You don’t come to poetry by reading, but by hearing,” said Merwin, forgiving those who have never been drawn to poetry because it has only been presented to them on the page.
Merwin, whose father was a Presbyterian minister, started off writing hymns as a child, and the certain, beckoning timbre of his voice refers to an oral tradition that relies on eloquence and persuasion, as though he could be perched at a podium in the hull of a church, his lines rising, composed of words we’ve known all along but spoken in new tones and configurations.
These days it is easy to believe that the direction of modern language is not on the side of poetry. Reading is less of a communal activity, and while things can be forwarded at the click of a mouse, it is a less memorable experience compared to someone sharing his or her favorite line out loud.
Merwin admitted that the future of language “is not a happy subject.”
“The prognostic is not good,” he said honestly in front of a room packed with graying heads and a generous handful of students.
Much of Merwin’s poetry deals with the subject of the natural world, but he makes it clear that he doesn’t appreciate being labeled an environmentalist. “We speak of the natural world and the environment as though they are separate from us.” As a child, Merwin said, he was fascinated by the overlapping of the natural and the urban world. He recalled walking through his neighborhood in Union City, New Jersey, with his mother, and marveling at the sight of bright-green blades of grass popping up through the stone-paved street, realizing that “the Earth was under all that.”
Merwin’s life and work have always been a tug, not of war, but of place. Born in New York in 1927, he was raised mainly in Union City and Scranton, Pennsylvania, moving to Hawaii in the ’70s to study Buddhism. There, he settled on an old banana plantation to restore the land.
Unlike Celan and Ferlinghetti, who wrote about and lived for cities, or Gary Snyder and other poets who have chosen a life of rural isolation, Merwin has always been attracted to both. “When I’m in the country, I miss the city sometimes,” he says. “When I’m in the city, I miss the country all of the time.”
Although his first collection was published back in 1952, Merwin is by no means a poet of the past. His latest collection, The Shadow of Sirius, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and Merwin told an adoring audience at the Hammer that he always makes sure he has a new work in progress before he publishes one. A book of collected poems, especially, can feel like a tombstone, he said, and he constantly moves forward with new work.
He says reviewers have seen his latest collection as a book about memory, but it’s really about “not knowing.”
UCLA English professor Stephen Yenser introduced Merwin, focusing on the poet’s relationship with writer Robert Graves, whose son Merwin tutored in Majorca. The very danger for language, Merwin seems to suggest, is a general lack of curiosity or reverence for things we don’t understand. “Everything we know comes from what we don’t know,” he said, suggesting that while many writers, including Snyder, didn’t like Graves’ work, it is still useful to read it. “He’s not part of our surround, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from him.”
Merwin began his reading with early poems and worked forward chronologically, picking poems from Migration: New and Collected Poems, The Shadow of Sirius close at hand. He addressed the audience with a modest wisdom, sharing stories between poems, joking about age. When a woman fainted halfway through the reading, Merwin stopped mid-poem, removed his glasses and stepped down from the podium. She was weak, the audience stirred, and the reading was pronounced over.
Merwin packed up his books, checked in on the patient as she was whisked away in a wheelchair, and trudged upstairs to sign books. “We live the shadow of our lives,” he had said earlier, referring to the title of his collection, named after the dark space around the brightest star. “What we’re living is metaphor.”
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