W.S. Merwin is a Poet-Provocateur for Our Times
The problem with poetry is that most of us don't really know what it is anymore. In the early 1970s, some rock music critic convinced us that song lyrics were every bit as poetic as Homer, Blake, Yeats, Rimbaud and Gwendolyn Brooks. That idea caught on to the point that we came to assume a poem had four-line stanzas with a neat rhyme at the end of each, a cadence that fit conveniently to a backbeat, and that it ought to be about youthful romance or roaring down the highway with carefree exuberance.
And once we got used to regarding rock stars as the bards of our age, we paid less attention to actual poets--the rumpled, unglamorous iconoclasts who dared to twist and stretch the language into an asymmetrical, rough-edged disquieting tangle that might compel us to look at the world in a different way. They were disorderly agitators, rushing the ramparts of our preconceptions and rationalizations and making trouble. Who wanted to deal with that? It was too much work. Baby, we were born to run.
That's why I'm so excited to see W.S. Merwin chosen as the nation's 17th poet laureate. Merwin, 82, is one of those old-school poet-provocateurs who writes complicated, messy poems that take chances and probe uncomfortable truths. He got his start as a writer in the early 1950s, when W.H. Auden discovered him and selected his first book of verse, A Mask for Janus, as winner of the Yale Younger Poets prize. Critics heaped plaudits on the young man's work, noting how he deftly drew upon classical and medieval influences and emulated their rhythms and sense of order. Merwin quickly rose in the literary world, and he could have coasted from there, ensconcing himself in academia and churning more of the same sort of skillful, interestingly derivative verse. Instead, Merwin went in a radically different direction. He began experimenting with irregular forms and to probe darker, more dangerous territory. In the late 1960s he began publishing stark, disturbing poems such as "The Asians Dying," an indictment of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
When Merwin won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971, he donated his cash award to support the anti-war movement. That activism embarrassed and irked his mentor, Auden, who published a rebuttal in which he argued that the prize was intended to be apolitical. But Merwin wasn't just against the war. He portrayed it as a part of modern civilization's cruel callousness, a moral bankruptcy that threatened to destroy not just human lives, but the planet itself. His poem, "For a Coming Extinction," includes this passage:
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing
I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you
Tell him that we were made
On another day
In the decades since he wrote those words, Merwin has resettled in Hawaii at the edge of a dormant volcano, where he spent years restoring an abandoned pineapple farm to its original rainforest state. In this excellent 1995 New York Times profile, Dinita Smith writes that Merwin transformed himself as well, into "the 19th-century Romantic ideal of the poet at one with nature." He's continued to produce mind-opening work such as his 2007 collection Migration, winner of the National Book Award. He's still a voice who can help us to look at the world anew and dare to ask the right questions. He's a reminder that poetry ought to shake us up, at least a little. We need that.
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