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A Rage and Sorrow Undiminished by the Passage of Time

At 73, poet W.S. Merwin continues to find new ways to shape the language.

May 30, 2001|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA JOLLA — In an era in which the popular view--bred from poetry slams and other populist movements--holds that poetry is the collision of rhyme and fury, W.S. Merwin stands apart. To him, poetry is a discipline, and the art of wrestling words into meaning and taming your emotions is the work of a lifetime, not a diversion.

From his early formalism to his later lyricism and then romanticism and now to narrative and political activism, he has for five decades been praised as one of America's most original voices in poetry, translations and criticism.

So just how important is Merwin, who will soon have his 45th volume published? Important enough that Carol Muske Dukes, poet and creative writing professor at USC, says simply, "Merwin's influence on all of us is tremendous." And J.D. McClatchy, poetry editor of the Yale Review, credits him with returning "narrative grandeur" to American poetry.

In fact, he's important enough that there is a joke in literary circles that if Merwin has not won a particular prize, it obviously is not worth winning.

A Merwin poem is often a cry of pain or despair or indignation as passionate as any coffeehouse oracle but crafted in a tight, spare manner, a controlled anger that informs much of his work.

In "The River of Bees," he writes:

He was old he is not real

nothing is real

Nor the noise of death drawing

water

We are the echo of the future

On the door it says what to do to

survive

But we were not born to survive

Only to live

This October, Merwin's longtime publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, will issue "The Pupil," a collection with such disparate themes as the government-sponsored torture of bears in Pakistan and the beating death of a young gay man in Wyoming. "Few poets remain active after a certain age," said Peter Davison, poetry editor of the Atlantic Monthly. "What is extraordinary about Merwin is that he remains prolific, always cutting-edge, always pushing out to new things."

At an age--73--when he might be expected to relax on his plantation in Hawaii and assume emeritus status, Merwin has instead launched on one of the most productive periods of his career, finding new forms, new themes, new causes. A gracious man with an unassuming stage presence, Merwin occasionally ventures to the mainland to read his own words to kindred souls and to speak quietly but passionately about the need for poetry in American life, for children and adults.

"Children love the sound of words, not the rational communication maybe, but something in the words themselves," he said recently before a reading here. "Somehow that gets discouraged in this country during the course of their lives, which is [tragic]."

On stage at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, Merwin, his once dark and unruly hair having long since matured into a distinguished white, looks positively professorial--an irony since, unlike many poets, he has steadfastly avoided seeking a university sinecure. "I didn't want to become dependent upon an academic career or an academic community; I would have found that claustrophobic," Merwin said. "I tried to live a more free world and have a lot of existence."

Two years ago Merwin released his translation of Dante's "Divine Comedy." Just a year earlier he had published perhaps his most ambitious work: a 330-page poetic narrative of 19th century Hawaii, "The Folding Cliffs."

The environmental rape of Hawaii remains a poetic and political concern of overriding significance for Merwin. From archival sources, "The Folding Cliffs" tells of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by a coup backed by the U.S. government, the economic subjugation of the Hawaiian people and the ruthless internment of Hawaiians afflicted with leprosy (a disease brought to the islands by white men).

The lines are longer, more prosaic, more immediately accessible than Merwin's other works. Long stretches are almost novelistic, but shorter ones are lyric and mythical:

Born on a dark wave the fragrance

of red seaweed

born on the land the shore grass

hissing while the night slips

through a narrow place a man is

born for the narrows

a woman is born for where the

waters open

the passage is for a god it is not for

a human

the god is a gourd full of water and

vines climbing from it

there the forest rises to stand in the

current of night

with time moving through it and

the branches reach out

into darkness the blue darkness at

the sea's root.

William Stanley Merwin, son of a Presbyterian minister from the coal country of Pennsylvania, graduated from Princeton in 1947 and worked on Majorca as a tutor for the young son of British poet Robert Graves. In 1952 he burst onto the literary scene by winning the Yale Younger Poets prize, whose judge was W.H. Auden. It was the beginning of a friendship that grew to include other well-known poets of the time.

The Yale prize launched a career that has few rivals in terms of stylistic range, prolific output and the ability to shift topics and forms but retain a unique voice.

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