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BOOK REVIEW : THE WRITING LIFE

Easy being green

W.S. Merwin brings a strong eco-view as the next U.S. poet laureate.

August 29, 2010|Dean Kuipers

MAUI — We've been batting our way through W.S. Merwin's yard for a couple hours, swatting mosquitoes in the streambed under the dark wet canopy of towering, philodendron-draped mangoes and looking at some 700 species of palm trees, every one of which he has planted by hand. He stops to touch them, saying things like, "Oh, this is Carpoxylon macrocarpa; they were thought to be extinct on Madagascar, but here it is." Many of these trees are exceptionally rare. Then he pulls up in front of a short broad palm, rather unimpressive next to the other trees on his property on Maui's northern shore, but he smiles as he fondles the leaf.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, April 09, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
W.S. Merwin: An article in the Aug. 29 Calendar section about W.S. Merwin, the U.S. poet laureate, referred to his wife as Paula Schwartz. Schwartz was her name from a previous marriage; she has long used the name Paula Merwin. In addition, the poet's French house in Lacam-d'Ourcet is not in the Pyrenees but is in the region known as Midi-Pyrenees.

"We think this Pritchardia minor is from the Kalalau Valley," he says, referring to a spot in the rugged Na Pali cliffs on Kauai, also a key setting in Merwin's epic narrative poem about Hawaii, "The Folding Cliffs." "It gives me goose flesh to think of it being here."

He and his wife, Paula, are still out here every day, where he has been for 30 years, like the shepherd in Jean Giono's book "The Man Who Planted Trees," reforesting a formerly barren 18-acre stretch of pineapple plantation. But now he is also the next U.S. poet laureate, and he has a lot on his plate. The author of more than 40 books of poetry, prose and translation is working on the follow-up to his 2009 collection, "The Shadow of Sirius," a book of powerfully quiet poems asking large philosophical questions that earned him his second Pulitzer Prize. At 82, he's always been a bit of a recluse and doesn't plan on bouncing back and forth to Washington, D.C., or anywhere else.

Merwin's demeanor is soft when talking about the trees and his beloved dog, a chow named Pe'a, but he stiffens when confronted with bureaucracy. He's taken the poet laureate job for at least two reasons: to encourage translation in literature, and to promote deeper examination of the interplay between imagination and nature -- especially on his own Merwin Conservancy. Given the enormous focus on the global ecological crisis, Merwin's one-year appointment seems right on target.

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It's all political

"I said something about the conservancy to [Librarian of Congress] professor [James] Billington, and he said, 'Well, I hope you won't make this political.' I said, 'James, every position is political. But I'm certainly not going to use the position to blow my own horn.' "

Billington, who selects the poet laureate, says Merwin is making some of his most universal work right now, adding, "His environmental concerns are very powerful, but they grow out of an even deeper sensibility about human beings and their relation to life and the rest of nature itself."

Michael Wiegers, Merwin's editor at Copper Canyon Press, notes that Merwin's ability to infuse the personal with the timeless is partly a product of his Zen Buddhist practice. "It's a daily practice, and in a daily practice, you follow your breath. He's removed all the punctuation. The words seem to float above the page -- they follow the breath. He's making a poetry less fixed in time."

Merwin spends his afternoons in the muck of the streambed, and when his famously elliptical poetry arrives, he jots it on an envelope or in a spiral notebook.

"I've never believed that the imagination, the thing that made poems, is separate from the rest of life at all. It's a part of it," Merwin says. "But we have a tradition as a society that is saying the rest of life is there purely for us to exploit without any concern about the consequences of it. It's very short-term, and in my view it's suicidal."

From "The Last One":

Well they cut everything because why not.

Everything was theirs because they thought so.

It fell into its shadows and they took both away.

Merwin has won just about every prestigious poetry award there is to win, beginning with his selection by W.H. Auden to take the Yale Younger Poet Prize in 1952 for his first book, "A Mask for Janus." There was the Tanning Prize, the Ruth Lilly, the Lenore Marshall, the National Book Award for his 2005 collection, "Migration," and rafts of other citations. For this reason, he is claimed as an establishment poet, but he has made a habit of assiduously avoiding the academy.

"I've always liked marginalized existence," Merwin says of his independent streak, his bright blue eyes flashing.

Merwin grew up in Union City, N.J., and Scranton, Pa., the son of an authoritarian Presbyterian minister, and went to Princeton on a scholarship at age 16 to study with critic R.P. Blackmur and poet John Berryman. He waited tables in the dining halls there with fellow poet Galway Kinnell.

It was Ezra Pound who first suggested Merwin's poetry would benefit from doing translation, which he took to heart. Beginning with a reworking of " El Cid," he translated primarily from the Spanish and French, but also Italian, Greek, Japanese and other Asian languages, Russian and Sanskrit in more than 20 published works.

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