A moment to contemplate W. S. Merwin, a poet whose work I respect but I often take for granted. As Dwight Garner wrote in a recent article in the New York Times about Merwin’s appointment to Poet Laureate, “The rap against W. S. Merwin’s poetry has been that it is obscure and abstract, as aloof as a balloon on the end of a string. It’s true that he’s an elegant poet, easy to admire but hard to care deeply about.” Well, Garner’s article brought Merwin to front and center for me this morning.
As he deserves to be. Coming out of relative isolation (Merwin lives in paradisiacal Maui, withdrawing from the demi-monde of literary jostling and into his Zen Buddhism) he is now doing his own version of the Third Act thing (a favorite theme of mine and written about here.)
Critics, it seems, wrote him off too early. Mr. Merwin, now 82, has been on a late-career sprint, not dissimilar to the one Philip Roth has been running for the past decade and a half. In 2005 Mr. Merwin won a National Book Award for his career-spanning collection “Migration: New and Selected Poems.” In 2009 he won a Pulitzer Prize, his second, for “The Shadow of Sirius,” a pared-down volume filled with simmering, death-haunted cognition. His poetic nostrils seem to be open and flared wide, in a way they haven’t been for decades. Mr. Merwin is back, and he is having a moment.
The choice is a bit of a surprise. Garner again:
The most surprising thing about Mr. Merwin’s selection as poet laureate of the United States is that he hasn’t held the position before…Some will call his selection now safe, dull, uncontroversial, blah. And they’ll have a point. It is not the kind of choice that makes one leap up and blow hard into a vuvuzela.
But Mr. Merwin’s appointment is potentially inspired. He is an exacting nature poet, a fierce critic of the ecological damage humans have wrought. Helen Vendler, writing last year in The New York Review of Books, called him “the prophet of a denuded planet.” With the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico becoming more dread and apocalyptic by the hour, Mr. Merwin may be a poet we’ll need. The pacifist in him may brood over the long war in Afghanistan.
In the spirit of later life concerns, this poem, “Worn Words”, from his most recent publication, is memorable:
The late poems are the ones
I turn to first now
following a hope that keeps
waiting somewhere in the lines
almost in plain sight
it is the late poems
that are made of words
that have come the whole way
they have been there