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A skin drum, hand made in Morocco and an artifact of extraordinary presence, was lent to me by my friend John Wyrick and now hangs on my studio wall.

Exercise

First, forget what time it is for an hour.
Do it regularly every day.
Then forget what day of the week it is,
and do this regularly in company for a week.
Then forget what country you are in,
and practice doing it in company for a week,
and then do them together for a week
with as few breaks as possible.
Follow these by forgetting how to add
or to subtract.
It makes no difference.
You can change them around after a week.
Both will later help you to forget how to count.

Forget how to count,
starting with your own age,
starting with how to count backwards,
starting with even numbers,
with roman numerals,
starting with fractions,
with the old calendar,
going on to the alphabet,
forgetting it all until everything
is continuous and whole again.

— W. S. Merwin

Reliably provocative, Merwin is a good source for “back to essentials” thinking and feeling. (He is currently the United States Poet Laureate.) Thanks to one of my favorite sites, Blog from a Hermit, for bringing this one into my visibility.

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An unexpected gift on the Times Op-Ed page last Sunday, cohabiting with bleak post election columns by Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd: Six poems marking the end of daylight saving time. The work is all by blue chip poets—James Tate, Vijay Seshadri, Louise Glück, W. S. Merwin as well as the two whose poems I have posted below, Derek Walcott and Mary Oliver. Made my day to read these.

The Green Flash

le rayon vert

And the sea’s skin heaves, saurian,
and the spikes of the agave bristle
like a tusked beast bowing to charge
tonight the full moon will soar floating
without any moral or simile
the wind will bend the longbows of the arching casuarinas
the lizard will still scuttle
and the sun will sink silently with a stake in its eye
bleeding behind the shrouding sail
of a skeletal schooner.
You can feel the earth cooling,
you can feel its myth cooling
and watch your own heart go out like the red throbbing dot
of a hospital machine, with a green flash
next to Pigeon Island.

— Derek Walcott

Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends
into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing, as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?
So let us go on

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

— Mary Oliver

***
Earlier posts written here about these poets:

Vijay Seshadri
That Was All That Happened

Louise Glück
Quiet Revelations
From the Center of My Life Came a Great Fountain
Thoughts on a Moonbeam for a New Year
Evidence
Vineyard Watch
What Could Such Glory Be If Not a Heart?
The Love of Forms

W. S. Merwin
Merwin: Past and Present
The Washed Colors of the Afterlife
Walking at Night Between the Two Deserts
Dorothea Tanning: With Our Souls in Our Laps
Here are the extinct feathers, here is the rain we saw


The Times’ put it this way: “The famously handsome Mr. Merwin in his younger years.” Wow. Few poets get that accolade… (Photo: Dido Merwin)

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

beckoning me

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

A Single Autumn

The year my parents died
one that summer one that fall
three months and three days apart
I moved into the house
where they had lived their last years
it had never been theirs
and was still theirs in that way
for a while

echoes in every room
without a sound
all the things that we
had never been able to say
I could not remember

doll collection
in a china cabinet
plates stacked on shelves
lace on drop-leaf tables
a dried branch of bittersweet
before a hall mirror
were all planning to wait

the glass doors of the house
remained closed
the days had turned cold
and out in the tall hickories
the blaze of autumn had begun
on its own

I could do anything

–W. S. Merwin

For anyone who has buried parents and had to dismantle a magpie’s nest of belongings, this poem is haunting. Merwin has described his own parents, particularly his preacher father, as harsh and cold. But in spite of that unsentimental objectivity, this poem is not coated in the resentment that many adult children harbor with resilience for an entire lifetime.

And here is one more:

Rain Light

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

You can hear Merwin read both these poems in an interview at NPR’s Fresh Air.

kircher1
From Athanasius Kircher’s “Mundus Subterraneus”

Air

Naturally it is night.
Under the overturned lute with its
One string I am going my way
Which has a strange sound.

This way the dust, that way the dust.
I listen to both sides
But I keep right on.
I remember the leaves sitting in judgment
And then winter.

I remember the rain with its bundle of roads.
The rain taking all its roads.
Nowhere.

Young as I am, old as I am,

I forget tomorrow, the blind man.
I forget the life among the buried windows.
The eyes in the curtains.
The wall
Growing through the immortelles.
I forget silence
The owner of the smile.

This must be what I wanted to be doing,
Walking at night between the two deserts,
Singing.

W.S. Merwin

Congratulations to Merwin for winning the Pulitzer Prize.

Merwin has published over twenty books of poetry and nearly twenty books of translation. His honors include the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Bollingen Prize, a Ford Foundation grant, the Governor’s Award for Literature of the State of Hawaii, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the PEN Translation Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Wallace Stevens Award, and a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, and fellowships from The Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

arts_merwin

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