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Life Arts    H4'ed 5/18/19

W.S Merwin, poet of a higher order?

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W. S. Merwin
W. S. Merwin
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(From "He won nearly every award available to an American poet, and he was named U.S. poet laureate twice. A practicing Buddhist as well as a proponent of deep ecology, Merwin lived since the late 1970s on an old pineapple plantation in Hawaii which he has painstakingly restored to its original rainforest state. Poet Edward Hirsch wrote that Merwin "is one of the greatest poets of our age. He is a rare spiritual presence in American life and letters (the Thoreau of our era)."

It's sad that we often learn about some of our greatest (teachers? acharyas?) when they die. That's not quite true with me and Merwin. I had a teacher in high school who pointed me to Merwin in the late sixties. By that time his "The Lice" (1967) had just been published, 2 years before I graduated. It is a kind of obituary for the modern world. Responding to the immoral debacle in Vietnam, but no less the undoing of nature, he takes up the subject of extinction, extinction of justice, peoples and nature. There is a very moving poem addressed to the whales which reads as a final farewell that brought tears to my eyes. I ordered "The Lice", the 50th anniversary edition that includes his early typed drafts of certain poems, and hand-written versions with cross-outs and arrows. My brother was shocked when I told him who Merwin was and that he had just passed, around the same time Mary Oliver died. Dave wrote back, that it was like discovering a "black hole" in his education. I labored over some of the poems in "Lice", trying to figure out what he was saying. I think the point is, he isn't saying any one thing. He is writing poems that are kind of like dreams. You can interpret each symbol and pattern or theme in a dream but in the final analysis no one can say what a given dream means. The whole dream, taken seamlessly means something non-specific. In a similar fashion many of Merwin's poems are seamless complex metaphors that have to be absorbed as a whole. That is why I think he is a poet of a higher order, than someone like Mary Oliver or Robert Frost who, compared to Merwin, are prosaic and linear or narrative. Merwin reminds me of the walking guides we hired in Ireland (on our recent pilgrimage with 12 students) to escort us to sacred sites and ruins. All three of them did the same thing: they would talk about a place once we were all gathered and then they would stride off to the next place never looking over their shoulder to see if we were following them. Arriving at the next spot before us, they would patiently wait and the same behaviors would be repeated. That is how it feels to read Merwin's poems. You listen to what the poem has to say and then Merwin is off, striding to the next poem. I love Mary Oliver but what she does best is deepen and enhance feelings and insights and emotions that are already familiar to me. Same with Frost. What Merwin does is lead us through a landscape that is new to us and, as he leads us from poem to poem, place to place, we do well to keep him in sight.

(Article changed on May 18, 2019 at 17:38)

(Article changed on May 18, 2019 at 18:21)

(Article changed on May 18, 2019 at 18:56)

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Gary Lindorff is a poet, writer, blogger and author of several nonfiction books, a collection of poetry, "Children to the Mountain" and a memoir, "Finding Myself in Time: Facing the Music" Over the last few years he has begun calling (more...)

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