Poet W.S. Merwin was giving a reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill when he got word that Librarian of Congress James H. Billington wanted to see him. Billington wanted Merwin to become the next U.S. poet laureate.
One of the 82-year-old Merwin’s first thoughts was: What about the pineapple plantation?
“I love being at home,” he told Billington.
Billington didn’t let Merwin slip away this time. He assured the poet that the position would require only a few extra events during his biannual visits to the mainland and possibly a third yearly trip, at most. Merwin agreed, and earlier this month, Billington announced him as the country’s 17th poet laureate.
Over his 60-year career, Merwin has become one of the country’s most decorated poets and translators of poetry, garnering countless awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes. Critics often characterize his poetry as confronting questions of the unknown and exploring humans’ relationship to nature in simple, unpunctuated verse aimed at capturing the fluid, natural rhythm of the spoken word.
“I would like to interest more people in poetry,” Merwin said in a phone interview from Hawaii, explaining why he finally accepted the post.
“I’d also like to make the connection between poetry and the rest of life,” he said, explaining that he hopes to illustrate the interconnectedness between humans and their environment.
The poet laureate is mostly an honorary position, awarded by the Library of Congress in recognition of poetic excellence. Laureates usually serve for one or two years and promote the importance of literature through participation in some of the library’s literary events as well as individual projects. The position comes with a $35,000 stipend.
“Merwin’s poetry wrestles with the big questions of life — the mystery after death; light and darkness; our relationships to other things in nature — but it’s always accessible,” Billington said. “He has a sort of wisdom without pretentiousness in his writing and I think he will lead people to new and interesting ways of viewing the world.”
Although laureates are advised to avoid politics while acting in their official capacity –Merwin recalls Billington telling him as much in no unclear terms — Merwin’s past and present convictions suggest an innate political bent.
“He’s been forthright for decades now about his environmental and political positions,” said J.D. McClatchy, the president of The American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Merwin has championed various environmental issues, such as wildlife preservation and pollution reduction. He is also an avowed pacifist, winning his first Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for his book “The Carrier of Ladders,” which chronicles his disapproval of the Vietnam War. And in recent years, he has been an outspoken critic of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.
“I’m absolutely appalled,” he said of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. “But I’m seeing it in context.”
Merwin is also enraged by other environmental issues, such as global warming and the destruction of rainforests.
All of it points to the pervasive and ill-conceived notion that people are somehow separate from nature, Merwin said.
“I think it’s suicidal, the idea that the environment is only there for us to exploit and then throw away at our pleasure,” Merwin said. “What we do to the life around us, we do to ourselves, and I think the possibility of our survival is getting smaller and smaller as our damage to the planet grows greater all the time.”
Merwin’s views on the wars in the Middle East are similarly pointed.
“Our general policy in taking sides in the disputes in the Middle East is very dangerous,” Merwin said. “I think that as long as we’re there, we’re aggravating the situation.”
Merwin has given just as much thought to his plans as poet laureate. He cited “having things connected with the environment” as a top priority, such as outdoor readings where people can appreciate nature and poetry simultaneously. Of course, even those events could be construed as political “because the Republicans don’t like anything to do with the environment,” Merwin added, half-sarcastically.
Another idea is to televise interviews and readings to the mainland done in affiliation with Hawaii’s public broadcasting network. This would help limit the reclusive artist’s off-island travel.
Merwin said he sees his new post as an opportunity to draw attention to another issue close to his heart.
“Hawaiian culture, Hawaiian language and the continuation of all that are very important to me,” said Merwin, who was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. These things are getting appropriated as Hawaii becomes a commodity of the tourist industry, he said, adding that tourism and the military are the islands’ leading sources of revenue.
“That’s a terrible combination,” Merwin said. “Behind both [tourism and the military], there’s a very real place with a rich cultural heritage and a link to a past of its own.”
But Merwin knows that his post as poet laureate is bigger than just Hawaii. Poetry can help repair any disconnects between what this country has endured and what it sees as its future, he said. He would “very much like to talk about these connections,” Merwin said, “to show how everything in life is linked together.”