An Interview with W. S. Merwin, Poet Laureate (raw transcript)
The new U.S. Poet Laureate is, like President Obama, from Hawaii. The Librarian of Congress appointed W.S. Merwin to be the nation’s 17th Poet Laureate, and Merwin was scheduled to be pried out of Maui and flown to Washington to begin his approximately one year tenure as America’s official poet with an October 25 opening reading at the Library of Congress. According to the L.O.C.’s website the position provides a $35,000 stipend and, “the poet laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.” (In another Hawaii tie-in, the Aloha State’s late Senator Spark Matsunaga authored legislation in 1985 to change the position’s title from the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress to The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.)
Merwin, who lives in a part of Maui’s North Coast ideally named for a poet -- Haiku -- doesn’t plan to spend much time in Washington. Since the 1970s, he has cultivated his poetry and garden at Maui on what has grown to be 19 acres. A “Thoreau-back,” the wordsmith not only lives close to nature but conserves and propagates it. Merwin’s Maui Walden seeks to rescue and restore palms; he has planted more than 800 species of palms, plus other species endangered and damaged by development in Hawaii, and even, in some cases, facing extinction.
This ardent admirer of Henry David Thoreau follows in that Transcendentalist’s footprints in other ways, too. Just as the author of 1849’s Civil Disobedience resisted the Mexican-American War, Merwin has openly opposed the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghan wars, as well as nuclearism. He has done so by marching in the streets and donating to draft resisters the prize money he received for winning the Pulitzer in 1971 for The Carrier of Ladders. But most significantly the progressive poet renders in tangible form his antiwar sentiments and profound awe, wonder and love for nature with his poetry. A widely respected, multi-lingual translator, Merwin has also translated books by two of the 20th century’s greatest political poets, Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda.
Merwin’s Migration won the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry, and he was awarded a second Pulitzer in 2009 for The Shadow of Sirius. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Merwin was born in New York City in 1927 and grew up at nearby Union City, New Jersey, until he moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1936. He attended a seminary in Wyoming, graduated from Princeton in 1948, and went on to live at Majorca, London, southwestern France, Mexico, Boston and Greenwich Village. Moving to Maui in the 1970s, Merwin married Paula Schwartz, a children’s books editor, in a Buddhist ceremony there in 1983. As befits their ecologically conscious garden of earthly delights that no Bosh could ever conjure, the Merwins’ two-storey, wooden home is solar powered and designed to be naturally cooled by trade winds.
I interviewed Merwin on that house’s lanai (balcony) overlooking his jaw-droppingly beautiful, densely forested Elysian lair. I was stunned to learn that Merwin, later joined by Paula, had wrought this tropical Walden out of a virtually tree-less T.S. Eliot-like eco-wasteland. During the interview a Cardinal flitting amongst verdant palm fronds provided flashes of scarlet. Merwin, who’d earlier been toiling in the fields, was dressed in a torn long sleeve shirt and army-style green pants, looking less gentleman and more farmer. He spoke at great length and ease with a cultivated voice most thespians would envy. The 83-year-old’s hair was whiter than when I’d first interviewed him for a Honolulu publication in the 1990s, back when I lived on Oahu. But, to paraphrase the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, “there was no gray hair in his soul,” as Merwin held forth on war, peace, environmentalism, BP, Hawaiians, Zen, Jefferson, Obama, poetry, becoming Poet Laureate, pleasure and more.
After our formal interview the spry Merwin, his puffy furry chow and I strolled on dirt paths through his lush Arcadian enclave. Sounding more botanist than poet he casually pointed out various flora, such as Pritchardia species of palms. We passed a sort of greenhouse for seedlings and a guesthouse amidst the sylvan glade, which the Merwin Conservancy plans to preserve as both a literary and eco outpost. (For more info see: www.merwinconservancy.org.)
When The Progressive called the Library of Congress in order to contact Merwin an L.O.C. staffer expressed the desire for the interview to be about poetry, and not politics. Good luck with that one. While still lunching Merwin launched into a scathing eco-critique of capitalism largely based on looting the Earth. Before the tape even started rolling, the transplant discussed growing up in Pennsylvania’s coalmining country, and the impact environmentally destructive economics has on workers trapped in job markets limited to eco-degrading labor, so I turned my Sony on.
Eco-Critique of Free Enterprise
W.S. Merwin: I asked the miners if they could go somewhere else to get a job. You know, these are smart guys. This seemed to be kind of a startling idea, that you could just leave there and go somewhere else. Of course, it would have taken money, and they had mortgage payments to make, the laundry machine and car to pay for, and how they were going to do it when they ran completely out of money, heaven knows. It’s very hard; we think of this as a highly sophisticated society but what’s sophisticated about something when you can’t think more than six months ahead? Nobody can; but you could try to. In the long run this is bound not to work.
Q: Is our current economic system sustainable?
Merwin: This is a subject that’s liable to get very dark, so I don’t know how far you want to pursue it. I’m very pessimistic about the future of the human species. We have been so indifferent to life on the whole that it will take its toll. It’s not just the polar bears that are having a hard time; what we’re doing is gradually impoverishing and poisoning the whole of the rest of life. Thirty years ago, when I was at [Oregon State University,] Corvallis, where there’s a big biology department… and one of the zoologists, a molecular biologist, said: ‘We’re losing species a week.’ My jaw dropped; he said, ‘It’s not getting better.’ Of course, when you lose a species, that’s lost; you never see it again.
This is part of a structure in which every species is related to every other species. And they’re built up on species, like a pyramid. The simpler cell organisms, and then the more complicated ones, all the way up to the mammals and birds and so forth. We call it ‘developing upward’… The whole thing depends on every part of it. And we’re taking out the stones from the pyramid.
Q: The constant extraction from nature... in order to profiteer, without replenishing what has been taken.
Merwin: That’s right. And of course now – 30 years later – we’re losing a species every few seconds. We cannot put them back. If we change our mind and say, ‘Oops, we made a mistake’ – it’s too late. This is the world we live with…
Q: What’s your response to the BP oil spill?
Merwin: It’s just appalling. I mean, it’s perfectly horrible. And we should have known better; we know the history of it and how sloppy it was and how crooked the permits have been. And it’s the thing that I was talking about earlier, of having only one main employer around that whole region that runs the whole thing. If there’d been a better-balanced society, where there were other ways of making a decent living, I think it might have been different. That’s not the way this setup work.
The other thing is, friends said, ‘You don’t seem to be as shocked by this as we are.’ And I said, ‘Well, maybe I’m not.’ I think I’m every bit as upset about the actual thing that’s happening as you are. But put it in context: The forests of North America have been cut down steadily, and as a matter of course for ever since the Pilgrim fathers got here and ever since the first settlement in the beginning of the 17th century – nobody ever thought there was anything the matter with that. In recent years, we’ve got into nuclear proliferation since World War II. We have started agricultural practices taken for granted that we use poisons. The moment we turn over the soil we start poisoning it and we go on poisoning it all the way through… and there’s probably not a river in the United States that doesn’t have pesticide poisoning in it. The fish are dying. The seas are getting polluted. All of these things are happening. The rain forests are going. That’s what the context is. The global warming is going on. These are not single cases. These are all part of a general way we’ve been looking at the world. As long as we look at the world that way it’s going to go on. Because the idea that the important thing is for some people get rich while the rest of the people work for them is very deeply dug in…
…It’s an attitude of superiority. We are superior to the rest of life. The Book of Genesis says: ‘Increase and multiply and have dominion over the birds of the air and the animals and so forth.’ You run it; it’s yours; do what you like with it. I don’t know how old that text is, but it represents an attitude that probably really got going with the beginning of agriculture. Before that, the hunter-gatherers were gentler people than the agriculture. A lot of the North American peoples were very suspicious about digging in the Earth, how much disturbance of the Earth you did… You were very careful about what you did to the Earth, and you did it with great respect. That’s part of it. The other thing is expansion in another sense, just population. The human population arrived at a billion around 1813; it’s now not 200 years later and we’re at nine billion and heading for 11. You think this can go on forever? …I don’t know what you can do about it. Politically it would be terribly repressive to prevent people from having as many children as they want. But something’s got to prevent it; and it won’t be pleasant… We’re still behaving in ways that have become disastrous… I don’t think this helps us to survive… We’re very species-centric… and now exist at the expense of every other form of life on Earth.
Politics and Poetry
Q: If man is an arrogant being who believes he’s superior to all other creatures then Americans seem to be the most believing in their superiority, but think they’re better than everybody else because they believe that ‘all men are created equal,’ so that makes us superior.
Merwin: Yeah, I don’t think that’s a logical connection. I have enormous admiration for Jefferson and the whole thing that was made – it was new. It had its roots in Roman law and in all sorts of things, but what Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence was something very precious. It’s not perfect; it never was perfect; Jefferson wasn’t perfect – I mean, what’s a perfect human being? Everything’s got its faults. That’s not a reason to shrug your shoulders and say, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ It does matter. The attempt to live that way, the attempt to treat everybody – it fails all the time – but the attempt to treat people as equals is a good attempt. It’s a very good attempt. And there have been very few governments that have come anywhere near it in the past. The Greeks began to, the Romans began to – they both failed.
You take great civilizations, like Dong China – the religious and arts development in Dong China is great. You think, ‘What a great age it must have been.’ Then you start looking into the history – it was a terrible age, an absolutely terrible age. It ended in a rebellion in which millions of people were just massacred; I mean something like 30 million people were either homeless or killed. The ruling classes were absolutely ruthless. The invaders and the small kingdoms there just fought with each other horribly. Our history of governing ourselves is not a very good one. What came about with the vision of the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence and who wrote the Constitution is something we should treasure.
Q: And the Declaration is poetic.
Merwin: I mean, Jefferson was a great writer. He really was. And Adams was sort of very conservative, and Jefferson was not. And they’d been political enemies and became very close friends. Their correspondence is just a lovely thing. My publisher, Copper Canyon, the man who then ran the press, Sam Hamill [see The Progressive Magazine, April 2003] , one of the members of his board and I, he started a thing called “Poets Against the War.” He thought he’d get half a dozen poets to say why they did not think the invasion of Iraq was a good idea, and just put it on the website, and that would poets against the war. Well, he ended up with something like 18,000 people from around the world sending in these ideas. Then we went and did this reading in Washington.
Q: You were among the readers?
Merwin: Yes. Sam and I were the readers. I didn’t read a poem – well, I guess there was one. But mostly just other poems. And I dedicated it to Laura Bush, you know, because it was her invitation that brought us all to Washington. She had invited everybody else to talk about Emily Dickinson – they all had not wanted to do it, you know. So they called the whole thing off.
Q: What other causes have you espoused through your poetry or activism?
Merwin: Back in the ’70s I opposed the Vietnam War and I marched against nuclear development and in favor of the Civil Rights movement, too. It was a great time, to emerge in and after the ’60s there. Kids were saying a few years ago, students were saying, ‘Why can’t it be like the ’60s, when everybody took to the streets?’ And I say, ‘You know, it didn’t happen overnight.’ But the people who were behind that movement – in the first place, a lot of them were Quakers, they were people who’d been thinking about these things for a longtime. They were people who’d read Gandhi and Thoreau and they were very concerned about these things and had been for some time, and they didn’t think violence was a great idea. They thought, ‘Nonviolence is a very risky idea’; it’s not a simple solution – it may not work. But if you don’t try it it’s never going to work. You know, Gandhi was getting depressed toward the end of his life. He thought, ‘Well it worked this time, but I wonder if it will work in other situations.’ I don’t know we ever know the answer to that. But these people have been thinking about those things, the young people had been thinking about and reading Gandhi, and the demonstrations were tiny [at first]. A demonstration from the Fellowship of Reconciliation against the early nuclear development – there seven people standing on Pennsylvania Avenue outside of the White House. They got arrested, too.
Q: Are you comfortable being considered a political poet?
Merwin: No. No, I wouldn’t be happy about being considered a love poet or an environmental – I don’t want any of those tags. You know, there are poets who believe that you shouldn’t engage at all in any cause. And there’s something to be said for that. Because you don’t want to – I think most political poetry is very bad. And it’s very bad because you know too much to start with. You have a sense that you’re right, and you’re trying to tell other people what’s right. And I think that’s always kind of fundamentalism, and I don’t like it, you know?
But most love poetry is awful; nobody knows how to write good love poetry either. But that’s not a reason not to write love poetry. Some of the best poetry ever written has been love poetry, and some of the greatest poetry ever written has been political poetry. The Divine Comedy is a political poem and when you say poetry is not about -- he’s always quoted out of context, that “poetry makes nothing happen,” that doesn’t mean you shrug your shoulders and don’t try to make anything happen. And Dante felt that poetry was engaged, there was a point of view; it’s not my point of view, it’s orthodox medieval Christianity, and I have my troubles with that. He didn’t feel that you could just rule out so important a section of life – we care about these things, and it’s out of caring about them that we write poetry. It’s not because we have an opinion about them or even a conviction about them: But it’s what we care about. If you can’t bear what’s happening to the natural world, if you can’t bear the way we treat each other; if you can’t bear wars, you just can’t bear the whole idea of war, which is possibly unavoidable. But still, you resist it. Because you just hate our treating each other that way and causing that suffering.
Q: In the spring of 2003, you wrote Ogres, about:
‘the frauds in office
at this instant devising
their massacres in my name.’
But usually you’re not that direct. Is there a risk in being so direct?
Merwin: Yeah; I just described it. You know your political position so clearly that you think of it as being right. That’s true. I was thinking, indeed, when I wrote that poem – which is not in the Collected Poems – about the invasion of Iraq. The other thing I was thinking about organized violence – I don’t think we can ever get rid of violence, but I think we can limit organized violence – the other thing about organized violence, it’s always to some degree affected by lies. Because we justify what we’re doing, and the justifications, as we keep finding out – and we find out sometimes generations afterwards – are very often not true. There was no Tonkin Bay incident, which was one of the reasons for the Vietnam invasion. And there were no weapons of mass destruction.
One of the greatest pieces – you see, Euripides was a poet who tried to be political. Euripides, Iphigenia At Aulis, this great play that he wrote (which I translated, by the way), and the marvelous thing about that play is that everybody in the play is caught up in something that is not true. And the only person who sees through the whole thing – Agamemnon, Menelaus, even Iphigenia herself, Achilles, they’re all telling lies. And they’re all telling different lies, and they’re all arguing with each other about the lies. The only person who really sees through it finally, because she says, “You brought our daughter here in order to sacrifice her so there could be a war in Troy, and you didn’t tell me that. But you told her she was going to be married to Achilles, and this is what you really had in mind.” And she saw through the whole thing… That’s where it ends, with the plight of Orestes, having seen this whole thing. Of course, the next stage in the story is going to be when Agamemnon comes back.
Q: I saw a production of The Oresteia at the Getty Villa’s amphitheatre in Malibu, starring Tyne Daly of the TV female cop series Cagney and Lacey and Delroy Lindo [Get Shorty] during the height of the Iraq War.
Merwin: They were doing a lot more Greek plays at the beginning of the Iraq War. I hope that we’re going to get out of there all right; I hope that it’s accomplished something. I’m very skeptical. I don’t know whether what we’ve done is going to be an improvement in the long run or whether they’ll just undo the whole thing in a few weeks. That’s quite possible.
Q: What do you think of Afghanistan?
Merwin: Oh, I’m very anxious about Afghanistan. I think the idea that we’re going to eliminate Al Qaeda is just not going to happen. I think our very being on the ground in the Islamic world is such an irritation that we’re recruiting Al Qaeda all the time. We’re keeping it going. It’s very hard to get out. This is the trouble – I think it was not only immoral to go into these places, I think it was stupid. I mean, tactically, strategically stupid. I mean, how do you – any military strategist would say, ‘Don’t go into a place that you can’t get out of.’ It’s like a rat putting his head down a bamboo tube. There you are; Vietnam. People kept saying, ‘Oh no, this isn’t parallel to Vietnam.’ Well, it isn’t; this is dry, Vietnam was a jungle. But the situations, you get into this; and how do you get out of it? And you let other people down. You cause – one of the things about being opposed to organized violence is that – and I say, I don’t think there’s a simple solution, but one has to try, because violence always, I believe, leads to violence. It always makes more violence. There’s Albert Camus, who’s a great French writer whom I’ve admired enormously all my life, and he was in the [anti-Nazi] Resistance, he worked for the liberation of Algeria, but he said in his diary and editorials he wrote, ‘We must break the cycle of violence wherever we can break it. Don’t worry about justification; you try to break it. If there’s a chance to break it, you try.’
Q: The last line of Camus’ The Stranger refers to “the benign indifference of the universe.” Do you feel that the universe is benignly indifferent to humanity?
Merwin: Uh, yes. I also think that life itself is both indifferent to us and the source of all of our joys and everything that we love. And it’s necessary to accept the one in order to love the other. People have said to me, ‘Oh, you’re much mellowed after the ’60s, and the book of poems called The Lice and things like that.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that. I’m no more optimistic than I was in the ’60s. If anything, less so, because I’ve seen more of the results. But I don’t think you can spend your whole life focusing only on your anger about it. Because if you do that, you lose sight why you’re angry. I mean, what is it you’re angry about? Because you want to save, you want to protect, you want to preserve and take care of something. And if you don’t love it, what’s the point of taking care of it… It’s not going to work. Only really caring about it is going to make it happen – if it ever happens.
Even if – you know, there’s something I read about a Japanese writer of the 20th century who said, ‘One must go on trying, even if it’s like a pigeon trying to put out a house on fire by carrying a few drops of water on its wing, and then going back for more.’ Chances are not great, but Ed, you say, if you come upon a car wreck on the road 10 minutes after its happened and there are people lying around with blood all over the highway you try to do everything possible to get them into an ambulance and get them to a hospital. You don’t stand around trying to figure out what their chances of survival are.
Q: Unless you’re an insurance adjuster.
Merwin: Maybe that, I don’t know. But I’ve never been in that place.
Q: Have you ever been in the military?
Merwin: Yes. I was in the Navy briefly when I was 18. I realized… that I made a terrible mistake… that this was wrong thing to do. I don’t believe in this. I don’t want to be part of it… So I became a conscientious objector… [around 1945].
Q: Did Hiroshima and Nagasaki affect your decision?
Merwin: Hmm, it certainly confirmed it. But it wasn’t that so much. It was just thinking that I didn’t want to be trained to kill on orders.
Q: During World War II the U.S. firebombed Dresden and Tokyo and A-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki – America committed these horrible atrocities when we were the good guys. Imagine what we do when we’re the bad guys.
Merwin: Did you ever read The Voyage of the Golden Rule? This is a guy who had worked for the Navy during World War II. He was a biologist… his name was Earle Reynolds. He was arrested, you know – he tried to sail into the [nuclear] test zone. He was very high up; he knew all of the top brass, he had dinner with them after the war. Very interesting man.
Q: [Nuclear physicist Robert] Oppenheimer also had qualms.
Merwin: Oh, indeed. I actually met Oppenheimer… He was a very nice man. You know, Einstein certainly had qualms. He didn’t like, he hated the whole thing. But he was, you know, both of them – and this is a terrible situation. That’s why I say this isn’t an easy thing, to say I’m against violence. You do everything possible to resist it. We’re all murderers. We’re all capable of it. We do what we can to resist it…
I think of the day when [a boy] I knew, who was two years older than me, said something nasty about my mother. He’d always picked on me; I hated it. I was chopping wood for a lady to use in her stove… and I had a hatchet in my hand, and I had a terrible impulse to just take the hatchet to him…
Q: How do you feel about the aging process?
Merwin: How do you feel about getting hungry and going to sleep at night? I mean, it’s all part of it. I can’t pretend I like not seeing as well as I used to. Or not having the stamina I used to. I get tired if I work in the garden for a couple of hours, and I used to work for seven or eight hours and think nothing of it. I don’t like that. I love being here so much, I love Maui and I love this garden and our life here so much, that I just feel very lucky.
Merwin’s Maui Walden: The Garden of Earthly Delights
Q: In practice, you’ve actually tried to restore some endangered species.
Merwin: I started, before Paula and I were together, with this three acres here, where there were no trees. The mango trees down there along the streambed were here, and there were some Christmas berries, which is a weed tree, that were along the old track here, which was from the three or four disastrous years when they grew pineapple here, and ruined everything, by plowing slopes vertically, so they lost all the topsoil… But I had some idea – Handy and Handy wrote Native Planters of Hawaii… I knew there had been forest here up until around 1840. It was deforested very fast for fuel for the whalers in Lahaina and for the haole [Caucasian] settlers as they built houses… Then it was overgrazed; they put in cattle, but they didn’t do very well. Then they started trying to grow sugarcane here; they built a railroad out here… It was technically described as ‘wasteland’…
Well, I always wanted to take a piece of ruined land and to see if I could bring it back to life again… to un-ruin it. And I had an idea that I wanted to restore Hawaiian rain forest on three acres. Well, it can’t be done. I kept putting back natives and they’d grow a little bit; whatever I put in the soil, seaweed, compost, things like that. They didn’t do very well. Paula and I together must have planted hundreds of koa trees; some lived for a while, some didn’t. Some got very promising and big, 30 feet tall, and almost everyone of them was killed, either by the change in the soil or by the insects that had never been here when the Hawaiians were here… I must have planted 45 ohia trees, and I think two of them were growing, but not very well. But the palms [grew]…
Q: In your poem Native Trees you ask your parents if there were trees where they grew up and if they knew the names of the trees. How did you get interested in the environment?
Merwin: I think when I was very small. I grew up across the river from New York City. We had a little backyard. I remember when I was very small, I must have been about between three and four, walking along the – their were flagstones along the sidewalk then. And I remember walking along with my mother, who was taking me out shopping for food, it was spring, and there was grass coming out between the flagstones on the sidewalk. And I got down and saw it, and it was real grass, and I felt it, and I said, ‘Where does the grass come from?’ And my mother said, ‘Well, the earth is right under the stones there.’ And I can remember, as I tell you, the feeling of great relief and pleasure that I had to think that the earth was right down underneath there and the grass was coming up out of the flagstones. Obviously, that feeling, that response was always there. There was one tree in the backyard, and I loved the tree and I used to go out and stand there leaning against the tree. If I was unhappy, or if I thought I was unjustly punished, I would go out and stand by the tree. I figured the tree was – I felt a closeness to the tree. I didn’t feel anything else.
[Biologist] E.O. Wilson at Harvard said, ‘Oh well.’ I said, ‘That’s a very silly thing to tell you.’ Because after an evening we’d had a fair amount to drink, and I said, ‘I’m going to tell you this silly story.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s not silly. The genes of the tree are complete. They’re not interested in hiding them from you. If there’s a way of communicating between you I’m sure that they’d be quite happy to let you have them.’
Q: In Maui, the economy is largely based on tourism and the military, which are often antithetical to the environment. The Navy bombed Kahoolawe [a neighbor isle long used for target practice].
Merwin: Of course tourism goes on over to real estate development and the spreading of suburban building, which takes up the habitat and taking up more water than there is. So they’re looking for more and more sources of water. They’ve been diverting water for purposes that have nothing to do with the inhabitants here since the 1890s when the planters diverted the streams and did all the irrigation for central Maui’s big [sugar]cane fields.
Q: Is there an inter-relationship between the displacement of nature and of indigenous peoples?
Merwin: Oh, sure… You see, their [haoles] attitude toward things, quite apart from the exploiting attitude, their attitude toward land was entirely different from the Hawaiians’. I don’t mean everybody was all holy about the aina [land] and all that. I mean that the Hawaiians loved the streambeds…
As the water was taken away from the north coast of Hawaii the Hawaiian people lived in the streambeds, and had their taro lo‘i [patches] along the streambeds, had to move out because they didn’t have enough water to grow taro. At Keanae… and Hana they’re still growing taro but none of them have enough water… We had three conferences called the ‘Water Table’ 10 years ago… the one out here was at Keanai and there were representatives from Alexander and Baldwin and East Maui Irrigation [companies derived from descendants of early missionaries] and the taro farmers said, ‘We don’t have enough water for the taro; in the meantime, your ditch is full up there and you never even let any of it out for us to use,’ and basically the EMI guy said, ‘We’re not going to… We need it…’ Beyond irrigation the long-term view was for development… In the 1980s… more than 70% of the people in public office in Hawaii had real estate licenses…
Q: What do you make of the Hawaiian Sovereignty [Native rights] cause?
Merwin: I don’t want to judge it. I’m a haole and I don’t want to judge the Sovereignty cause.
Q: What do you think of what has become of the Native Hawaiians?
Merwin: I have great, great sympathy for them and always have. There are questions that I’ve asked. I was asked to write for them one time some years ago and I said, ‘I can’t do that. Because in the first place, I’m not Hawaiian. In the second place I don’t know the answer to a number of your things. One of the great tragedies about what happened to the Hawaiian people was not only that you lost your land, but your culture was unable to evolve, sort of stuck at a certain point, very early in the 19th century. You had a class system that has never been sorted out. You lost not only the land but the language. Your image of yourselves has been hampered as a result of that, your developing image of yourselves. Part of is based on something that is stuck around 1820 [when the early American Christian missionaries arrived] and hasn’t been able to evolve. I think this is a tragic thing to have happened. I don’t know how to undo it. But I can’t write for you because I don’t know the answer for those things.
What kind of an educational program do you have in mind? What kind of monetary program do you have in mind? What kind of relation to the American military do you have in mind? All of these questions are unanswered; you can’t expect a haole to answer them. These are things I don’t know anything about. You have to tell me…
Q:Which of your poems deal with Native Hawaiians?
Merwin: Chord; The Rain in the Trees.
Q: You can tell Chord is written by a poet in the English language tradition who references what happened to Hawaii by what happened to Keats during the same time period.
Merwin: Yeah, I run across this; it’s a strange way to look at the world. History, this is one of the things that happens with almost most historians, and I’m not saying bad historians, historians in general. They have to talk about history in a linear way, so this happened, and it caused that, then that happened and it caused that, and that in a sense is true. But that’s only one way of looking at it. The other one is, as we know, in any day of our lives, everything happens at once, and everything leads to everything else. And we can’t really sort it out. I mean, the literary way is a very inadequate way of sorting it out. Because while one day is closing a lot of other things are going on in the world. There may be a hurricane in Nantucket; a lot of other things are going on. And the connection between these things is one we don’t know. It’s just as well to remember that it exists, just the same.
Q: You’ve studied lots of languages; have you studied Hawaiian?
Q: One of the few gains Native Hawaiians have made in their sovereignty movement has been Hawaiian language schools.
Merwin: Punana Leo -- they’re wonderful, very important. After the takeover in 1893 the head of the board of education was one of the Thurstons [early missionary descendants] and he was proud of how many schools he’d managed to forbid Hawaiian language in. He was trying to get rid of the Hawaiian language; he succeeded pretty well. He made the elder Hawaiians ashamed of speaking Hawaiian; [because] they were keeping their kids from learning anything. So they themselves would forbid Hawaiian to be spoken in the house. Only takes one real break of a generation and you’ve lost it. Now it’s coming back, but it’s only with a small number. I’d love if Hawaiian were mandatory in the public school system, if you started learning Hawaiian in first grade and you had… some of your courses in Hawaiian all the way through.
People say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to stamp out pidgin.’ That’s dumb; pidgin is a very interesting language and very beautiful; it’s just marvelous. Pidgin is also very impoverished now because there used to be a Korean pidgin, a Japanese pidgin, a Chinese pidgin, a Hawaiian pidgin, a Samoan pidgin. They weren’t the same… now it’s all just ‘pidgin.’ If people all learned Hawaiian as they were growing up, their English would be much better… If you were learning Hawaiian you’d understand something about how languages work… The more languages kids know the better they are in all of them… If they did that, then they could speak as much pidgin as they wanted to and have fun with it.
Q: Does this go back to what Ezra Pound advised you about learning languages?
Merwin: No… he was talking about poets learning languages. But I think it’s good for anybody to learn languages. Americans are particularly limited in that way. Europeans less so… We’re beginning to have Spanish move in on English in the states because of all the people coming from Hispanic countries… and we’re beginning to learn some Spanish. And I think that’s a good thing… Only having one language is very limiting… You get to think that’s the way the human race is made; there’s only one language worth speaking… Well, this isn’t good for English.
Q: Sometimes it seems that Americans really don’t want to know anything about the rest of the world; they just want to run it.
Merwin: I think that’s been true; I do think that’s been true. The history of taking over the North American continent and of Hawaii is that of colonizing… it’s fairly ruthless with what’s being exploited… Lots of it looks heroic to us, but we’re only looking at one side of it… Shaw said, ‘History is written by those who have won.’
Q: What do you hope to do as Poet Laureate?
Merwin: Not quite sure. But one can hope to do as Poet Laureate – I won’t be in Washington until the end of October. I’d like to be able to bring poetry to people. That’s obviously one of the reasons for doing readings. This would be a fine venue to do that, a very welcoming one. Presumably it would make a few people attentive to poetry who might not have been before. One of the things I’ve noticed is very often people will come up after a reading and say they’ve ‘never heard poetry before.’ One of the differences between prose and poetry is that prose doesn’t have to be heard… That’s not true of poetry. If you don’t hear a sonnet of Shakespeare… it just doesn’t make any sense to you. A large number of the people who say, ‘I don’t read poetry because I don’t understand it,’ are simply saying, ‘I don’t read poetry because I don’t hear it.’ The understanding means also, ‘I’m not used to it… so I don’t know what to make of it.’ So many people, when they hear poems read out loud, think: ‘oh, I see; it’s something different.’
It uses the same words as prose but it’s physical. It was that way – poetry may be the oldest of the arts. Because it’s probably as old as language itself. Its closest relation would probably be music and dance. Those three things together; probably before the visual arts, the first Paleolithic paintings, and things like that. Anyway, it’s very, very old, and theories about the origins of language suggest a different source for it, very close to poetry, in the origins of language itself. A number of theorists think it comes out of an inexpressible emotion, something that was just so, so urgent that the forms of expressing it weren’t adequate to it.
Q: How did you react to being asked to become Poet Laureate?
Merwin: I was very, uh, I dragged my feet quite a lot. I said, ‘I’ve never wanted to come to and live in Washington, and wear a suit day and night, and do all of the things I’d be expected to do. I don’t think I’m particularly diplomatic. I certainly have no wish to be rude to people. The political situation does not appeal to me at all. Besides, I don’t like that kind of attention. One of the lovely things about living in Maui is that people don’t know who I was, and that was fine with me. That’s the way I like it. I was just the guy who lived up the road and had some palm trees. I don’t want altogether that cover blown either. I don’t want go and spend lots of time in Washington. I’m only going to go twice… Basically, I don’t want to change my life very much. I really like a very quiet life and want to live that way…
Q: What type of Poet Laureate will you be?
Merwin: What types are there?
Q: Are there any role models you emulate?
Merwin: Oh, I don’t know, because I never thought of myself even in a tradition that public. But one of the reasons why I finally got around to accepting it was to be able to talk about some of these things that we’ve spoken about. And also I’d really like to save this piece of land – I planted over 800 species of palm trees on it. I’d like to see them not just pass into the hands of a developer to be bulldozed and divided up into little building lots. Maybe the only way of trying to do something about that is to speak about it. Speak about why one feels that way. Why it seems worth saving.
You know, the water has not spread to our streambed as a constant thing since the 1890s, so it’s 115 years. So, does it matter? Is it a ruined valley? No – it’s not. I think you save what you can. Thank god, we don’t live in an ideal world. An ideal world would be suffocating. [Laughs.]
Q: ‘The best of all possible worlds,’ as Dr. Pangloss says in Candide.
Merwin: Voltaire was making fun of him…
Q: Do you see yourself as being in the tradition of artists like Gauguin, Stevenson and Brando, who returned to nature in Polynesia?
Merwin: That’s a strange tradition; I don’t see those guys as belonging to the same tradition. They probably wouldn’t have even recognized each other… I don’t think we ever leave nature. You know, we get hungry and have to sleep. We’re, as Borjas, the great Argentine poet called himself, late in his life: ‘The old animal.’ We’re the old animal – you never leave that. We’ve made this artificial environment for ourselves and come to believe it’s the real world, and this terrible new phrase people are using, and really believe and get trapped in, called ‘virtual reality.’ I don’t want virtual reality, thank you very much, I like reality the way it is. With all its difficulties, uglinesses…
Q: Who do you write for? In Cover Note you wrote:
‘…I have not
the ancients’ confidence
in the survival of
one track of syllables
nor in some ultimate
moment of insight…’
Merwin: There are several answers to that one. There’s a sense in which you write only for yourself because the only ear, the only way you can hear the language, is the way you hear it yourself… Beyond that I write for everybody; for everybody who uses the language and who’s interested. I’m not going to sort of write in order to get a huge audience; that’s not the point. That’s relative. I’d like anyone who wants to read poems and is interested in these things to find that there’s something available in them. We’ve gone through a period of Modernism that was pushed aside. The late Victorians got very, very conventional and they were essentially writing for a particular class structure. And Modernism kind of brushed that out of the way. But also at the same time it brushed aside the idea that you’re writing for it to be comprehensible.
I mean, The Wasteland is not a particularly easy poem to read, and yet it was recognized when it was published. All of the early [T.S.] Eliot was revolutionary; it was doing something that had never happened in poetry before. The thing is, that by destroying the tradition there was nowhere to go, so every generation since then has had to reinvent it. There’s been wonderful variations; all the way from James Merrill to Allen Ginsberg, in exactly the same age – in my age, too. I think that’s great… wonderful. People say to me: ‘Do you like rap poetry?’ I said, ‘I don’t especially like it; I’m glad it exists.’ That may be the way some people want to hear poetry. It’s better to hear poetry anyway than no way at all.
Q: In Cover Note you call the reader a “hypocrite reader.” Why?
Merwin: Well, there’s a great poem of Baudelaire’s, which ends up: ‘hypocrite reader, my likeness, my brother.’ This is an ironic twist on that. Addressing the reader, saying, ‘If you’re not my contemporary, I don’t know who you are.’ And I don’t know what people will be wanting to read in 40, 50 or 100 years, if there’s anybody reading at all. One has to write for right now and one writes out of some kind of great – I think this is true of poets in particular – respect for one’s ancestors. My son is a novelist and he said to me once: ‘I really love this thing about poets: You all really feel there’s a line connecting you to Keats, Milton and Shakespeare and all the way back.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s right there. We have whatever they gave…’
I think poets ought to behave decently to one another. Jealousy is something I’ve always disliked. Every poet who has really got it, we ought to recognize it and respect it. Because it’s something far more important than we are, than our little egos are. James Merrill, who died around ’95… one of the last conversations we had, said how he hated jealousy. He said, ‘I don’t care who writes it. But I want to read a new poem that lifts the heart.’ …He had prejudices like everybody else… We can’t all like things equally; that never happens.
Q: The oriole appears in a lot of your poems. There’s even one entitled Orioles. Why?
Merwin: Oh, I love orioles. I love – I think they’re a particularly beautiful bird. This is Europe… a lot of my life has been spent in Europe, especially in a farming village down in southwestern France… In the commune of Lubersac, on the Dordogne River… I’ve made a bird list of one small bit of oak woods near me back in the early ’60s. And counted in that small area over 160 species of birds. Many of which I haven’t seen since. Every night, all through the years I have been there, there’s always swallows in the evenings, they used to nest in abandoned buildings and barns, they were all over the place; they’re glorious birds. They came back every year around the 24th of April. I haven’t seen the swallows there for about seven years. Nobody seems to notice.
So the oriole is simply one bird, the oriole is a mysterious bird. You really seldom see it. It’s very beautiful. The European oriole – the Baltimore oriole lives on the East Coast – but the European oriole is a fairly big bird. It’s bigger than a robin. It’s brilliant, brilliant, beautiful, gold and yellow with black wings. With this wonderful sound; it warbles. When it sings you almost never see it. But sometimes you can just see this wonderful gold thing going through the trees. I haven’t heard the orioles now for a few years and nobody seems to notice. There was a time people did. I think that’s another thing that probably declined with agriculture, but there are birds that gardeners would always experience… Over there is the European redstart, which wags its tail. I used to dig over my garden with a digging fork and I’d put the fork into the ground and… I’d get back and there’d be a redstart on the handle looking around if there were any bugs for him to grab.
Q: In your poem For the Anniversary of My Death you write about the “shamelessness of men.” Are you still surprised by the “shamelessness of men”?
Merwin: Well, you know, that phrase is actually a deliberate echo of a passage in Jonathan Swift’s journal. Quite late in his life he writes in his journal -- Swift was a pretty caustic guy. Swift was… not very optimistic. He said: ‘I think I am no longer surprised by their selfishness and ignorance, but I am still sometimes astonished that they are not ashamed.” [Swift’s exact quote: ‘I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.’] The same people who are horribly selfish and shortsighted and pay no attention to the effects of some of the things that they do, may be perfectly decent people in other respects and be very kind to each other and sometimes they’re heroic in bad circumstances… I even think that about people in corporate America sometimes. [Laughs.]
Q: You write, in the poem First Sight about ‘late blessings.’ What are some that you appreciate?
Merwin: I love my wife and I love my life here. I’m happy to be alive. I feel very lucky to be able to write some times and to work in the garden. That’s quite enough.
Q: As Voltaire wrote in Candide: ‘We must all cultivate our own gardens.’
Merwin: I can’t imagine Voltaire out with a digging fork. Sure, he imagined Candide doing it, but he didn’t do it himself. [Laughter.]
Q: In The Shadow of Sirious you write about ‘astonishment.’ How do you stay open to being astonished?
Merwin: Good question. I think that’s a question one should always ask one’s self. I think the thing of being surprised is always marvelous. It means that you’re opening up, you’re not sort of getting sclerotic and closed up… Anything that tends to open your eyes to that and feelings is a good thing.
Q: You seem continually astonished by nature, love and words. What else astonishes you?
Merwin: What else is there?
Q: In the poem Place you write:
‘On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree’
Why would you want to do that?
Merwin: The next line of that poem is ‘What for?’… Why do you take your next breath?
Q: To continue living.
Merwin: That’s not why though; that’s just the purpose. Why do you want to continue living?
Q: So I can continue to meet people like you. [Laughter.]
Merwin: You see, I think there are things for which there is no why. Why were you born? I think it’s – I’m glad I was.
Q: Why did you decide to forgo punctuation 45 years ago?
Merwin: It didn’t happen overnight. I got more impatient – you know, punctuation and prose, in the first place, it was much better in those days. There was really good proofreading and teaching grammar was much better… Now all we’ve done is shortened the sentences, just to make it easier. I came to feel that the over-elaborate punctuation of things and the laws of Fowler’s English and things like were basically evolved for prose, in the 18th century, by Addison and Steele and people like that. It’s very honorable… they were logical and clear. It was prose, and assumed you didn’t have to hear it. I thought it nails the poem on the page; suppose you didn’t have the punctuation?
And I started trying to do with less and less of it and I finally – if you read The Lice, The Moving Target and then Carrier of Ladders you see it’s a gradual shelling off. Then it reaches a point where I said, ‘All right, let me try it without altogether.’ I was fascinated by the differences that could be done. The moment you make… a convention like that, you’ve made a new poem. It’s not just dropping punctuation – you can’t do that. If you do that you have to find some other way of doing what punctuation does. The other way, of course, is to make you read it out loud, and start listening to it. And then if it’s written basically the way it’s spoken, you hear it. Then if you have to hear it as language you have to hear it as poetry. I didn’t think I’d necessarily make a rule of it and adhere to it the rest of my life, but having started it I was curious, because it brought out things in the language you couldn’t bring out with punctuation.
Q:…You’ve obviously worked very hard to develop your writing, but have you also worked hard to develop your mellifluous speaking voice… like a Shakespearean actor?
Merwin: I don’t even know what you mean. [Laughs.] …No, I never studied that. Whatever you’re talking about came naturally. I’ve lived all over the world, and that may have something to do with it. I lived in England a number of years… I’ve done reading for years; that’s the only practice I’ve had. I don’t read out loud regularly, except at public readings… Lots of people mumble now more than ever before. It’s hard to hear people; they don’t say things clearly. You can’t mumble poetry, really, because every syllable matters. If you don’t say it so every syllable can be heard, people really aren’t going to understand it. I want to read in a way people can hear and understand.
I worked in my early twenties for Robert Graves, and he said some interesting things; he was a very original, and in some ways, a very difficult man. He thought poetry and the reading of poetry… ‘courtesy is part of the whole thing. If you’re totally indifferent to your reader this is a sign of sloppiness… Who are you writing for: Just for yourself?’ There’s a sense where you are just writing for yourself, but not every sense.
Q: You wrote a very touching poem called Lament for the Makers; most of your generation of poets is gone now. Does it make you feel lonely?
Merwin: A little bit. Some of them were people I was very fond of. James Wright, James Merrill.
Q: Who among the younger generation of poets do you like?
Merwin: C. D. Wright is one; she’s the first one who comes to mind. Deborah Digges killed herself two years ago, and I liked her poetry very much. Women poets – Linda Bierds, Linda Gregg; a lot of women poets in the generation that I like a lot… C.K. Williams – they’re all different; they’re not like each other.
Q: Any rock or rap lyricists you like?
Merwin: I love Bob Dylan… Some of the Beatles, and a few lyrics from the Rolling Stones. That dates me, I know; but that’s okay.
Your Moment of Zen
Q: Is it correct that you’re a Buddhist?
Merwin: I don’t want to talk about that… I think that’s private. I’m unhappy, because somebody once asked me for the New York Times, a nice lady, ‘Why did you come to Maui in the first place?’ I said, ‘I came to study with somebody here.’ She asked who, and I said: ‘Robert Aitken.’ She said, ‘To study what?’ And I said, ‘Zen Buddhism,’ and that was all there was to it. Journalists love to pick that up, because they don’t know what else to talk about, and they talk about that. I don’t like to talk about it unless people are really very seriously concerned with the subject themselves. Otherwise it’s sort of idle curiosity.
Q: It seems that the sense of oneness you impart in your poems has a philosophical connection to Zen.
Merwin: There’s another way of looking at it. Which is that certain things, if one pays attention and is concerned about them, in one’s temperament, in one’s outlook on the world, in one’s attempt to understand something about the world, certain things confirm what one is groping one’s way towards. I didn’t have the words for that, but there it is. That’s a good statement of it. For me, there are various places where one can find things like that. Blake, or Daoism, there are even things in the New Testament. I’m not a Christian but I think Jesus was an amazing occurrence on the planet and I think we’ve made of him something that he never was or ever wanted to be. But there are incredible things that he said. I heard a Japanese teacher say where Christianity and Buddhism are very close is when Jesus said: ‘The kingdom of heaven is within you.’ If it’s not there, it’s nowhere.
Obama’s Hawaiian Style
Q: The president was born in Hawaii. How has growing up in Hawaii affected how Obama operates in the White House?
Merwin: I can’t tell because I can’t compare him to a Pres. Obama who did not grow up in Hawaii. You see what the difference is? But I suspect that the Hawaiians -- you might not think it from the Sovereignty movement or some of the militant Hawaiians – but they’re a people, and the kupuna [elders] insisted on this: They’re a very patient people. They don’t believe in going off halfcocked and shooting their mouths off. You know, ‘troublemaker’ [which Merwin pronounces with a pidgin accent] is a very serious thing to say about somebody. They don’t like just sort of automatic troublemaking. Uncle Harry Mitchell… said, ‘I thought activism was going to be fun, it was going to be active, a lot going on. It just means troublemaker.’ He was talking about himself, too…
Q: The president is sometimes called “No Drama Obama.” Do you feel that the deliberative tone he has, to try and seek consensus as opposed to confrontation, might have something to do with growing up in Hawaii?
Merwin: Yes. One of the things that happens in Hawaii is, not only the temperament of Hawaiians contributed to that, but also the racial mix of Hawaii certainly had to contribute to it. It’s not that there’s no racism here; Hawaii is riddled with racism. Everybody has bad words for every other race in Hawaii, it happens all the time. They have dirty words for each other; they’re not nice. On the other hand they realize they have to live together.
Q: It’s a small island.
Merwin: That’s right. Well, you might say things behind your hand, but basically… you have to get along.
Q: And that’s a lesson the president learned.
Merwin: I think he did. You read about him in law school and how he dealt with things in law school, and as a professor of law he’d ask everybody’s opinion, and then talk about the different opinions and try to make a consensus. It’s not unique to Hawaii by any means. In his later years the Buddha himself believed in consensus; and the Quakers believe in consensus. There’s a number of peoples that tend toward that. I’m a little skeptical about consensus; I suppose I’m a little skeptical about human character. Because I think – the jury system is supposedly based on consensus. The jury’s supposed to be unanimous. It’s often that what seems to be consensus is that some people get sort of browbeaten or weary to the point where they just say, ‘Okay, do it any way you want to.’ [Laughs.] I don’t know; it’s a desirable thing to aim for. But I’m uncertain at how often it can ever be arrived at. It can be paralyzing; it can mean that you don’t do anything…
The Path Towards Enlightenment
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
Merwin: Yes; one important thing. One thing I’d like to emphasize in this new and brief position is… read for pleasure… Read junk. Read every kind of book. But read for pleasure. The reason the Puritans wanted to stamp out poetry was because it gave pleasure. It’s about things you love; things that you care about. Sir Philip Sidney, in the generation before Shakespeare, ‘Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.’ And it will never end in wisdom if it doesn’t begin in delight and continue in delight. If you don’t read poems and you think, ‘God, that is so beautiful, I don’t want to forget that.’ And you go on saying it to yourself because you love, that’s, that’s pleasure. That is real pleasure. Why do you keep humming a rock lyric and knowing all the words: ‘I hate to see that evening sun go down.’ [From W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues.] Because that’s really beautiful and gives you pleasure.
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