The fact that modern society has become so drastically detached from the other forms of life—heedless of their destruction, unconcerned that species disappear daily—is the reason that Merwin, living on the most isolated island archipelago on Earth, shying away from interviews and appearances throughout his career, a guy who never wanted to "wear a suit day and night and do all the things I'd be expected to do," has agreed to take one of the most visible posts in American letters, poet laureate. And now, in Merwin's future lie official events—high profile interviews, readings, Library of Congress appearances. All of which can be tolerated, given the urgency of the moment: When he met with President Obama for "a nice long visit in the White House," Merwin expressed his concerns. "I told him, 'I think I'm very pessimistic about our chances. Our chances of surviving are not great; they're shrinking all the time. What I have to say won't make any difference, but there's no way that I can just shrug my shoulders and not say it.'" At the inaugural reading last October, he quoted the artist and poet William Blake: "The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity & by these I shall not regulate my proportions...."
And yes, those "others" seem to be everywhere these days, as the forests vanish and the subdivisions sprawl. Merwin knows this, and when he says things like "As a child I used to have a secret dread—and a recurring nightmare—of the whole world becoming city, being covered with cement and buildings and streets," the joy in his face drains away, as though a cloud has passed overhead. But even as things tilt fast in that direction, he believes, we could still pull out of the tailspin by deploying the saving grace that lies within each of us: "It's the imagination, the thing that we share with other humans, and it's the connection with every living thing, I think. It's always there."
During his poet laureate tenure Merwin hopes to remind people of this bond, and of the spark of compassion and creativity that resides within us, below our rational minds, below our love of all things shiny and speedy and new, and his arsenal consists entirely of words; words that somehow—when combined with other words in a certain rhythm—evoke images and emotions in an inexplicable, alchemical way. "People say they don't read poetry because they don't understand it," Merwin points out. "But you don't start by understanding it; you begin by physically responding to it: You're hearing something. You're moved. It's not because you just understood a calculus problem—something's got to you, you're not quite sure why and how." In a great poem, the whole is far more than the sum of the parts. This is as true in the stanzas as it is in a field of spring wildflowers or an old-growth forest, and the same soul nourishment resides there.
"You can't change the whole thing, but all you can do is what's in front of you," Merwin says, looking out at the palms. Write one poem, grow one flower. Bring something of beauty into the world, and become more beautiful by the act. Recently he and Paula turned their property into a conservancy that will eventually house a center to support art, literature, and the land itself. "I hope to be able to go on planting palms on this land for a long time," Merwin wrote in an essay describing this sanctuary. "And I regard what has been done here so far as just a beginning." Even now, in the rainy season, he tries to plant a palm every day, marveling at the stateliness and complexity of these organisms that have evolved over 60 million years. "They are ancient and very wise creatures," he says.
One palm that lives at Merwin's house is the Hyophorbe indica, a species native to Reunion Island that, he recounted, had been reduced to a single tree, with only a handful of seeds remaining. Merwin obtained some of those seeds and successfully grew them, thus saving a species from extinction. "I can't stop the destruction of the Amazon rainforest," he says. A red bird zips past his shoulder. The air is filled with the faint white noise of insects; the wind rustles the mango leaves. "But I can plant a tree."
More from O's poetry issue
We Hear You!