At his home on Maui's remote north shore, poet laureate W.S. Merwin is planting the seeds of a stronger connection to nature, one poem at a time.
The late-day Maui sun slants through a green cathedral of palms, vines, shrubs, flowers, ferns, grasses. Below, a vast sprawl of insects; a parallel universe of unseen creatures in the soil. Above, birds and butterflies and moths, flies and bees. W.S. Merwin, 17th poet laureate of the United States, walks among them, up the path to the house that he and his wife, Paula, built on the island's rugged north shore, near a town called Haiku. It's a place of wild rains and howling trade winds, sheer cliffs and pounding waves, a world apart from the lush southern beaches and tiki bars of tourist brochures. Hawaii is thousands of miles from New York City, where Merwin was born; Princeton, New Jersey, where he studied poetry and English; and the small town in Southern France where he lived in the '60s and where the local language was a medieval dialect known as Occitan. "This place is not convenient," Merwin says, gesturing at the jungly landscape. "It was never made to be convenient. And the places I've loved most in my life, none of them were particularly convenient."
Merwin's voice is rich and warm, comforting in tone even when it's heavy with meaning. When he says "convenient," he draws the word out in a quizzical way that seems as though he's examining it, like a strange object in his hand. His presence has an interior light, a kind of glow that beams out through bright blue eyes and illuminates a shock of wavy white hair. He is more at home with the timeless than the time-pressed, and his work reflects that deeper zone. In his 83 years Merwin has written 26 books of poetry and eight books of prose, and he's translated 22 more, including Neruda's love poems, Dante's riffs on purgatory, and works originally written in French, Sanskrit, Japanese, Middle English, and the indigenous Andean language of Quechua. Along the way he's won pretty much any award you'd care to name: a pair of Pulitzers, the National Book Award for Poetry, the Lannan Literary Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry—distinction upon distinction, prompting one critic to describe Merwin's contributions as "a body of wisdom literature that is unprecedented in our age." Even so, one suspects that Merwin's proudest feat is the reclamation of this formerly blasted-out patch of Maui rainforest.
I went to visit him there as the winter rains were beginning, driving east on the Hana Highway and then winding down into the Pe'ahi Valley, past green fields and red dirt roads, the Pacific Ocean in front of me, gleaming like a beacon. As I approached Merwin's land, the vegetation grew denser. Over the past 30 years he has planted more than 4,000 trees here, representing some 850 species, beginning on the day he closed on the property, nestling 18-inch saplings along the road. "I had long dreamed of having a chance, one day," Merwin recalled in a recent essay, "to try to restore a bit of the Earth's surface that had been abused by human 'improvement.'" These 19 acres gave him his chance: They had been scoured by sugar growers, razed for firewood, mowed by cattle, plowed for pineapple, starved of water, and eventually left to die. Local officials had written them off as "wasteland." At first, when Merwin began to tend it, the soil was too poor to support the noble hardwood koas or the majestic Hawaiian Pritchardia palms that had originally grown here, but he patiently planted Casuarinas, heartier nonnative species that dropped needles, enriched the soil, added their lives to the place. "Now they are being replaced in the habitat they improved," Merwin wrote, "by young palms."
Sitting with him on his wooden porch, a canopy of leaves arcing graciously overhead, it's easy to connect Merwin's poetry to the primal beauty of his surroundings. You can follow that thread back to at least age 3, when Merwin, outraged at the sight of telephone repairmen hacking limbs off an oak in his backyard, attacked one of them in a rage, pounding the man with his fists. "I absolutely exploded," he tells me, shaking his head with a chuckle. "I screamed right out of the house and said, 'Let that tree alone!' I loved that tree. I would just go out and stand next to the tree, with my hand on the tree—and I did stand there for a long time because, I figured, we sort of understood each other."
Trees have been constant presences in his poetry, as enduring in verse as they are in nature. "On the last day of the world / I would want to plant a tree," he declares in "Place"; in "Oak Time" he writes: "a few oaks have fallen towering ancients elders / the last of elders standing there while the wars drained away."
"Rain at Night" is a poem about a lost forest, a lament that when something unique disappears, we can never really get it back:
This is what I have heard
at last the wind in December
lashing the old trees with rain
unseen rain racing along the tiles
under the moon
wind rising and falling
wind with many clouds
trees in the night wind
after an age of leaves and feathers
thought of this mountain as money
and cut the trees
that were here in the wind
in the rain at night
it is hard to say it
but they cut the sacred 'ohias then
the sacred koas then
the sandalwood and the halas
holding aloft their green fires
and somebody dead turned the cattle loose
among the stumps until killing time
but the trees have risen one more time
and the night wind makes them sound
like the sea that is yet unknown
the black clouds race over the moon
the rain is falling on the last place
Dealing with such elemental things as trees, foxes, stones, shadows, the sky, at first glance a Merwin poem can seem to be simple. But then as you read it, the words wash over you. They build and accrue and unfold, each sentence coming alive, revealing its own secret heart. There is something rich and familiar in his language, a reminder that the resonance and beauty that can be glimpsed in a forest or a river are also part of us. "That's why I don't like using the word environment," he says. "I don't like the word nature. I don't like using them because they make it seem as though we're not nature. Anything we do to the rest of the world we're doing to ourselves."
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
Printed from Oprah.com on Tuesday, March 11, 2014
© 2014 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.