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Poet W.S. Merwin, Who Was Inspired By Conservation, Dies At 91

Mar 15, 2019
Originally published on March 17, 2019 6:45 am

One of America's most respected and enduring poets, W.S. Merwin, has died. Merwin's poetry is known for its mystery and wonder, and he was twice named the U.S. poet laureate. He also won a National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes.

Merwin died today in his sleep at his home in Hawaii. His death was announced by his publisher, Copper Canyon Press. He was 91 years old.

Merwin wrote a lot and for a long time. As a 5-year-old in New Jersey, he wrote hymns for the Presbyterian church where his father was a minister. When he was ready for college, the young Merwin earned a scholarship to Princeton, where he also worked in the campus dining halls. He went on to Europe, where he became a translator and soon a poet.

Fellow poet Edward Hirsch remembers when he first saw Merwin's picture.

"I thought he looked like Orpheus," he says. "His physical beauty was really quite startling, always."

But according to Hirsch, by the time Merwin published his fifth book, he was in despair — worried about the planet, nuclear issues and Vietnam. He wanted his writing to be more urgent, so, to start, Merwin decided to do away with punctuation.

"Suddenly using punctuation felt like nailing words on a page," Hirsch says. "He was seeking something like the movement and lightness of the spoken word. Then, as he became more involved in the ecological movement, his poems began to root themselves in the Earth. And one of the most amazing things in this work is by the time he became a poet of old age he had sort of morphed into a poet of praise."

That happened on the Hawaiian island of Maui. In the 1980s, Merwin found a worn-out pineapple plantation there and with his wife, Paula, worked to restore the rainforest. His day would begin early with tea, the birds, the wind and maybe some poetry scrawled on the back of an envelope. The afternoon was given to bringing back the palm trees.

He talked about his project in the 2014 documentary Even Though the Whole World is Burning. "These big beautiful palms," he said, "I planted them almost 30 years ago. I don't think anybody thought they'd grow here but they look at home now."

Merwin found inspiration in his conservation work and in his Maui home. He wrote the poem "Place" about his time there:

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

what for
not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time

with the sun already
going down

and the water
touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing

one by one
over its leaves

"He has kept very diligently that precious, quiet oasis of solitude," says Naomi Shihab Nye, a friend of the Merwins who often traveled to Maui.

Nye first read Merwin's poetry in 1969, and went on to become a poet and a teacher. A private, all-girls school once asked her to give a weeklong workshop using the work of only one poet. She chose Merwin, and afterwards the girls wrote thank-you notes, saying it was the sense of mystery they really liked.

"That was the attitude the girls had," Nye says. "How is it possible that poems which are a little bit mysterious help us to know so much more about our own lives?"

Merwin's Maui home, where he raised more than 2,000 trees, will all be set aside as part of the Merwin Conservancy.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

W.S. Merwin was a Pulitzer Prize winner and a former poet laureate of the United States. He died Friday at his home in Hawaii at the age of 91. Here is a one-line poem of his - "Elegy." (Reading) "Who would I show it to?" That seems an appropriate way to start this remembrance of Merwin from Noah Adams.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: W.S. Merwin wrote a lot. And he wrote for a long time. As a 5-year-old in New Jersey, he wrote hymns for the Presbyterian church where his father was a minister. And in later years, the inspiration was Maui and his conservation work. Here's a poem about his time there. The title is simply "Place." It was recorded at his home as part of a documentary film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "EVEN THOUGH THE WHOLE WORLD IS BURNING")

W S MERWIN: (Reading) On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree. What for? Not the fruit. The tree that bears the fruit is not the one that was planted. I want the tree that stands in the earth for the first time with the sun already going down and the water touching its roots in the earth full of the dead and the clouds passing one by one over its leaves.

ADAMS: W.S. Merwin from the 2014 documentary titled "Even Though the Whole World is Burning" - the young Merwin, when he was ready for college, earned a scholarship to Princeton, where he also worked in the campus dining halls. He went on to Europe, became a translator and soon a poet. His books started to appear. And if you saw a photograph, you'd notice that. The poet Edward Hirsch thought, this is a great looking guy.

EDWARD HIRSCH: When I first saw his picture, I thought he looked like Orpheus. His physical beauty was really quite startling - always.

ADAMS: Edward Hirsch says Merwin, by the time of his fifth book, was in despair - worried about the planet, nuclear issues, Vietnam. He wanted his writing to be more urgent. And to start, Merwin decided to do away with punctuation.

HIRSCH: Suddenly, using punctuation felt like nailing words on a page. He was seeking something like the movement and lightness of the spoken word. Then, as he became more involved in the ecological movement, his poems began to root themselves in the earth. And one of the most amazing things in his work is by the time he became a poet of old age, he had sort of morphed into a poet of praise.

ADAMS: A poet of praise - that happened on the island of Maui. Merwin found a worn-out pineapple plantation and, with his wife Paula, worked to restore the rainforest. His day would begin early with tea and the birds and the wind and maybe some poetry notes on the back of an envelope. The afternoon was given to bringing back the palm trees. He talked about this in the documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "EVEN THOUGH THE WORLD IS BURNING")

MERWIN: These big, beautiful palms - I planted them almost 30 years ago. I don't think anybody thought they'd grow here. But they look at home now.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: He has kept very diligently that precious, quiet oasis of solitude.

ADAMS: Naomi Shihab Nye is a friend of the Merwins. She's often traveled to Maui. She first read his poetry in 1969 and said, Merwin, this is a voice that could save us. Naomi Nye went on to become a poet herself and a teacher. And once, she was asked to give a week-long workshop at a private girls' school. They said, please use the work of only one poet. She chose Merwin. And afterwards, the girls wrote thank you notes saying it was the sense of mystery they really liked.

NYE: That was the attitude the girls had. How is it possible that poems, which are a little bit mysterious, help us to know so much more about our own lives?

ADAMS: The trees that W.S. Merwin raised as seedlings and planted - more than 2,000 - the home that was shared and the literary legacy will all be set aside as part of the Merwin Conservancy. Noah Adams, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.