A Poet of Their Own
By DINITIA SMITH
Interview with William S. Merwin
February 19, 1995
I’d got lost looking for W. S. Merwin’s house on the Hawaiian island of Maui, driving along roads lined with palms and sugar cane, then turning into a dense area of ironwood and heliconia trees. It was almost like rain forest here — pink and red hibiscus, ginger flowers filled with rain from the night.
Then, suddenly, there he was, as if he’d somehow materialized out of the rain. He was standing by the gate to his land, looking like a Zen sensei, in a kimonolike shirt. He had slanting blue eyes and wide cheekbones. His skin was a silvery color. He was staring at me intently. “You said you’d be here at 10:15,” he said in a precise voice.
I had come to see Merwin because he had just won the $100,000 Tanning Prize. And I had the distinct impression he was not sure he wanted to be found.
For 18 years Merwin, now 67, has been living in this remote section of Hawaii, obsessively restoring, inch by inch, an abandoned pineapple farm to its original rain-forest-like state.
In Merwin’s poetry, the subject is loss, loss of place especially, the destruction of the environment:
Well they’d made up their minds to be every
where because why not.
Everywhere was theirs because they thought so.
They with two leaves they whom the birds despise.
In the middle of stones they made up their minds.
They started to cut.
When the Academy of American Poets announced it was giving Merwin the Tanning Prize, some said Merwin’s best work was behind him, that since his 1967 book, “The Lice,” a gloomy volume about the destruction of nature, his work had become obscure and abstract. (The critic Helen Vendler once called Merwin “a lesser Eliot,” and his poems “elusive pallors.”) In addition, Merwin is a chancellor of the academy; the judges — the late James Merrill, J. D. McClatchy and Carolyn Kizer — were all friends of Merwin’s.
Initially, Kizer wanted the prize to go to Gwendolyn Brooks, an African-American. “My qualm was it would look like the white male establishment handing around prizes to each other.” But James Merrill was chairman of the jury. “We wanted to find a real master,” he said last fall. “Gwendolyn Brooks would be very distinguished. But somehow I don’t think she’s a master.” Kizer, herself a potential candidate for chancellor, was outnumbered and eventually voted with the rest. “I revere him,” says Kizer. “Thank God it was Merwin, who has such enormous stature.”
Merwin — his first name is William, he doesn’t like Bill — tries to stay out of literary politics. He would like to be left alone to tend his garden and to write. He never answers his phone. Yet he’s ambivalent about solitude. “He’s a strange combination of recluse and very convivial,” says his wife, Paula. Merwin is always being torn away — especially to receive prizes. A few weeks after he won the Tanning, he flew to New York to get the $10,000 Lenore Marshall Prize. And then a few weeks after that he flew back again to receive a $105,000 Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Fellowship, awarded over a period of three years.
A Merwin poem is a highly crafted thing. The images seem etched; sometimes they come together with an almost magnetic force. He doesn’t use punctuation anymore, and often begins a sentence on the preceding line. His poetry has an onrushing, murmurous quality:
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
“Everything’s got to do with listening,” Merwin says. We are sitting on the porch of his house. The house, small and quite dark, is built on the lip of a dormant volcano, Haleakala, that rises 10,000 feet above the sea.
“Poetry is physical. As Pound said, poetry has one pole in reason and one pole in music. It’s like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of a joke, you’ve lost the whole thing.”
Merwin admits his work is sometimes abstract. “The word Lowell used was ‘history.’ I had great difficulty putting the actual, ephemeral, phenomenal fact into a poem — because I was interested in the universality of it. It’s the way the fact is heard or seen that counts.”
Merwin puts a knife with honey on it on the table. “Watch,” he says. Two geckos climb from a hidden place in the eaves, and begin licking the knife with pink tongues.
As Merwin and I talk, sudden, tropical rains come and go. The sun shines, then there’s a giant rainbow out over the Pacific. Under the table, Merwin’s four chows nap, their doggy smell filling the air. The chows are Merwin’s substitute for children. He carries photos of them in his wallet. “I’ve never had a desire for children,” he says. “I’m very sort of egotistical and impatient.”
Merwin is a curious mixture of sensuality and reserve. The epithet “pretty boy” has haunted him all his life. Time magazine once wrote that Merwin “flutters female hearts.” When he was younger, his face was almost faunlike — the eyes wary, trapped. Howard Moss, the late poetry editor of The New Yorker, used to keep a picture of Merwin on his wall. “Nobody has a right to be that good-looking,” he would say.
Over the years, Merwin has almost reinvented himself in the 19th-century Romantic ideal of the poet at one with nature. When he isn’t writing, he’s down in his forest, trying to restore it to its primeval state. In conversation, he refers constantly to “the environment,” to a tree that doesn’t belong in Hawaii but was brought here by merchants or missionaries, to a geothermal project on a neighboring island that he’s campaigning against. In many ways, Merwin’s is a mythic self, far from the little boy who grew up in a family clinging precariously to the middle class.
Merwin was the son of a Presbyterian minister in a poor parish in Scranton, Pa., surrounded by barren, strip-mined land. His mother had been orphaned as a child; then her brother died; then her first baby, Merwin’s older brother. Merwin grew up haunted by this brother, in an atmosphere permeated by grief. (He has a sister, Ruth, two years younger, a high-school teacher.)
Merwin’s father almost never spoke of his own family. The Merwins were rough people. Merwin’s grandfather was a drunken, violent riverboat pilot on the Allegheny. Merwin’s father had violence in him, too. He was “a bully,” says Merwin. “I was frightened of him. There was a fair amount of physical punishment. I turned on him physically two times in early adolescence. I thought one time he was getting abusive to my mother. When I was 13, I said, ‘Never touch me again!’ ” The theme of violence runs through Merwin’s poetry — violence to animals, to plants, to the soil, human violence. Merwin’s mother was a committed pacifist. Today, Merwin is a pacifist, too, and also a Buddhist. It’s as if Buddhism will somehow overcome the violence in the world — and the potential for violence within Merwin himself. Merwin’s father was also mean to pets — and to this day the sight of an animal being mistreated can send Merwin into a rage. “He has a temper,” says Merwin’s wife, “but he loses it very rarely. It’s always been on the occasion of somebody or something helpless.”
Merwin’s first poems were hymns he wrote for his father. And he is indebted to his father for a crucial lesson: “As long as you are doing something you respect, it’s O.K. not to make money,” is the way Merwin defines it. Today, Merwin lives on $25,000 to $30,000. With his resonant voice and dramatic pauses, Merwin is a riveting reader. “He could always just go to a university, stand up, open his mouth — and pick up $2,000,” says Moira Hodgson, a writer who lived with Merwin during the late 60’s. Unlike most poets, he doesn’t teach.
Merwin’s parents were uneducated, but Merwin is a translator of Neruda, “El Cid,” “The Chanson de Roland”; he reads and quotes often from Dante and the Welsh sagas. He was a scholarship student at Princeton in the 40’s — a waiter in one of the university’s elite eating clubs. “He was a kind of prodigy,” recalls Galway Kinnell, a Princeton classmate, “writing poetry that was so incredibly resonant.” Even then, Merwin attracted the attention of eminent older figures. He studied writing with the critic R. P. Blackmur, and showed his poems to Blackmur’s teaching assistant, John Berryman. Berryman, literally trembling with passion, would say, “You should get down on your knees to the Muse.” Sometimes Berryman told Merwin his poems were terrible, but he was encouraging too, in a “guarded” way. One day, Merwin asked how he could be sure his poetry was any good. Berryman’s response was memorable, and later, Merwin wrote a poem about it: “You can’t you can never be sure/you die without knowing.”
After Princeton, Merwin married Dorothy Jeanne Ferry, a secretary at Princeton. Merwin decided to write verse plays, and supported himself teaching the children of wealthy aristocrats. Eventually the poet Robert Graves hired him as a tutor to his son in Majorca.
Soon tension developed between Graves and Merwin. Graves was flirting outrageously with a house guest in front of his wife and children. “It was quite nauseating,” Merwin remembers. “He was treating her as though she were the Muse, flirting and not going to bed with her.” Merwin and Graves quarreled. Later, Merwin got back at Graves in a poem: “Opportunist, shrewd waster, half calculation,/Half difficult child; a phoney, it would seem.” Another Graves house guest was Dido Milroy, an Englishwoman with literary aspirations. Dido was a powerful figure, 15 years older than Merwin. They began to collaborate on a verse play. After Merwin left Majorca, he went to London, broke up with his wife, Dorothy, and eventually married Dido.
Merwin’s relationship with Dido dominated most of his adult life. She introduced him to English literary figures, helped get him a job translating “El Cid” for the BBC. Yet Dido was a devouring figure who wanted to inhabit Merwin’s very existence. “Dido’s ex-husband said she always wanted to own a poet,” says Merwin.
In 1952, Merwin published his first book, “A Mask for Janus.” The poems are ornate, sometimes mannered — and were good enough to win him the first prize an establishment poet must win, the Yale Younger Poets Prize, judged then by W. H. Auden.
Merwin felt confined by Dido and longed to hear American voices. In 1956, he won a fellowship at the Poets’ Theater in Boston and moved there. But Dido resolutely followed. In Boston, Merwin became part of a group who surrounded the charismatic, intermittently mad Robert Lowell, then teaching at Boston University. Lowell could be viciously competitive. One day, Lowell said to Merwin: “You’ll always be a good poet, but not a great poet.”
In Boston, Merwin abandoned verse plays. He had begun to rediscover his “American” voice and to explore his family’s secrets. His 1960 collection, “The Drunk in the Furnace,” is less precious than Merwin’s previous work, more in the American vernacular. The title poem is evocative of Merwin’s drunken grandfather:
They were afterwards astonished
To confirm, one morning, a twist of smoke like a pale
Resurrection, staggering out of its chewed hole,
And to remark then other tokens that someone
Cozily bolted behind the eye-holed iron
Door of the drafty burner, had there established
His bad castle.
Ever restless, the Merwins again moved back to England. In London, Merwin was friends with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Plath idolized Merwin — she wanted to be pure like him, free to just write. At one point, according to a memoir by Dido Merwin, Plath became infatuated with Merwin. But Merwin didn’t return her affections. The Merwins were witness to the awful disintegration of the Hugheses’ marriage before Plath’s suicide in 1963. Today, Merwin won’t talk about Plath. Plath is bad karma.
Finally, in 1968, Merwin separated from Dido (though she refused to give him a divorce). She clung to Merwin’s beloved house in Lacan, France, about which Merwin has written many poems and a prose collection, “The Lost Upland.”
Merwin began living part of the year in New York with Moira Hodgson, an English writer 20 years younger. Ever reluctant to let him go, Dido befriended Hodgson. “She had a very powerful personality,” says Hodgson. “It was a bit like the mother who says, ‘Let my son bring his girlfriends home.’ ” (Dido died in 1990.)
“Merwin was incredibly difficult,” adds Hodgson, “but all poets are incredibly difficult. He had a lot of conflicting feelings about leaving France, but he liked the excitement and hard edge of the city. Then he’d say, ‘O, God, I can’t bear to be here!’ “
Merwin opposed the Vietnam War. In 1971, when his book “The Carrier of Ladders” won the Pulitzer, he gave the $1,000 away to antiwar causes in protest.
On a reading trip to Hawaii in 1975, he met Dana Naone, a Hawaiian and an aspiring poet, also younger. “I think William was looking to chart a new course,” says Merwin’s friend the poet William Matthews. “Dana had a willingness to live in the country and get into the dirt.” Merwin and Hodgson broke up, and he began living with Naone.
One thing Naone and Merwin shared was an interest in Buddhism. Early in their relationship, they were invited to the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., a center for Buddhist studies where Allen Ginsberg was teaching.
Naropa was presided over by a Tibetan guru, Chogyam Trungpa, a tireless drunk and womanizer. At a Halloween party while Ginsberg was away, Trungpa ordered everyone to undress. Merwin and Naone refused. Trungpa’s bodyguards tried to batter down the door to their room. “I was not going to go peacefully,” Merwin recalls. “I started hitting people with beer bottles. It was a very violent scene.” Trungpa’s bodyguards stripped them, and the two figures cowered together before the guru like a chastened Adam and Eve.
The incident came to be mythologized as “The Great Naropa Poetry Wars.” Naropa became an epitaph for an era, a paradigm of the difference between two kinds of poetry — between Ginsberg’s passionate, declamatory style and Merwin’s restrained, Western formalism.
Despite what happened at Naropa, Merwin is still a Buddhist. He likes to quote the 13th-century Buddhist teacher Dogen, a contemporary of Dante’s: ” ‘You must let the body and mind fall away.’ ” In his house, Merwin has a zazen (meditation) room, a sparse place with four pillows, where he meditates — 45 minutes before breakfast, and again before dinner.
After Naropa, Merwin moved to Hawaii for good. He built his house with an inheritance from his mother. Later, he bought additional land with money left to him by George Kirstein, former publisher of The Nation. Eventually, he broke up with Dana Naone.
In 1970, Merwin met a blond woman who seemed to him “beautiful, terrified.” She was Paula Schwartz, an editor of children’s books. Schwartz was married, and they went their own ways. Then in 1982, Merwin (finally divorced from Dido) met Schwartz again at a dinner party in New York. In a poem, “Late Spring,” he describes the moment:
After looking and mistakes and forgetting
turning there thinking to find
no one except those I knew
finally I saw you
sitting in white
They were married in a Buddhist ceremony in 1983.
ONE AFTERNOON, IN THE RAIN, MERWIN takes me on a tour of the garden. “That’s a koa tree, what Hawaiian canoes were made from,” he says as we trudge along a wet, rocky path. “I put that in as a tiny tree.”
We come to an eroded ledge, one patch he hasn’t restored yet. “See there, that’s what it used to be like. It wants to be a forest!”
As he digs in the garden, Merwin thinks about poetry. Recently Milton’s sonnet about his wife came to mind: ” ‘Me thought I saw my late espoused saint/brought to me like Alcestis from the grave.’ “
“The fact is he never saw her,” says Merwin. “He was blind before he married her. It hadn’t occurred to me — his wife appears to him in a dream! I realized ‘Jove’s great son’ was Jesus, who rescues her from death.”
Since the restoration of Merwin’s land, since his marriage to Paula, his poetry has become more accessible, more celebratory. Now in his poems, you can almost feel the rain in the trees:
I lie listening to the black hour
before dawn and you are
still asleep beside me while
around us the trees full of night lean
hushed in their dream that bears
us up asleep and awake then I hear
drops falling one by one into
the sightless leaves
perfect among the sages is identical with Me. There is
absolutely no difference between us”