Speaking in a forgotten language

Award-winning poet W.S. Merwin visits Carnegie Lecture Hall

Patrick Gage Kelley Nov 20, 2006

“If you are not impressed — you are un-impressable,” stated Samuel Hazo, the director of the Pittsburgh International Poetry Forum, when he introduced the 79-year-old man who sat placidly in the solitary armchair against the back wall of the Carnegie Lecture Hall.

This man, W.S. Merwin, is a recipient of the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Tanning Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lannan Literary Lifetime Achievement Award, the Golden Wreath Award, and the Ambassador Book Award, as well as a selection by the Yale Series of Younger Poets; he also notably served as a Special Bicentennial Poet Laureate Consultant for the Library of Congress from 1999 to 2000. This man, poet, environmentalist, translator, essayist, and pacifist, still until his introduction was complete, rose to the podium and began with a poem related to “this part of the world.”

Chronologically, from his roots in Pennsylvania to his travels across the country and the world, he began to recount a series of mostly narrative poems. He moved between stories of his family, of the eras from which specific poems were cast, and of his reflections back on the events of his own life. Certain poems brought the audience closer to him. “The Last One” is a narrative on the destruction of trees, where as the last one falls its shadow remains and begins to consume everything near it, just as the same beings that destroyed their environment attempt to remove all traces of its existence. This poem, from his 1967 anthology The Lice, slowly pulled the audience to applause.

There was something that separated the poet from the audience. The poet, brashly courageous, revealed emotions through words that he seemed compelled to read aloud, a dialogue with no response. But the audience this evening was in highest form, deliberately studying — much as one observes a great man. The women present stared lovingly; the men were intent on finding inspiration, as Merwin stood, lit, leafing through his most recent collection: Migration: New & Selected Poems.

Part of what separated the poet and the audience may have been his scholarship and his experience. As he invoked Kierkegaard’s view on thanks or the tale of the blind seer Georg Eberhard Rumphius, we sensed how much of the world he had studied, though it was clear that he had lived through just as much. From his stories of growing up with a Presbyterian minister, to his memories of conversations with once fellow poet Ted Hughes, we began to realize how many hidden layers there were. However, he knew this, and surely had witnessed that his audiences connect most with the poems that he prefaces with stories. One such poem is “Search Party,” his self-described closest attempt to emulate François Villon, who he named “one of the greatest poets, one of the worst men.” This poem tells the story of his search for a girl named Molly, and how in obsession he says, “You become a bore — my vocabulary got smaller, and I became rhythmical,” which he attributed to helping him create something near what Villon had.

Merwin has been translating works from other languages nearly as long as he has been publishing his own work, across multiple languages and time periods. He offered to the audience only one small translated work, what is said to be the only poem ever written by the emperor Hadrian of Rome. Merwin said that this was a poem he frequently returned to for its simplicity and beauty, a poem so elegant that he didn’t believe it could truly be the only poem written by this man, though possibly the only one saved.

Through the entire reading Merwin was remarkably human. As he told stories he paused, searching for the word he wanted to use; after a particular coughing jag he poked, “It must be your air; this is all your fault!” But most meaningfully, between the poems that he chose to give to us, he punctuated his reading with little fragments of thought, theories on life and literature. He spoke of the relationship of narrative to the realities of language, the finding of morals that were so clearly apparent only years after writing. To the people who have asked him what his plan is while writing, he always responded teasingly, “They think there was a plan.”

He told the story, having first moved to Hawaii, of living in a small house with a tin roof that leaked; he described it as “being in sort of a bad shower.” And even in a house that was always flooded, he added that the worst part was not being able to talk with guests during showers as all one could hear was the rain — thus he knew that he would one day have a house (which he would later help to build) where he could hear not the rain on the roof, but only the rain in the trees. This, the title of his 1988 The Rain in The Trees, he said, is exemplified by the following short poem “Witness”: “I want to tell what the forests / were like / I will have to speak / in a forgotten language.” The poem illustrates all at once his accurate regard of nature, his direct and honest tone, which questions at the same time as it explains. When we listened to Merwin speak, we were so inspired by the truths he so easily finds and teaches us that we believed all along that he had a plan, and that his plan has defined him as one of the greatest poets of his generation.