“Term” W.S. Merwin

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Three Merwin Poems

Sad, but true. Famous writers are made most famous by death. Sadder but truer. Famous writers sell more books in the weeks after they take on Death as an agent.

Ah, well. At least there are the beneficiaries.

But we are all beneficiaries, in a way, if we read and enjoy a poet’s collected works. And if you decide today, the day after his death, to begin reading Merwin’s poetic output, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

He wrote a lot of verse about the world, from topics big to small. And he left a lot to his reader, too. Like punctuating. You want to read Merwin? Take pause to punctuate! Here’s an example of Merwin’s work, in this case about a mere (ha!) word:

by W.S. Merwin

At the last minute a word is waiting
not heard that way before and not to be
repeated or ever be remembered
one that always had been a household word
used in speaking of the ordinary
everyday recurrences of living
not newly chosen or long considered
or a matter for comment afterward
who would ever have thought it was the one
saying itself from the beginning through
all its uses and circumstances to
utter at last that meaning of its own
for which it had long been the only word
though it seems now that any word would do

In addition to language and nature, Merwin was marked as we all are by his beginnings. His was a difficult childhood, marked by the classic distant father, a busy minister. That, coupled with the antediluvian story of Noah, brought us this:

Before the Flood
by W.S. Merwin

Why did he promise me
that we would build ourselves
an ark all by ourselves
out in back of the house
on New York Avenue
in Union City New Jersey
to the singing of the streetcars
after the story
of Noah whom nobody
believed about the waters
that would rise over everything
when I told my father
I wanted us to build
an ark of our own there
in the back yard under
the kitchen could we do that
he told me that we could
I want to I said and will we
he promised me that we would
why did he promise that
I wanted us to start then
nobody will believe us
I said that we are building
an ark because the rains
are coming and that was true
nobody ever believed
we would build an ark there
nobody would believe
that the waters were coming

You don’t have to be a kid to sometimes wonder if the world deserves a second soaking before it consumes itself in fire. Only who is the chosen family? Who Noahs?

To give  you some sense of Merwin’s expansive life, he recalls meeting Ezra Pound in the video link below: “You want to be a poet? Write 75 lines a day.”

W.S. Merwin Video

And for a bit of what went into the making of a Merwin documentary, called “Even Though the Whole World Is Burning,” we hear how Merwin passed on the typical poet’s  life in academia for one closer to the land, the seasons, the flora and fauna of the world. Thoreau, who struggled himself as a teacher and gave it up, would be proud!

Even Though the Whole World Is Burning

He ends the above clip by reading this poem:

Rain Light
by W.S. Merwin

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

Thank you W.S.–tree planter, poet, painter of patchworks spreading on hills….