W. S. Merwin was able to speak to many people in his poems, his translations, his memoirs, and stories. After a lifetime of reading his work—always in wonder at each new collection—my sense is that he wrote from the same deep wellspring that led him to Hawai’i and Zen practice in the mid-1970s. He looked for and lived from the open source, the endless source of contemplation, care, respect, and imagination.
I didn’t know his earliest work but discovered his poems when I was in college during the late sixties and early seventies: The Lice, and his translation of Neruda, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. That book was the first bilingual poetry edition I’d read. I fell in love with the facing poems, the dialog of poet and poet translator. I read the poems over and over aloud, sometimes entranced, sometimes weeping. My Spanish stumbled, I knew so little. But the tongue-felt and ear-echoed sounds of Spanish and English took me to a terrain of heart, mind, and language I knew I would need to keep exploring.
The Lice touched another chord: the dark part of the human heart, its greed and cruelty. Merwin, like William Blake, saw humans whole, light and dark.
“in the faces of the officials and the rich and of all
who will never change we go on saying thank you thank you . . .
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is”
And, he spoke for animals and trees and plants in a language that entwined us with them, allowed us to feel them in a deeper way, beyond self-regard.
From “Shadow Questions (for Shadow):”
“how can so quiet a creature still greet us
after the paws are gone”
From: “One Sonnet of Summer”
“Summer has come to the trees reaching up for it
it has come in daylight without a sound
it arrived when the trees were dark in sleep
they dreamed it and woke knowing it was there”
Merwin’s many gifts include that of speaking to readers through his poems as if he were a close friend. I’m using the present tense because, though Merwin is gone, his poems are still here. As new readers come to his poems, some will feel that kinship. I met Merwin only once at a reading of his in San Jose, California, many years after beginning to read his work. His reading, presence, and poetry were a harmony: strong, gentle and clear, whether the poems were light or dark.
When he died, March 15, 2019, many people shared remembrances on the Merwin Conversancy site, merwinconservancy.org. The site has several of his poems up now, including the famous “For the Anniversary of My Death,” first collected in his book The Lice in 1967.