Friday, July 2, 2010

Let Us Now Praise Beautiful Men

"Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.
~ Marianne Moore's definition of poetry

On July 1, the Library of Congress announced the appointment of W.S. Merwin as U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2010-2011. Merwin is the country's 17th poet laureate. The first was Joseph Auslander, whose term ran from 1937 to 1941. Others include Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, Elisabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks and Rita Dove. Click here to review the full list.

Our new poet laureate — whose full name is William Stanley Merwin — was born in New York City in 1927 and raised in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The biography on the site of the Academy of American Poets notes that, as the son of a Presbyterian minister, Merwin began writing hymns when still a child. It also notes some of the undercurrents of Merwin's work: "Merwin's mother had grown up an orphan, and later lost her brother and her first child; Merwin's father was raised in a hard and violent home. The grief from these tragedies, the inherited violence, and the surrounding poverty, run throughout Merwin's poetry, across a career that spans five decades." 

Despite his rough beginnings, Merwin won a scholarship to Princeton; there, as he studied poetry with Galway Kinnell and John Berryman, the trajectory of his life began to take shape. In his 60-year writing career, he has won two Pulitzers, a National Book Award and at least one of almost every other literary honor. Today he is a devout Buddhist and since 1976 has lived in Hawaii. That's where he met and married his wife, Paula, and spends his spare time working to restore land destroyed by logging and agriculture.

Call me superficial, but as I read the accounts of his appointment in various places, this sentence in Patricia Cohen's New York Times profile jumped out at me: "Mr. Merwin...retains traces of the extravagant handsomeness of his youth." It is a rare thing to see a man singled out for great beauty, so of course I had to search for photos of Merwin as a young man. There he is at left, looking for all the world like a romantic hero — perhaps Heathcliff, just back from the Yorkshire moors, ready to sweep Cathy off her feet. And yes,  you can still see that beauty in his face at 83.

Click here to watch a 2008 interview with Mr. Merwin by Jeffrey Brown, hear him read a poem and see more images of him in his youth on the PBS Newshour's website.

Let's end with our new poet laureate's words. The title is "Thanks" and you can read the complete poem here. This final stanza, although first published in 1998 in the collection The Rain in the Trees, might have been written yesterday.

with the animals dying around us 
our lost feelings we are saying thank you 
with the forests falling faster than the minutes 
of our lives we are saying thank you 
with the words going out like cells of a brain 
with the cities growing over us 
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

"Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry."
~ W.B. Yeats

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