Honored poet Merwin a big draw in Columbia

October 07, 1994|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

W. S. Merwin won the first $100,000 Tanning Prize for mastery in poetry Sept. 29. Three days later, all tickets to his Columbia speaking engagements this weekend were sold out.

"We expected to fill it, but not so soon," said Ellen Conroy Kennedy, president and executive director of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), the sponsor of the poet's visit.

Mr. Merwin will present a "Craft Talk on Creative Writing" seminar tomorrow afternoon at the Bryant Woods Center. Sunday, he will read from his works at historic Oakland Manor.

It won't be the first time a visiting poet has played to a packed house in Columbia.

When Mark Strand read three years ago, the same year he was named U.S. poet laureate, crowds spilled out of the Howard Community College lounge to the elevator. "People crawled where there were no seats and sat at his feet," Ms. Kennedy

said.

It also won't be the first time a distinguished poet has won a prestigious award shortly before a reading in Columbia. Last October, a month before Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stanley Kunitz appeared in Columbia, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts for poetry by President Clinton in a ceremony on the White House lawn.

But it is the first time HoCoPoLitSo has been inundated with requests -- by phone and mail -- for tickets.

"Monday, somebody called me and said, 'I have money,' " Ms. Kennedy said. " 'I'm on my car phone. I want 10 tickets for the reading. I'm on my way.' I told her, 'Don't come. Call me tomorrow instead. I'll put you on my waiting list.'

"The notoriety that goes with this particular prize, and the hoopla it caused, made people more aware," Ms. Kennedy said.

The hoopla is directed at a gentle and modest man known as much for his passion and politics as he is for his powerful imageries.

"He's a person who cares a great deal about the human condition and environment -- and he tries to do something about it," said poet Lucille Clifton of Columbia, distinguished professor of humanities at St. Mary's College and a HoCoPoLitSo board member.

"He speaks using both intellect and intuition and straight through to the human heart."

A zealous environmentalist, Mr. Merwin uses his art to bring down the walls that separate humanity from the natural world.

'It's about what we share'

"Everything that's alive is something we have to link with," he said from his apartment in Greenwich Village, New York. "The walls we put up between sexes and races are artificial and blind us. Even slight distinctions can be dangerous.

"Compassion means to feel what happens in life, what happens to us. We're it. That's what the arts are telling us. What happens in any work of art -- it's not us, it's about what we share."

The 57-year-old poet, who has written for the theater and translated from the classics, insists that poetry is the only medium where writers' thoughts can be communicated beyond the written word.

"Poetry makes the most complete use of language," he said. "In prose, you're usually trying to say what can be said. In poetry, you try to go beyond what they say. That's why people get impatient with it. If you're just trying to get information out of it you have to stop and change gears. You can't pay attention to it like you would reading a headline.

"In moments of great passion, grief, anger or love, you try to go beyond what the words say. Poetry comes close to doing that."

He also maintains that, to grasp a poem's meaning, its words must be heard before they are read.

"You can't speed read it," he said. "Sometimes the poems you read you think make no sense at all, but once you hear it, then it makes sense to you. When poetry happens, it happens to your whole body.

Mr. Merwin uses words sparingly to convey his intensity. "He is a master of wonderful, powerful images and can do it simply in a very short space," said Roland Flint, a professor of English at Georgetown University in Washington who has written six poetry books.

Mr. Flint, of Silver Spring, will introduce Mr. Merwin at the reading and tape a segment with him Monday for HoCoPoLitSo's cable series, "The Writing Life," on HCC's Cable 8.

As an example of Mr. Merwin's economy, Mr. Flint points to what he calls "Merwin's shortest poem":

"Your absence goes through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with these colors."

The recipient of numerous awards including the 1971 Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the P.E.N. Translation Prize and the Aiken-Taylor Prize for Poetry and the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, Mr. Merwin's mastery was recognized with the first Tanning Award presented Sept. 29 at the Library of Congress in Washington.

The $100,000 award is the nation's largest literary prize. Administered by the Academy of American Poets, it is endowed by 84-year-old painter Dorothea Tanning, wife of the late painter Max Ernst.

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