Merwin: A simple, independent life writing spare poetry Touched by the poet

October 10, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

When W.S. Merwin was a young man, he went to the psychiatric ward of St. Elizabeth's to see Ezra Pound, then the most famous patient at the Washington mental hospital.

It had been Pound's poetry that convinced Mr. Merwin the life of a poet was possible in the 20th century. His youthful ardor for the older man's work would be tempered by time and much re-reading, but he would always cherish Pound's advice that day.

"He told me that I was fortunate that I knew people in my youth for whom it never occurred to write for money. I thought that marvelous," says the 67-year-old poet, in town for a three-day residency with the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society that concludes today.

For five decades now, Mr. Merwin has lived his life as simply as possible, so he could afford his passion. Along the way, he was able to for sake the professions that initially supplemented his writing -- teaching, translating -- largely through the use of grants.

But he calculates that all those grants and prizes, less the Pulitzer Prize money that he gave away as a war protest in 1971, came to a grand total of $1,500 per year.

The Tanning Prize, however, has changed all that. The $100,000 poetry award, given this fall for the first time, has brought Mr. Merwin a kind of commercial success few critically admired poets ever receive.

"He has received other prizes, although none so sumptuous," the poet Roland Flint said upon introducing Mr. Merwin yesterday at a reading arranged by the Columbia literary society long before the Tanning Prize was announced. "And it is significant the news was received widely by other writers with happiness."

Still, Mr. Merwin remains surprised by this bolt from the blue. After all, he chose a poet's life for its independence, and accepted poverty as part of it.

"Thirty some years ago, someone told me Bertrand Russell said, 'If a poet cannot be independent, who else on earth can be?' " he recalls, sitting in the lobby of the Columbia Inn before yesterday's reading.

"At first I thought, 'What does he know about it?' Then I thought, he's a smart man, he may be right. And I began to see it was a kind of responsibility."

In dreams began responsibilities. The line belongs to William Butler Yeats, but the life is W. S. Merwin's -- William Stanley, that is, a minister's son reared in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Skipped ahead in school, he went off to Princeton in his mid-teens, where enrollment was so depleted by World War II that he was one of 143 students. There, he met two important mentors -- critic R. P. Blackmur and poet John Berryman.

Blackmur, who once called Mr. Merwin "one of the keenest literary intelligences I've ever been near," kept the young poet from being thrown out of Princeton for poor grades. Mr. Merwin, it seems, preferred reading on his own and night rides across the New Jersey countryside on a horse called Bobby to attending class.

But one class he didn't miss was Berryman's. Berryman's wife, Eileen Simpson, would recall in her memoir, "Poets in their Youth," how excited Berryman was to find "the real thing" in his student. But he didn't share his enthusiastic assessment with his pupil, Mr. Merwin recalls with a smile.

"He really cared about poetry and his judgments were absolutely ruthless," he says. "The only thing that mattered was how good the poetry was." In a poem Mr. Merwin wrote upon Berryman's death, he recalls his teacher cautioning him: "Hang on to your arrogance until later."

Almost 50 years later, the arrogance has yet to show itself. Whether in a workshop, reading or conversation, Mr. Merwin never condescends.

He honestly assumes, for example, that everyone in his audience knows of Francois Villon, a 15th-century French poet perhaps best known for his lament: Where are the snows of yesteryear? Mr. Merwin learned French, he tells a rapt, overflow audience at Columbia's Oakland manor, to read Villon. (He does not remind them that he has translated works from French -- as well as Spanish, Greek, Russian and Japanese.)

In conversation, he draws poetry out of his listener, until one suddenly remembers lines learned years ago. Poetry is in everyone, he insists, even if they don't understand or recognize the forms used. And one suddenly remembers what W. H. Auden wrote of the art: "A way of happening, a mouth."

"Yes," he says. "Exactly."

He writes of time and nature, both fleeting. His poems also seem obsessed, not surprisingly, with words, as evidenced by his reading from the opening poem of "Travels," a collection published last year.

"Hypocrite reader my

variant my almost

family we are so

few now it seems as though

we knew each other as

the words between us keep

assuming that we do"

More than 30 years ago, he abandoned punctuation. "When we're talking to each other, we don't use punctuation. It's part of the genie's bottle I've crawled into. But that doesn't mean I won't use it again."

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