'You Approach the World with Humility and Love'

October 11, 1994|By DIANE SCHARPER

"The Pennsylvania that I grew up in and loved as a child isn't there,'' W. S. Merwin said. ''I don't mean it's just been developed into suburbs either -- it's been strip-mined; it really is literally not 11 there. This happens to a lot of people, but I don't see why one has to express indifference about it. It matters.''

Mr. Merwin is a poet deeply concerned with man's relationship to the environment. It is a subject about which he minces no words: ''You approach the world with humility and love or you rape it.'' His poetry has been called a testimony to our betrayal of everything that could have saved us -- the sky, the earth, the animals, our gods, our very selves.

One of our most prolific poets, Mr. Merwin has written and translated nearly 40 books. He has just received the first $100,000 Tanning Prize for mastery in poetry, the nation's most moneyed poetry award. His first book, published in 1952, won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Other honors include a Rockefeller Foundation Grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Bollingen Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, and a Pulitzer Prize (1970) for ''The Carrier of Ladders.''

Born September 30, 1927, Mr. Merwin began writing poetry almost as soon as he could write. His first poems were hymns written for his father, a Presbyterian minister. He describes them as rather stern little pieces addressed to backsliders. Later, he .. found the ''Best Loved Poems of the American People,'' then novels by Joseph Conrad and Leo Tolstoy. When he was at Princeton University, he began writing poetry in earnest, often while he was in the country, horseback riding.

Perhaps those early experiences in the countryside have influenced the style of Mr. Merwin's poetry. Reading these poems is like looking at a prism and suddenly noticing all the colors of the rainbow. This especially happens in shorter poems, such as ''Memory of Spring'': ''The first composer/could hear only what he could write.''

Perhaps, too, those rides on horseback have influenced Mr. Merwin's preoccupation with nature and detail. Nature makes this poet ecstatic. ''Touch me,'' he says to the rain, ''let me love what I cannot know/as the man born blind may love color/until all that he loves/fills him with color.'' (''To The Rain'')

At times, nature seems to write its own poem through him. ''Why should I have returned?'' Noah's raven asks, ''My knowledge would not fit into theirs. . . . I never made promises.'' Another poem describes the clouds, cold lakes and silence of winter, and ends by saying: ''everything in the world has been lost and lost/but soon we will find it again/and understand what it told us when we loved it.'' (''Spring'')

His poems address the darkness of nature's mystery: ''I went on finding them,'' he writes about the wild mushroom, ''coming to recognize a depth . . . a texture of flesh/scarcely born/full of the knowledge of darkness.'' Sometime it's a darkness born of pain. That pain includes our relations with each other and with all of nature. ''Separation'' suggests this in deceptively simple words: Your absence has gone through me/Like thread through a needle./Everything I did is stiched with its color.''

Some of Mr. Merwin's more recent essays were written in protest of government land use in Hawaii. An island which was a national historic monument and also a place sacred to the Hawaiian people was being used as a bombing target. ''I imagine,'' he said, ''that a society whose triumphs one after the other emerge as new symbols of death, and that feeds itself by poisoning the earth may be expected . . . to soothe its fears with trumpery hopes . . . refer to nihilism as progress . . . and find the arts exploitable but unsatisfying.''

Poetry, for Mr. Merwin, is a matter of correspondence: ''One glimpses pieces of an order, or thinks one does, and tries to convey a sense of what one has seen to those to whom it may matter, including, if possible, one's self.''

Animals, too, are a part of this correspondence. Mr. Merwin has said that he's learned some of the most important things in life from animals. ''I couldn't have learned them any other way, and they had to do with the virtues we think of as human, the sort of moral virtues, ways of being.''

Ultimately, W.S. Merwin finds his poems in such connections. These connections add another layer of meaning to his description of poetry: ''One is trying to say everything that can be said on the things one loves, while there is still time.''

Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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