Monday, September 13, 2010

What We're Reading

Some Overlooked Work of W. S. Merwin

Not too long ago we noted in this blog that W. S. Merwin had recently been selected to be America’s poet laureate. He seems in all respects a poet laureate from Central Casting. For those of us who attended college and were interested in American poetry in the 1960s and '70s, Merwin was part of the post war generation of American poets that we thought of as contemporary American, a list that included (among others) Galway Kinnell, John Ashberry, Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, James Wright, Robert Lowell, and James Merrill.

I have met and talked with William Merwin about half a dozen times over the years, usually at book signings, readings or panel discussions, most memorably for me as he spoke and read over the course of a number of days at a conference at the Claremont Colleges that was held in celebration of the work of the Nobel Poet Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. Merwin’s presence in later years seems to be one enveloped in a kind of other-worldly aura, but I never have found him to be anything but kindly, and a consummate gentleman. While I admire Merwin’s poetry, I think I have come to appreciate it more because I feel I know him as a person, not of course from just a few brief exchanges, but in large measure because I have so much enjoyed what I have come to know of him through his prose writing.

I am writing this to recommend that overlooked work. Merwin writes astonishingly accomplished and beautiful prose, and his portraits, sketches and memoirs are, I believe, great art in their own right. They add much to the understanding and appreciation of his poetry. Books like Houses and Travellers, Unframed Originals, and Regions of Memory: Uncollected Prose 1949-1982, are books that have been in and out of print over the years, are infrequently found in library collections, and are sometimes hard to locate from booksellers. They are worth the search. A recent memoir, Summer Doorways, is more readily available.

I spoke with Merwin once about how much I liked the essays in Regions of Memory, and he said, “You must be a very great reader,” which I took to be a sort of self deprecating remark that meant I must read a lot if I had got around to these parts of his oeuvre. But I have found these biographical passages essential to my appreciation of Merwin as a poet, for they have shown me the seeking, growth and nurturing of a poetic sensibility that made it possible for great poetry to be visited upon its writer and his grateful readers, a grace that continues to be bestowed without diminishment over the course of a long and celebrated career.

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