Monday, November 13, 2006


W.S. Merwin read -- well, spoke and read -- on campus today. I think it was one of the best readings I've ever been to. There was a short interview-type chat with the faculty member who introduced him -- I say "short" but I think it was actually about 40 minutes -- with questions that were open-ended enough to let him go on in whatever direction he wanted. He talked about his anti-war politics, mortality, solitude, poetry, the environment -- you know, little superficial issues. *grin* Then he read for about another 40-45 minutes or so (I think; I was not moved at any point to look at my watch). He read poems in chronological order, from some pretty early stuff up through the body of work covered in Migration, then a good handful of new poems, including a couple of elegies that just took my breath away.

I hadn't heard him read before, and he is a fine reader; he doesn't get in the way of the poems at all, doesn't get all over-dramatic about it, but his reading definitely adds something that the poems don't have on the page. And he reads at just the right speed and tone to allow the words to sink in. I could have listened to him for hours, except it would have filled my brain up way too much, and my heart, and I would have had to implode or something.

Some of what he said before the reading part -- this is going to sound weird and maybe pretentious or something -- but, completely unexpectedly, it set my brain off spinning around with ideas about my book. You know, the one I've been claiming to be working on for the last, oh, five years or so? I suddenly understood a little bit more about my own project, and where I want to go with it (or where it was already going, just tugging at the leash and waiting for me to hurry up and come along), and a glimmer of what might be an entire new section that I'm going to have to write.

And his poems ... you know, I've always been aware of Merwin, obviously, and have read him in bits and pieces, but I've never really immersed myself in his work. I think you come to poets when you're ready for them, and I have a strong, strong feeling that it's time for me to come to Merwin. I think I have a lot to learn from him.

And this is incredibly superficial, but the man does NOT look his age, no how, no way. He was born in 1927 and I would have pegged him as mid-sixties, at most. I'm bad at guessing ages, but really, the man is positively radiant or something. I guess that's what living in Hawaii will do for you, huh?

I don't listen to poetry well. Oftentimes at readings my mind wanders, and I catch a turn of phrase or a tone that I enjoy, and that's good enough. I shouldn't admit this, but it's true. So it's really quite rare for me to find myself riveted to a reading like I was tonight, swimming in the words, literally almost forgetting to breathe now and then, on the verge of tears a couple of times not because the poems were sad so much as that I was just ... moved.

And I'm not really sure just what it was about Merwin, or about his poems, that had this effect on me. All I know is, I'm awfully glad I left work a half-hour early and walked across campus to be there. Because tonight, I remember what poetry can do. And I'm feeling deeply grateful for that.


Lyle Daggett said...

Merwin's poetry hasn't yet found its way into me -- I've read poems of his that I've liked now and then, but so far haven't felt compelled to read more of him. I have, however, really like his work as a translator -- the translations of Mandelstam, the scattered translations of Lorca, the translations of early Spanish ballads, etc.

A few years ago National Geographic published a prose book of his, "The Mays of Ventadorn," more or less and account of living for a time in southern France, and exploring the history and poetry of the Provencal troubadors, and of the European world of those times. A wonderful meandering travel through a place far from here.

The book was part of a series of books National Geographic published, of established literary writers writing about specific places or regions in the world with which they felt some strong affinity or had some palpable connection. William Kittredge on one of the regions of the American West, Louise Erdrich on Manitoba, etc.

Garbo said...

I'm glad the reading got you feeling fired up about your own book. To me, that's true inspiration. The sense of radiance you got from Merwin ties in with this, to me. When other peoples' spirits shine, it makes my own spirit glow. Whether or not I express it with artistic skill is a whole other thing, but the urge to create because I want my inner divinity to be unsmothered by all the world's B.S. is the way I've started anything I ever wrote that was any good at all.

Anne said...

Lyle - Yeah, that's about where I was with Merwin before yesterday -- hadn't really felt compelled to read more of him. It really took me by surprise to be so blown away by his reading. The National Geographic book sounds really cool; I'll have to track it down!

Garbo - Yeah, it was definitely inspiring! Not so much that I was inspired to write (though I was -- that almost always happens after even a halfway good reading), but that I was inspired to step back from my work and see it as a whole, understand where I'm going with the book and where some of the gaps are that I need to write to fill in. (It's different, I think, from how most fiction writers work. I know some poets write to a particular project; I write individual poems, and only later do I recognize when a number of them work together towards a project of sorts.)