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.