In his beloved palm forest. New Yorker photo. Front photo by Lisa Kristine
Belatedly, we mourn the passing of WS Merwin, masterful poet as well as fierce environmentalist and defender of justice, who died in his sleep Friday at 91 at his home on Maui, where over several decades he and his wife built an 18-acre palm forest "as fearless and graceful (as) the power of imagination and renewal." The former Poet Laureate and award-winning author of over 20 books held fast to "an intellectual and moral consistency," exploring loss, war, nature and age in stirring language that grew increasingly spare and grave; in Worn Words, one of his final poems, he lauded "the late poems/ that are made of words/that have come the whole way." Still, the son of a Presbyterian minister who became a lifetime Buddhist insisted, "What we know is nothing in comparison with what we don’t know." Wisdom, he once said, is "the question that you can't answer."
Merwin revered the natural world and tirelessly raged against those destroying it through war, colonialism or industrialization. Nonetheless, he also mindfully chose to listen and give often-tender thanks, arguing in 2014's Living With the News that "the only hope is to be the daylight." He stayed true to that principle even when distant from nature, when remembering wars, funerals, the rich, "the police at the door, the beatings on stairs...the animals dying around us...the forests falling faster than the minutes/of our lives: "with the cities growing over us/ we are saying thank you faster and faster/with nobody listening we are saying thank you/thank you we are saying and waving/dark though it is."
He received arguably every honor possible for a poet, including some he refused. In "an act of mourning," he famously rejected the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for The Carrier of Ladders in protest against the Vietnam War. "I am too conscious of being an American to accept public congratulation with good grace," he wrote, welcoming it only "as an occasion for expressing openly a shame which many Americans feel, day after day, helplessly and in silence." He donated his prize winnings to antiwar causes, a move his friend and mentor W.H. Auden denounced. He also turned down, but later accepted, membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 2010, he was named this country's Poet Laureate; he also won a National Book Award for Migration in 2005, a second Pulitzer in 2009 for The Shadow of Sirius (which he accepted), and many other honors.
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In 1977, Merwin moved to Hawaii, where he and his wife Paula bought a former pineapple plantation overlooking the ocean - a “paradise lost” devastated by deforestation and chemical residues. Over four decades, they created a forest of 3,000 palm trees encompassing 400 often-rare species from around the world; they also built and lived in a solar-powered house. "I can't stop them from destroying the Amazon Forest," he argued, "but I can go out and plant a tree." In 2010, they founded The Merwin Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving their legacy; it is profiled in the documentary Even Though the Whole World Is Burning. "He discovered it, and it discovered something in him," said fellow-poet Edward Hirsch. "He found a way of being to believe in. He dug in - tending the land, tending his poetry." Of his passing, Hirsch mourns, "He is like a great pine tree that has fallen." Merwin, Place:
"On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree"
Merwin young. Photo by Douglas Kent Hall/Zuma Press