Gardening notes: America's new poet laureate, WS Merwin

Merwin is not, he says, a public person by nature. This month, at the age of 82, he became one by official fiat.

There's a striking poem in Opening the Hand, William Stanley Merwin's 1983 collection, called Hearing. The speaker is climbing a waterfall, presumably in Hawaii where the poet has lived for more than three decades. In a typical Merwinian moment of communion, his body starts to resonate to the sound of falling water, "a voice like a small bell singing/ over and over one clear treble/ syllable". He goes on: "I could feel it ring in my foot in my skin/ everywhere." Wherever he moves, from rock to rock, holding a tin cup under the stream, the sound continues:

when I moved the cup
still it went on
when I filled the cup
in the falling column
still it went on
when I drank it rang in my eyes
through the thunder curtain
The verse looks casual, an impression heightened by Merwin's signature lack of punctuation. But it has a careful music - the tinkling assonance of "still it", "I filled", "falling", modulating to the flatter "drank" and "rang", as if the poem itself were muffled by the tin cup held to the mouth. The rhythm, too, serves the image, stately but overflowing the line-breaks, its momentum spilling into a white abyss. In short, as its title advertises, it's the work of a poet with a highly attentive ear.

Merwin is not, he says, a public person by nature. This month, at the age of 82, he became one by official fiat. Since July 1, he has been America's poet laureate, a role he will hold for between one and three years. One suspects that, as a pacifist and committed environmentalist, he will find that this move tests his ability to perceive the still, small voice against the thunder of media interest more than anything since he set his pen against the Vietnam war.

"There has been a lot of attention and some very good things written, very pleasant things written, and we'll see how it goes," he says genially when I call him at his home in Maui. Although he doesn't plan on spending much time in Washington, he does hope to use his new position, to which he was appointed by the Library of Congress, to address some of his pet subjects. "I want very much to draw attention to the relation, which I believe is a natural one, between the arts and the natural world," he says. This connection is "seldom talked about" he believes, because "almost every artist of every kind lives in cities and they think cities are the real world". Having emerged in his later writing as something of a man of nature, Merwin inclines to differ. "When I was in the country I missed the city sometimes," he remarks, quoting the New Yorker writer EB White. "When I was in the city I missed the country all the time."

His experiences of urban life began in New York, where he was born in 1927. His father was a Presbyterian minister and Merwin's first verses were hymns written for his father's congregation in Scranton, Pennsylvania, "words for singing/ to music I did not know" as he writes in his late poem From the Start. At the age of 18 he sought literary advice from the great Modernist poet Ezra Pound, then in prison for treason because of his radio broadcasts supporting Mussolini. "I didn't know about his politics," Merwin says. "I knew he'd done dreadful things and angered the American government and they wanted to shoot him. But I thought standing up to the government at that point was a good thing to do." When he read about Pound's fascist sympathies he thought, "I don't like that." But for a while, Pound served as a model. He advised the young poet to write 75 lines a day, and to start by translating foreign verse "to learn what can be done with your own language".

At that time, Merwin was enlisted in the US Navy Airforce. His reading of the holist philosopher Spinoza convinced him that he was in the wrong place. "Spinoza stuck in my mind, he became a hero. And so did Shelley and Beethoven, and the combination of those three made me think about what I was doing, and I thought: 'No, no, no, this is not what I want to be doing, I don't believe in this.'" He left the military after a year's service and took up a scholarship at Princeton. "Now what I would have done if I'd known about the German camps in time, or been in that? I simply don't know," he says. "Incidentally, you know the Americans at least did absolutely nothing about those camps until the war was over?" If only the US had bombed the railway into Auschwitz, he suggests. "History is a rather shameful sequence if you look back over most of it."

At Princeton, he studied with John Berryman, author of the extraordinary sequence of confessional verses The Dream Songs. "Berryman was a ruthless person," he admits. "You were writing your poems, I forget how often it was, and he always tore them to shreds." Nevertheless, he remembers the older poet as "a wonderful teacher, because he would tell you things". And if he was hard on Merwin he was infinitely harder on himself, unable, in the end, to live with himself. "Oh, he was a born suicide," Merwin says. "It was just terrible, you know? He's one of those people whose father died with John in the house, and he was haunted by it all his life. The combination of that and alcohol was what took his life eventually."

The most important teacher of Merwin's later career is perhaps Hawaii. He has celebrated his home in verse ever since he went there to study Buddhism under the zen practitioner Robert Aitken. In 1975 he moved there permanently. He is, he says, "happy about that decision every day". "It's wonderfully quiet. We are right near the sea cliffs, so it's a lovely place to be," he says. He and his third wife Paula both "love a very quiet life" and Maui "is the place to do it". The poet lives above the cliffs of the island's north coast and keeps an 18-acre estate, where he grows rare and endangered palm trees. "I wanted to restore Hawaiian rainforest because it had been badly abused," he says. But the soil quality had degraded so much over the years that this proved impossible and he changed his plans. "I tried to grow whatever would grow here. And the one thing that fascinated me most was the palms."

The role of gardener-cum-conservationist holds a special appeal for Merwin. "I'm fascinated by gardens. I think gardening is one of the oldest, maybe the oldest art," he tells me. "In my lifetime at least I watched something completely reverse itself." The garden used to be "a little enclave", keeping wilderness at bay. "The moment human beings became able to destroy life anywhere on earth, it absolutely at that moment changes around," says Merwin. "The garden becomes a place where you keep out human enterprise and you try to preserve something resembling the natural world. And that's a complete turnaround, and it happened immediately." One consequence is that "every conservationist, every environmentalist, is really a gardener".

These ideas take on an additional weight in view of Merwin's interest in what is known as "deep ecology" - the view that nature must be conceived not as a resource for our use but as a whole whose parts all have their own right to existence. "We're not separate from what we call nature, are we?" he says. "I really believe that the idea that we are separate from each other is suicidal, and I think it's responsible for everything, from the cutting down of the rainforest in the Amazon and Borneo to the global warming to the gas and the oil spill in the Gulf. They all come from an attitude to the natural world, that we are separate from it, that we owe it nothing, that it owes us everything we want and that we can just pick it up, use it and throw it away again. And I just don't think that's true."

Merwin's most recent collection of poems, The Shadow of Sirius, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The other time he won the prize, for The Carrier of Ladders in 1971, he published an essay in the New York Review of Books in which he listed his objections to the Vietnam war and explained that he was donating his prize money to an anti-draft charity. Merwin's best-known collection of verse, 1967's The Lice, denounced the war with visionary fervour, as in the excoriating The Asians Dying:

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead
Again again with its pointless sound
When the moon finds them they are the color of everything
With the poet in his most conspicuous position since the 1970s, one might expect a similarly public stand on aspects of current American policy. But Merwin is cautious. "I don't think the circumstances are the same," he says. "I feel that it's very hard to protest the American presence in the Muslim world in the same way because, after all, Obama inherited that." He does, he says, "deeply deplore" the US mission in Afghanistan. "I'm very sceptical about the possibility of our accomplishing anything permanent there, because I have a feeling that our presence there is simply an abrasion. It just angers people." And as ever, Merwin disapproves of the use of organised violence.

"I'm not making it a kind of holier-than-though platform," he says, "but I'm generally against it and I think any way possible to avoid it is worth exploring, because I think it turns us into something we already have within us but which is perfectly deplorable and if we don't somehow treat it with honesty and decency it, too, will destroy us." There seems to be a strange struggle between forthrightness and reticence going on here. Perhaps some of Merwin's remarks about the sound of poetry may be enlightening. For him, it involves more than just the kind of musical effects discussed above.

A kind of conceptual harmony is required, a gradual perception of the poem's ideal shape emerging through draft after draft. "I can't say what it is, but when it's right, when it sounds right, then it is right," he says. "Sometimes getting it right means a whole new aspect of what you're talking about. And I tell students that writing comes from listening, that poetry comes from listening, and they inevitably say: 'Listening to what?' And I say: 'That's what you have to find out.'"

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