Tag Archives: Hammer Museum

W.S. Merwin (1927-2019)

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The word of W.S. Merwin’s death, at age 91, spread rapidly Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, at least among poets and artists, especially those over the age of 50. While there may be a significant number of young poets who admire Merwin’s poetry, I am not sure there are many under the age of 30 who have read more than one of his books all the way through. That may well change in another decade or two, for I suspect that Merwin’s poetry will gain many new adherents as the anthology wars of the past century firm up the boundaries of their domains within the canon, and let the current anthology wars map out new entanglements.

I mention Merwin’s presence in anthologies in part because there are far too many assumptions about the “anthology wars” between 1957 and 1977. If Merwin had an enormous influence on young poets in the 1970s, it was in part because his poetry reflected a radical shift in poetics in the years between the publication of the first edition of “New Poets of England and America” and “Naked Poetry.” In the latter anthology, Merwin somehow managed to encompass a meditative state of consciousness, ecology, and the fragility of life itself, with a vulnerable lyricism. He subdued any tendency towards sentimentality, and yet his thoughts brimmed with effusively wistful yearning.

Only a few of the poets who were in the first edition of “Naked Poetry” are still alive. Robert Bly and Gary Snyder are probably the most prominent of the survivors. Perhaps, in fact, the only two survivors. (Kenneth Patchen, Theodore Roethke, Weldon Kees, and Sylvia Plath were already dead. Berryman and Lowell would both be dead before not much more than another half-dozen years. Then an interlude before Ginsberg, Creeley, Levertov, Kinnell and Levine passed. And now Merwin, the other poet in addition to Levine to become national poet laureate.

Both Levine and Merwin were superb readers, and rather than comment on Merwin’s poetry as a way of observing his passing, I have decided to share my memories of two readings. The first time I saw Merwin read was at the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center at UCLA, a structure that no longer exists. The reading series that took place there has, in fact, moved to the Hammer Museum, and been renamed in honor of Doris Curran, the long-time advocate of the original project. After a glowing introduction, Merwin stood behind the lectern and said to the assembled crowd. “I don’t have any of my books with me. Does anyone have copies?”

Within a half-minute, a hefty retinue of paperback and hardcover volumes had made their way to rest in front of him, and he proceeded to pick his way through them with the same familiarity that a rock star might churn through a set list of his or her most famous songs. Kate Braverman and I had both found ourselves sitting next to each other at the reading, and afterwards we had a bit of a laugh. No matter how famous someone might be, should they really show up without bringing any of their books?

I had come prepared to walk away with renewed admiration for his work. I had first read “The Lice” when I was a student at UCLA, and have a distinct memory of sitting in the library with that volume; and Merwin was a significant part of the first conversation I had with a clerk named William (“Koki”) Iwamoto at Papa Bach Bookstore in the late summer of 1971. Koki showed me several of his poems, which reflected Merwin’s influence, though they had at their core a voice distinct enough to push away any presumption of mere imitation. It was mainly because of Koki that I became the first poetry editor of BACHY magazine, and without his recommendation and the start it gave me, probably none of the work I have done on behalf of Los Angeles poets would have come to pass.

It was one particular poem by Merwin, however, that irritated both Kate and me. It was his quartet about the “chambers of the heart,” and its numerical predictability left both of us mimicking in a mutual sarcastic whisper the obvious opening of the final segment. “In the fourth chamber of the heart” …. We almost laughed at ourselves for our insolence. The restless impetuosity of our youthful logic had frighteningly little patience.

In the late 1990s, or thereabouts, I remember another UCLA sponsored reading that featured Merwin. He read with majestic aplomb. It was one of those pure hours of solemn, ecstatic adoration of poetry that one remembers and reabsorbs as often as possible.

The anniversary of his death is now known, and I hope it is properly honored.