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W.S. Merwin
W.S. Merwin
Profile of W.S. Merwin Biography of W.S. Merwin Interview with W.S. Merwin W.S. Merwin Photo Gallery

W.S. Merwin Interview

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry

July 3, 2008
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

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  W.S. Merwin

You have lived in two exceptionally beautiful places, Hawaii and the South of France. As a poet, do you find it necessary to surround yourself with nature, or is it the other way around, that the nature inspires the poetry?

W.S. Merwin: I never thought of it as a program. I used to live in New York and I wrote. I think if you're a poet, or whatever kind of artist you are, you want to be able to write or compose or paint anywhere. But...

I remember one day talking to a bunch of friends crossing the campus in college, and listening to what they were thinking of doing with their lives, and I thought, "They don't care about where they're going to be living." And to me, it's terribly important where I am. The place is enormously important. I want to live in places. I don't want to live in situations all of the time, and they're talking about situations. I mean, I know how to make a living somehow, but that's not really what I care about. I wouldn't have known how to say it, but I knew that one thing that was terribly important was a place. So I don't know, I had a retired maiden aunt who left me $800, which was all she had when she died, and my mother put it in bonds and I had $1200 when I was in my early 20s, and I had it when I found that ruined farmhouse that had been not lived in for almost 50 years. And the lady who owned it sold it to me for $1200. I said, "How much would you sell it for?" after a long conversation when she wouldn't sell it, and her husband said, "You better sell it, because it's going to fall down." So after tears, she said she'd sell it, and then the price she named was $1200 and was translated into francs. I put out my hand just like that and I'm very glad I did. It looked straight down 400 feet to the Dordogne and it's the whole valley of the Dordogne.

What town is that in?

W.S. Merwin: There isn't any town. It's a little tiny hamlet. It had about nine houses in it, they were all peasants at the time. Now they don't farm anymore. Do you know where Toulouse is? It's halfway between Toulouse and Limoges in the Southwest.

Later you chose to move to Hawaii. When did that happen?

W.S. Merwin: I came out here in the '60s to do a reading over at the university and I fell in love with it. But it was kind of unreal to me, and then I came back again a few years later and I spent longer and I got to meet people and a teacher in particular that I really wanted to see more of. My marriage had broken up in France years before and my former wife wanted to live in my house over there, so I let her stay there, and I didn't have anywhere to live except a little tiny apartment in New York. I decided that I just wanted to spend more time out here, and little by little I got hooked. Quite fast, in fact.

W.S. Merwin Interview Photo

That's understandable.

W.S. Merwin: I'm still hooked. I love it more all of the time.

We'd like to hear about your childhood too. You grew up in urban surroundings, didn't you?

W.S. Merwin: Across the river from New York, in a place called Union City, which is right up -- it used to be, before that, West Hoboken -- it is just up the hill from the Palisades, from Hoboken, and from my father's church I could look down on the harbor. I was fascinated as a small child to kneel up at a window there and just spend hours watching the traffic on the river, the river traffic, which was quite different then, there was a lot more of it. Very beautiful, I thought, and I still have wonderfully clear images of it still there. I mean I can still see the ferry barges taking -- I mean, not just the ferries, the passenger ferries, but these things that would take a whole train on a series of barges across the river, and ships going up and down in the afternoon light. It was very, very beautiful. Everything is gone. I mean the traffic is gone. The Hoboken harbor has changed completely. My father's church has long since, many years ago -- gone. And the house is still there, but unrecognizable. I've been back and seen it.

We've read that you started writing hymns for your father's church as a young boy. When did you start doing that?

W.S. Merwin: When I could make letters with a pencil. I was fascinated by hymns. It was one of the things that most fascinated me about having to go to church every Sunday, which I took for granted, like putting on clean clothes on Sunday and all that. You had to do that.

So I had to listen to all of these morning services, and I was allowed to do drawings and things, and then do what I wanted with a little pad and pencil. And I was fascinated by two things. One of them was the language of the King James version of the Bible -- which was different from the language that we spoke -- the language of the psalms. There was a whole lot of the Bible that I got to know by heart without even thinking about it, and the language of the hymns: "the spacious firmament on high" and "the blue ethereal sky." I didn't know what half of the words meant, thought it was wonderful, you know. It's funny, the way it rhymed, and so I wanted to write that. And my mother read to us, which is very important. She read Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses and she read Tennyson, "The Brook," and a lot of poems like that. And that's wonderful when parents read -- not just stories -- but poems to their children, because the language of poetry is different from the language of prose, and children pick up that language. And if they can pick it up very early, it's really very, very important. They are likely to always love it if they do. I suspect that they really naturally do.

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We've got an educational system that doesn't encourage it at all, any more than they encourage listening to Mozart. And you know, one of the strange things is that I don't think that's natural. I have a friend, the guy who wrote Equus and Amadeus, Peter Schaffer. Peter is a friend, and I heard Peter give a brilliant lecture on Shakespeare a few years ago and we had a long, wonderful conversation afterwards. Peter's gay and he had a boyfriend who was a young officer and who never read anything. He wasn't interested in reading.

Peter one evening said, "I'm going out and I'll be back quite late because I'm going to the theater." And his friend said, "Well, what are you going to go and see?" He said, "Well, it's nothing that would interest you at all. I'd take you, but I don't think you would be interested." He said, "What is it?" He said, "Well, it's a play by Shakespeare." He'd never heard of Shakespeare. He said, "It's a new production of Hamlet and I want to see it." "Well," he said, "I'd like to go and see it if it interests you that much." So he got him a ticket and he went along. And this guy who had never been to a play, never read anything like it, gets through the first scene of Hamlet on the battlements with the ghost, and the ghost gets into the banquet scene afterwards, and he turns and grabs Peter by the shoulders and says, "Does anyone know about this play?" he said. He thought it was the most exciting thing he had ever seen, that first scene, the battle scene. I've seen kids sit up in that Shakespeare in Love movie, which I didn't like very much, but Gwyneth Paltrow doing Juliet, and these kids put down their popcorn and sit up on the edge of their seats. They never heard anything like this. It's not so strange. They hear it. It's too bad that it's neglected, because it's a whole dimension to their life that they are not getting.

The arts are neglected in the school system these days, as if they're some kind of luxury.

W.S. Merwin: Yes. I think they've always been essential to us.

When we talk about the extinction of species, I think the endangered species of the arts and of language and all these things are related. I don't think there is any doubt about that. I think poetry goes back to the invention of language itself. I think one of the big differences between poetry and prose is that prose is about something, it's got a subject and the subject comes first and it's dealing with the subject. But poetry is something else, and we don't know what it is (that) comes first. Prose is about something, but poetry is about what can't be said. Why do people turn to poetry when all of a sudden the Twin Towers get hit, or when their marriage breaks up, or when the person they love most in the world drops dead in the same room? Because they can't say it. They can't say it at all, and they want something that addresses what can't be said. I think that's the big difference between poetry and prose. All the arts, in a way, are doing that, they are talking about, "Dove sono? (Where are they?)" What's that? She can't say it, can she? Where are they? Where are they? What has happened to those days?

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