In the summer of 2009, I didn’t leave my apartment for a month. I had just finished my second year of law school, a brutal two semesters during which intense anxiety quashed my ability to form coherent sentences. Instead of working at an internship that would turn into a job, I turned on the AC and slept. A more observant person would have said I was depressed. But all I felt was tired. Between sleeping and opening my apartment door to take the pizza from the delivery guy, I read The Book of Fables by W. S. Merwin. Word by word, syllable by syllable, Merwin showed me that life is harsh and unjust, but that it is also “A Thing of Beauty” of such absurdity that one might as well get out of bed and get on with it:
Sometimes where you get it they wrap it up in a clock and you take it home with you and since you want to see it it takes you the rest of your life to unwrap it trying harder and harder to be quick which only makes the bells ring more often.
William Stanley Merwin, poet, translator, activist, habitat restorer, died today at 91. He was born in New York City in 1927 and grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He was a special bicentennial consultant to the Library of Congress in 1999, and then U.S. poet laureate in 2010. He won all the awards.
Merwin embodied a vision for poetry that accepts the responsibility to see and to speak honestly about this world and our place in it. His writing answered the call by Adrienne Rich to North American poets “to bear witness to a reality from which the public—and maybe part of the poet—wants, or is persuaded it wants, to turn away.”
Merwin not only spoke out but acted. He wrote The Lice (1967) in opposition to the Vietnam War. He moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism and labored to restore land that had been exhausted by commercial pineapple farming. He spoke out against the Iraq War, and didn’t shy away from speaking about politics when Obama named him poet laureate.
Merwin himself summarized his viewpoint best in a 1962 essay on the poet and first President of Angola, Agostinho Neto, “To Name the Wrong”:
Put at its simplest, and with its implications laid out all plain and neat, the decision to speak as clearly and truthfully and fully as possible for the other human beings a poet finds himself among is a challenge to obscurantism, silence, and extinction. And the author of such a decision, I imagine, accepts the inevitability of failure as he accepts the inevitability of death. He finds a sufficient triumph in the decision itself, in its deliberate defiance, in the effort which it makes possible, the risks it impels him to run, and in any clarity which it helps him to create out of the murk and chaos of experience. In the long run his testimony will be partial at best. But its limits will have been those of his condition itself, rooted, as that is, in death; he will have recognized the enemy. He will not have been another priest of ornaments. He will have been contending against that which restricted his use and his virtue.