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W.S. Merwin

Coming into the high room again after years
after oceans and shadows of hills and the sounds
after losses and feet on stairs

after looking and mistakes and forgetting
turning there thinking to find
no one except those I knew
finally I saw you
sitting in white
already waiting

you of whom I had heard
with my own ears since the beginning
for whom more than once
I have opened the door
believing you were not far


“Late Spring” by W. S. Merwin, which you can keep on your shelf along with other greats from Merwin in his Collected Poems 1952-1993.

Watch a short video of Merwin below, which is taken from a recent profile of him in PBS’ Bill Moyers Journal. In addition to introducing and reading “Late Spring,” Merwin also describes his love of living in the countryside and working on the land.

When he was 54 years old, Merwin — who had lived previously in Majorca, London, Mexico, and the continental U.S. — moved with his wife Paula to the island of Maui. There he designed and largely built a home surrounded by acres of once-lush terrain which had turned toxic by decades of logging, poisonous agribusiness and erosion. Merwin then began the painstaking task of restoring the soil and surrounding land; and today, 31 years hence, it is considered one of the densest palm forests in the world.

Now 85, Merwin continues to live, garden, and write in Hawaii.

Yet while cloistered away from the American literary establishment, Merwin continues to garner his share of acclaim and awards. In 2010 he was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, an occasion which the New York Times marked by writing, “The humans in Mr. Merwin’s poems take their bearings from the natural world, one that is often embattled… Mr. Merwin is a laureate for our times, and we look forward to his tenure.” Bill Moyers observed that Merwin seems to scorn leaving his life in paradise… except for those occasions when he has to return to North America to accept Pulitzer Prizes.

But Merwin takes a more humble approach. He says:

“I love the city, but I also love the country. And I realize that when I’m in the city I miss the country all the time, and when I’m in the country I miss the city some of the time. So what I do now is live in the country and go to the city some of the time…

Writing poetry has to me always had something to do with how you want to live. I guess I’ve done something that many of my contemporaries didn’t do. Many of them went into universities and had academic careers, and I have nothing against that. But I didn’t think I was made for it. I begin, after about a week in university, I begin to feel the oxygen’s going out of the air very fast and I have to go somewhere else.”

This love of the land and physical labor strikes a chord with me, not because I feel it too (I get anxious when more than five miles from a museum or concert hall), but because some of my family shares in Merwin’s obsession to an almost psychotic degree. At my family ranch in Texas, for example, my mom will often while away the afternoon hours by picking acres of weeds and incinerating them in controlled burns — an activity I am yet to find as entertaining as sitting by the lake.

Yet at 85, Merwin’s vitality and zest are attributes that all of us can aspire to, and they recall those of another, younger — although only by a year — thinker, Noam Chomsky, who mused about physical labor by saying:

“For me there was always too much that I wanted to do. I’m not sure how widespread this is – take, say, a craftsman, I happen to be no good with tools, but take someone who can build things, fix things, they really want to do it. They love doing it: ‘if there’s a problem I can solve it’. Or just plain physical labor – that’s also gratifying. If you work on command then of course it’s just drudgery but if you do the very same thing out of your own will or interest it’s exciting and interesting and appealing. I mean that’s why people look for work – gardening for example. So you’ve had a hard week, you have the weekend off, the kids are running around, you could just lie down to sleep but it’s much more fun to be gardening or building something or doing something else.”