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Remembering Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet W. S. Merwin

The former U.S. poet laureate, who died March 15, was a prolific writer as well as a conservationist and a conscientious objector during World War II. He spoke to Fresh Air in 2008.


Other segments from the episode on March 22, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 22, 2019: Obituary for W.S. Merwin; Review of season four of Billions; Obituary for Dick Dale; Review of the film US.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. W.S. Merwin, who was appointed poet laureate of the United States in 2010, died last Friday at age 91. When he won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2005, the judges' citation read, quote, "Merwin's poems speak from a lifelong belief in the power of words to awaken our drowsy souls and see the world with compassionate interconnection," unquote.

Merwin was born in 1927, the son of a Presbyterian minister. When he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971, he was best known for his poems against the war in Vietnam. He won his second Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

Terry Gross spoke with W.S. Merwin in 2008, when he had just published a new collection of poems. It was titled "The Shadow Of Sirius" and was about memory and mortality. They started with one of his poems from that collection, called "A Likeness."


W S MERWIN: (Reading) Almost to your birthday, and as I am getting dressed alone in the house, a button comes off. And once I find a needle with an eye big enough for me to try to thread it, and at last have sewed the button on. I open an old picture of you, who always did such things by magic - one photograph, found after you died, of you at 20, beautiful in a way I would never see, for that was nine years before I was born. But the picture has faded suddenly, spots have marred it. Maybe it is past repair. I have only what I remember.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: I love that last line, I have only what I remember, that you have this photograph of your mother. I assume it's your mother.


GROSS: And the photograph is marred, and you only have what you remember. You know, memory is always such an issue for me. You know, do you struggle to chronicle your life, to keep the photographs, to document it, to keep journals, to hold onto all the memories? Or do you accept that you have only what you remember?

MERWIN: I think we do both. I think we always do both. I think memory is essential to what we are. If we - we wouldn't be able to talk to each other without memory. And what we think of as the present really is the past. It is made out of the past. The present is an absolutely transparent moment that only great saints ever see occasionally.

But the present - what we think of as the present - is made up of the past. And the past is always - one moment it's what happened three minutes ago, and one minute it's what happened 30 years ago. And they flow into each other in ways that we can't predict and that we keep discovering in dreams, which keep bringing up feelings and moments, some of which we never actually saw. But the - those moments themselves bring up the feelings that were - that we had forgotten we had. And it's all memory.

So I think - I don't - I think the idea that memory is somehow sentimental or nostalgic - nostalgia itself is - the etymology of nostalgia is homecoming. And homecoming is what we all believe in. I mean, if we didn't believe in homecoming, we wouldn't be able to bear the day.

GROSS: As you get older, do you spend more time thinking about your early memories, your childhood, your formative years?

MERWIN: I do. You know, I didn't like my years in Scranton, Pa., particularly. They were very important. They were from the age of 9 to the age of about 14. And then I find that the props, the scenes, the light, all sorts of things from there come back with an increasing reality, an increasing freshness that they probably didn't even have for me at the time or that I didn't notice at the time.

And this is true of different periods of my life. And I think this happens to everybody. I think this is one of the benefits of getting older, that one has that perspective on things farther away. One is so caught up in middle years in the idea of accomplishing something when, in fact, the full accomplishment is always with one.

GROSS: My guest is poet W.S. Merwin, and he has a new collection of poems called "The Shadow of Sirius."

Several of the poems in your book are about your parents. This is one of them. It's called "A Single Autumn." Would you introduce it for us and read it?

MERWIN: Yes. This is something I think I've thought about quite often, and why - my parents died very close together. I thought they weren't very close together. But actually, they - one of their great gifts to me was that neither of them turned out to be afraid of dying at all. And in quite different ways, they died without any expression of anxiety or of dread or of clutching at anything else.

And that's a great gift to be given, that feeling of no fear. And I think I inherited it from them very early. And - but after they - after my mother died - I was away in Europe when she died. And when I came back, the original - the first funeral had - it was already over. And I moved right into the house, against the advice of many friends, and spent something like a month or six weeks there and giving away their belongings to their friends and getting to know their friends and then finally, giving away the furniture things to my sister and being there in a totally empty house before I just left it and went back to New York.

And this is about that time of being alone in that empty house, when if it hit me hard, I was all by myself, and it didn't matter. And if it didn't, I went through all of the feelings and no feelings that one has at that time, noticing that, you know, that there were many things that we would never - it's a conversation that we would never finish.

And so this is a poem about that called "A Single Autumn." (Reading) The year my parents died - one that summer, one that fall, three months and three days apart - I moved into the house where they had lived their last years. It had never been theirs and was still theirs, in that way, for a while. Echoes in every room without a sound, all the things that we had never been able to say, I could not remember. Doll collection in a China cabinet, plates stacked on shelves, lace on drop leaf tables, a dried branch of bittersweet before a hall mirror were all planning to wait. The glass door of the house remained closed. The days had turned cold. And out in the tall hickories, the blaze of autumn had begun on its own. I could do anything.

GROSS: God, I love that last line (laughter) - I could do anything. And I think - what were some of the things that you wouldn't have done when your parents were alive, living in that house?

MERWIN: Well, you know, all the inhibitions one has with parents. And my father was a very - when he was younger, was a very repressive, capricious, punitive, incomprehensible, distant person. And I've freed myself from that as, insofar as one ever frees oneself any such influence, fairly early.

But one was always aware of the things that would trouble either of them. And all of those things were gone. I mean, I could say or do or think or go or meet or talk to anything, anybody, the way I wanted to. I was as free there as I was anywhere in the world. And it was a sort of desolate freedom, of course (laughter).

GROSS: When you were going through your parent's possessions and figuring out what to give away, what you keep, what to throw away, what did you decide to keep?

MERWIN: Not very much. My father was a minister, and he asked me to burn all his sermons. That was - I mean, they were terrible sermons (laughter) - but I felt...

GROSS: Well, what made them terrible? Why do you describe them as terrible?

MERWIN: Oh, he never finished his sentence, you know, and they were...

GROSS: Well, you never - you never even have periods in your poems (laughter). That's really funny.

MERWIN: Yeah. No, but these were all dashes, like Emily Dickinson. And they were - there was - they were very unoriginal. They - you know, and he just obviously didn't want them kept.

GROSS: Did you want to keep him for yourself, or did you...

MERWIN: I kept...

GROSS: ...Obey the wishes?

MERWIN: I did want to keep some. And I wanted to keep various correspondences that my mother had there that were marked Burn This. So I burned them. And you know, it's at that moment, you are very eager to do what they wanted you to. But I kept strange things.

I kept things that my mother was growing in the garden. I potted them up and took them back to the apartment and grew them in New York. Oh, one or two last bits of clothing that were hanging in the closet - very little, you know? They weren't people who had much money, and there was nothing of great value there and all odds and ends. A few small things from my grandfather - I mean, the penknife from my grandfather - little tiny things like that that would've made - meant nothing to anybody else.

And - oh, the other thing that I kept from the house - I gave my sister all the furniture that we - we divided everything up quite equitably. And I kept all of the papers. So there were diaries and day books and account books and all sorts of stuffs that I used later.

GROSS: When you say used, you mean used in poems.

MERWIN: Yes, used in poems and used in trying to - in writing "Unframed Originals" and - oh, her - she was an orphan. It was her - her father worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and he had passes for all of the railroads that existed in the very beginning of the 20th century and that had ceased to exist. It was wonderful taking out his book of passes and seeing all the - all of the nonexistent railroads that he could ride free on (laughter).

GROSS: That sounds wonderful. So you still have that.

MERWIN: Oh, yeah. I still have them, yes.

BIANCULLI: The late poet W.S. Merwin speaking to Terry Gross in 2008 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's return to Terry's 2008 interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin. He died last Friday at age 91.


GROSS: Your father was a minister. What were you taught about God? What did you believe about God when you were young?

MERWIN: Oh, I had to learn the catechism and - but it was mostly proscriptive and - things you couldn't do. We - there was no card-playing in the house and no dancing and not much of anything that was fun. And it gradually - that gradually all shelled off. He got better about it as I got older.

Then he became a chaplain in the Second World War, went overseas. And so in my early adolescence, I was freed of all of that and managed to sort of get along with him much better in later years. But he was pretty remote. He didn't know how to be a father.

GROSS: Did he know that you became a poet? And what did - did he think poetry was frivolous?

MERWIN: No, he didn't. He thought it was fun. And when I felt that I was, in effect, a pacifist at the end of World War II and I was put in the psycho ward in the Chelsea Naval Hospital...

GROSS: You were?

MERWIN: I was, yeah.

GROSS: You were put in the mental ward for being a pacifist.

MERWIN: Yeah, because I had enlisted, you see, when I was 17. And all of these - all of this cogitation about it had come later. And I finally asked to be put in the brig because I said I'd made a terrible mistake, and I should never have enlisted. I don't really believe in what we're doing.

And so I was instead put in the psycho ward, and I was pretty lucky, I guess. But he came to the Chelsea Hospital and talked to the chaplain there and came to see me as a visitor and said, you must follow your own convictions. And I thought, that's pretty good, you know? He's never said that before (laughter).

GROSS: What year was this that you were put in the psycho ward?

MERWIN: Oh, when was it? '46, I guess.

GROSS: So what was your treatment?

MERWIN: Oh, it was - they tried to scare me, I guess, but it was - otherwise, it was basically rather humane. I was locked up. I was in a big ward, and there were some people who had real trouble - I mean, hallucinations and DTs from alcoholism and brain damage from active duty and - all mixed in together. I made some good friends there in the ward whom I never saw again.

GROSS: Did being locked up in a psychiatric ward make you question your own sanity? Were you able to be confident the whole time that you were locked up under false pretenses and you were perfectly sane - you were just dissenting?

MERWIN: Oh, I realized that it was because of dissenting. But I didn't question - I mean, the more I thought about - I thought, I can't allow myself to be trained to kill on orders, to take life on orders. I mean, I really took the idea of not killing seriously. And I thought, whatever I'm told, killing is still my responsibility if I do it. I can't say it's because I was ordered to because I know I don't really believe that. I don't believe I would kill on orders. I don't believe I would take life because somebody told me to.

And these are people who are doing it for reasons of their own and for reasons, some of which I don't know. And these - and the people I'm supposed to kill are people whom I don't know. I can imagine circumstances in which I might do it.

I can imagine being in the resistance or something like that where I would do it, but it would be extreme circumstances with - in which I could feel that I was taking that responsibility on myself, just as we do when we kill a mosquito or an ant. I don't think we have a right to take life - any life. I think we'd take it knowing that we do and knowing that we have no right to do it, and we're responsible for it.

GROSS: I don't know how you feel about talking about this, but how do you feel about getting older? You're in your early 80s now and dealing with the dimming of some of the senses in a body that isn't as strong as it was. I don't know if you have a lot of pain or - you know, physical elements associated with that, but you have to accept a certain amount of physical diminishment as you age. How are you at accepting that or dealing with it?

MERWIN: The one thing so far that I find a little difficult is that my - having always had wonderful eyes, my eyes aren't as good as they used to be. And so I have to get used to that. But I have a great guide in this matter. I had a magnificent creature, an incredible character, a black Chow who, at the age of 8, went blind - totally blind. And you had to tell people about that because she always knew everything.

And she would guide me if the light got - if I was out somewhere. I was taking her for a walk and forgot a flashlight, and it got dark. She'd take me home. And I thought, you know, the way she confronted absolutely everything without fear, without panic, without anything of the kind, this is one of the great guiding spirits of my life.

And so as my eyes get worse, I think of Muku more and more often. And that's a very pleasant thing to do because I think, how would Muku have dealt with this situation? And you know very well how she would have done it (laughter).

GROSS: So how long ago was she your dog?

MERWIN: Oh, she died four years ago.

GROSS: Is this the dog you refer to as a dog grief (laughter) in one of your poems?

MERWIN: She was one of them.

GROSS: Yeah.

MERWIN: Yes. There were two of them who died very close together.

GROSS: Right. Right. We have time for one more poem. And I'd like to ask you to close with a poem called "Rain Light" - if you can introduce it for us first.

MERWIN: I shall. It's, again, a poem in the third - in the last section of the book. And it's about - what is it about? It's about the very thing you were talking about. I mean, how - what happens as you face the fact that the entire world is slipping, literally dissolving around you, around us?

You know, we have that feeling about our civilization, about our species and everything else. It's all endangered. And, indeed, it is. And we either face that as a recognition, as that's our moment, or we sort of groan and dread it, which is a waste of time. But this is not a rational poem at all. It's called "Rain Light" - the early, early morning rain, which is something that I love very much.

(Reading) All day the stars watch from long ago. My mother said, I am going now. When you are alone, you will be all right. Whether or not you know, you will know. Look at the old house in the dawn rain. All the flowers are forms of water. The sun reminds them through a white cloud, touches the patchwork spread on the hill, the washed colors of the afterlife that lived there long before you were born. See how they wake without a question, even though the whole world is burning.

GROSS: W.S. Merwin, thank you so much for talking with us and for reading some of your poems. Thank you.

MERWIN: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin, speaking with Terry Gross in 2008. He died last Friday at age 91. After a break, we'll listen back to another archive interview with surf rock guitarist Dick Dale, who died Saturday at age 81. Also, Justin Chang will review Jordan Peele's new horror film "Us." And I'll review the new season of "Billions," Showtime's drama series about Wall Street greed and ambition. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.


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