Tuesday, 26 March 2019


My obituary of the poet W.S. Merwin went up on The Guardian online yesterday; it should appear in the paper paper soon. You can link to it here, it is mostly as written with just a few cuts for simplicity's sake, which is instructive because Merwin's was a complicated life to unravel. I actually wrote the piece a week earlier, just before I flew to Florida, and did some changes (mostly to clarify publication details) in the airport after I arrived but before I picked up my car and headed for the Everglades.

It was trying to sort the chronology of his relationships and his early work that was the most difficult, especially because things like wedding and divorce dates, maiden names and the like are important for the paper's sense of record. Before I filed I dropped a few things I found interesting, two in particular: his secondary education at Wyoming Seminary, a Methodist-founded school between Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and his relationship with Moira Hodgson. I'd know people who went to Wyoming, which tended to produce high achievers--but it was also interesting because Merwin claimed he applied originally to Princeton thinking it was an actual seminary. I found that somewhat fanciful. Hodgson seemed to be a steadying influence on him; the British-born writer was working at the UN in New York when she met Merwin; they lived together for ten years, mostly in Mexico, and he was still technically married to Dido for at least part of that time. Anyone who's read her food writing would be interested.

I also included a longer list of the fellowships which kept Merwin going through the Fifties and beyond. This ability to win them was the segue point to mentioning his charm, and I thought the idea that he was a successful 'establishment' poet was one that was necessary to make. I also mentioned that when he received the Academy of America Poets prize there was a minor controversy in that he was a Chancellor of the Academy, and the judges, inevitably were all friends.

This was interesting in light of the Great Naropa Poetry Wars. Ed Sanders had his students in 'investigative poetry' do a long report about it, and I think I read something by Tom Clark, who's the poetry equivalent of a tabloid journalist, about it at the time. But what I found fascinating was the way the poetic community divided as I describe, with Merwin representing the establishment, and some Naropans, representing the other side, the underground, whatever. I recall asking Anne Waldman about that at a reading, because it seemed to me the dispute, beyond the defense of students toward Trungpa their master, was one of 'business' of poetry, not poetry itself. She didn't like that question.

But I drifted back to it as I wrote the obit and tried to analyse Merwin's work in terms a general audience might understand. I was trying to draw connections, but apart from the obvious one to Auden (who stylistically, placing words to accentuate their ambiguities, is not as far removed from later Merwin) and the less obvious (but for proximity) one to Lowell, I felt I'd be getting into a kaleidoscope that would mean little to my audience. Merrill and Kinnell I mentioned, and would have liked to elaborate on in terms of their work.

I see links to a lot of the people who might be thought by casual observers to be on the other side of the Naropa wars. Given the obvious influence of Ezra Pound, some of the names seemed obvious. The most telling to me was Robert Creeley, who also worked as a tutor for Robert Graves, and whose work, albeit punctuated, is very similar to Merwin's in style, if someone more grounded in the personal, maybe even the romantic. I thought of Paul Blackburn, not immediately similar in the elegance of the language, but with a sense of rhythms and music that also draws from the Provencal. Merwin at his most elegant reminds me sometimes of Robert Duncan too--again not too close, too exact, but it is easy for me to think that as his own work was changing, Merwin was aware of these people already working in open (and projective) verse, and he is never looked at as someone related to that. The final comparison I longed to make was to Gary Snyder, like Merwin a Buddhist and an early champion of ecology. That's Merwin (above left) with Carolyn Kizer and Snyder, in Oregon in 1966

I was also thinking about Robert Bly, who on the face of it would look like an unlikely comparison, but whose sense of nature, if not the surreal, seemed like a fit. And John Ashberry, close than Duncan but also for the austere sense behind the words. It also occurred to me, after a comment by Helen Vendler, how many American poets were born in 1926-27: she mentioned a couple but the 1926  list includes Creeley, Blackburn, Ginsberg, Merril, Bly and W.D. Snodgrass (whose obit I also had the privilege of writing), A.R. Ammons and Frank O'Hara; while 1927 boasts Kinnell, Ashberry and James Wright. I wondered if this might have something to do with the Depression or the War, or maybe the burgeoning of poetry and new movements in the Fifties, or the growth of creative writing programmes in colleges which provided a living for many of these poets.

The Merwins' work with his Conservancy was also a step decades ahead of its time, and this might in some ways wind up being his most enduring legacy. I wondered, as I filed my copy, if perhaps he would have had a tougher road to success had he been born a couple of decades later, but if perhaps his poetry might have found a wider, more ecologically aware audience. I'm not sure the work would have been as good, but the thought that it will continue to find a new audience from that direction as well as the literary one is a heartening one.

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