William Stanley Merwin’s poems are fully meshed in nature, and he lives his passion for the verdant world in Hawaii, where he cultivates endangered plants. The profound connection between green entities and the poet is indicated in the title of the first collection of Merwin’s I reviewed, Flower & Hand. This launched my apprenticeship to this exemplary observer of life, poet, translator, traveler, and protector of the environment.
Reading Merwin teaches one to pay attention to the resonance of each word, the space it occupies and the space around it, and how the next word echoes or alters its pitch. Meaning rises from like light or wind or touch or scent. Merwin’s graceful, clarifying, and soulful poems have attracted readers and awards like blossoms lure bees. The Shadow of Sirius won last year’s Pultizer Prize. The National Book Award went to Migration: New and Selected Poems. Merwin received the Ruth Lilly Award, and major fellowships. Dozens of books carry his name.
It is very generous of Merwin, who was born in New York City in 1927, to leave his palms and solitude in Hawaii to serve as poet laureate. But Merwin tends to people with as much care as he brings to plants and poems. I experienced this first hand when I moderated an extraordinary panel at the Chicago Humanities Festival featuring Merwin, Diane Ackerman, Gretel Ehrlich, and Terry Tempest Williams. Merwin beams kindness, humor, curiosity, and intelligence. He will be a spirited and enspiriting envoy for poetry and nature. A healing figure in a time of environmental catastrophe.