When W.S. Merwin won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2005, the judges' citation said "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."
On Thursday, Merwin — who lives on a former pineapple plantation in Maui — was named the 17th poet laureate of the United States. He plans to serve his term from Hawaii, where he frequently speaks out about restoring the rain forests and other environmental issues.
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 received a second Pulitzer Prize in 2009, for his collection of poems The Shadow of Sirius.
In a 2008 interview on Fresh Air, Merwin discussed his writing process and talked about the power of both memory and mortality.
He is the author of more than 20 books of poetry and nearly 20 books of translation. He won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for The Carrier of Ladders.
"I think memory is essential to what we are. 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 that 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 waves 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."
On remembering his formative years
"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 and 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."
On his relationship with his parents
"Well, you know, all the inhibitions one has with parents. My father was a very — when he was younger, [he] was a very repressive, capricious, punitive, incomprehensible, distant person. And I've freed myself from that, insofar as one ever frees oneself from 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 and 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."
Duporte the roofer that calm voice those sure hands gentling weathered tiles into new generations or half of him rising through a roof like some sea spirit from a wave to turn shaped slates into fish scales that would swim in the rain Duporte who seemed to smooth arguments by listening and whom they sent for when a bone was broken or when they had a pig to kill because of the way he did it only yesterday after all these years I learned that he had suddenly gone blind while still in his sixties and died soon after that while I was away and I never knew and it seemed as though it had just happened and it had not been long since we stood in the road talking about owls nesting in chimneys in the dark in empty houses
It was a late book given up for lost again and again with its sentences
bare at last and phrases that seemed transparent revealing what had been there the whole way
the poems of daylight after the day lying open at last on the table
without explanation or emphasis like sounds left when the syllables have gone
clarifying the whole grammar of waiting not removing one question from the air
or closing the story although single lights were beginning by then above and below
while the long twilight deepened its silence from sapphire through opal to Athena’s iris
until shadow covered the gray pages the comet words the book of presences
after which there was little left to say but then it was night and everything was known
A Letter to Ruth Stone
Now that you have caught sight of the other side of darkness the invisible side so that you can tell it is rising first thing in the morning and know it is there all through the day
another sky clear and unseen has begun to loom in your words and another light is growing out of their shadows you can hear it
now you will be able to envisage beyond any words of mine the color of these leaves that you never saw awake above the still valley in the small hours under the moon three nights past the full
you know there was never a name for that color
Excerpted from The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin Copyright 2010 by W.S Merwin. Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press.