W.S. Merwin Named Nation's 17th Poet Laureate

William S. Merwin i i

"A poem is such a one-on-one thing," says newly appointed poet laureate William S. Merwin. "You may have an audience, but still, everybody in the audience hears it individually." Matt Valentine/AP/Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption Matt Valentine/AP/Library of Congress
William S. Merwin

"A poem is such a one-on-one thing," says newly appointed poet laureate William S. Merwin. "You may have an audience, but still, everybody in the audience hears it individually."

Matt Valentine/AP/Library of Congress

The first time William S. Merwin heard poetry — as read to him by his mother — he was captivated. "As soon as I could make a pencil make letters and words on the page, I tried to write little poems," he recalls. He was 4 years old at the time.

Getting an early start paid off for Merwin. On Thursday, the Library of Congress officially announced that he will be the nation's latest poet laureate.

The 82-year-old, who lives on a former pineapple plantation in Maui, moved to Hawaii in the 1970s, inspired by his interest in Zen Buddhism. He was attracted to the religion because of its holistic approach to life: "It's a joy to be part of everything that's living, and to be able to give something back sometimes," Merwin tells NPR's Melissa Block.

Merwin thinks of his poetry in a very different way — not necessarily as having a specific social function. "A poem is such a one-on-one thing," he says. "You may have an audience, but still, everybody in the audience hears it individually."

He says "there's something very present and very personal" about both writing and reading poetry.

The poet doesn't "know what to think" of the honor he has received: "I don't want it to change my life, but on the other hand, I want to contribute whatever I can." He says that he's hoping to promote poetry by holding "gatherings of children, and talking with children and with students of all ages." Merwin has also discussed reaching out to poets who write in other languages.

The nation's new ambassador of poetry ends by reading "Separation," a poem he wrote in the late 1950s:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

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