'Sirius' Poetry From New Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin On Thursday, W.S. Merwin was named the 17th poet laureate of the United States. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, known for his anti-war poetry and environmental activism, joined Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 2008 for a discussion about memory, mortality and his writing process.

'Sirius' Poetry From New Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin

'Sirius' Poetry From New Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin

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W.S. Merwin is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. He will become the 17th poet laureate this fall, succeeding Kay Ryan. Matt Valentine/Library of Congress/AP Photo hide caption

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Matt Valentine/Library of Congress/AP Photo

W.S. Merwin is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. He will become the 17th poet laureate this fall, succeeding Kay Ryan.

Matt Valentine/Library of Congress/AP Photo
The Shadow of Sirius
By W.S. Merwin
Paperback, 130 pages
Copper Canyon Press
List price: $16
Read an Excerpt

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.

Interview Highlights

On memory

"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."

From 'The Shadow Of Sirius'

Shadow Hand

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

A Codex

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.