W.S. Merwin Named Nation's 17th Poet Laureate The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, 82, has written more than 30 books. On Thursday, he became the nation's 17th poet laureate, appointed by the Library of Congress. Merwin talks to NPR's Melissa Block from his home -- on a former pineapple plantation -- in Hawaii.
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W.S. Merwin Named Nation's 17th Poet Laureate

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

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

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The country has a new poet laureate named by the Library of Congress. He is W.S. Merwin. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, he is 82 years old and lives on a former pineapple plantation in Hawaii. Here he is at the Library of Congress in 1999 reading his poem "In Time."

Mr. W.S. MERWIN (Poet Laureate): (Reading) The night the world was going to end, when we heard those explosions not far away and the loudspeakers telling us about the vast fires on the backwater consuming undisclosed remnants and warning us over and over to stay indoors and make no signals, you stood at the open window, the light of one candle back in the room. We put on high boots to be ready for wherever we might have to go.

And we got out the oysters and sat at the small table feeding them to each other first with the fork, then from our mouths to each other, until there were none. And we stood up and started to dance without music. Slowly we danced around and around in circles. And after a while we hummed when the world was about to end, all those years, all those nights ago.

BLOCK: W.S. Merwin joins us from his home on Maui. Congratulations and welcome to the program.

Mr. MERWIN: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: I'm curious about your first memories of writing. What do you remember?

Mr. MERWIN: Of writing?

BLOCK: Uh-huh.

Mr. MERWIN: Well, my mother read poems to us, which I think is wonderfully important for parents to do. And I was captivated by them and as soon as I could make a pencil make letters and words on the page, I tried to write little poems.

BLOCK: How old would you have been?

Mr. MERWIN: Well, I was rather young. I was around four. I wasn't quite five yet.

BLOCK: I've read that you moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism back in the '70s. And I wonder how that practice and also the ecology, the wildness of where you live filters into your poetry?

Mr. MERWIN: I think one of the attractions to me for Buddhism, which I began to be interested in very seriously in my late 20s was the fact that it's a different attitude - it's not increase and dominate. It's recognize that you're a part of the whole thing. And that has an exhilaration of its own. It's a joy to be part of everything that's living and to be able to give something back sometimes.

BLOCK: Do you think about your poems in that way, as having a kind of social function?

Mr. MERWIN: Not when I write them. I don't think about anything except the poem when I'm writing them. But I think about them at a distance afterwards as maybe they will speak to somebody else, because - a poem is such a one-on-one thing. You know, you may have an audience but still, everybody in the audience hears it individually and hears it in a particular and a distinct and individual way.

And so it's always one-on-one. And it still is even when it's with someone in the past if you read Shakespeare or anything else in the past, there's something very, very present and very, very personal about it. I guess I've always loved that and always been drawn to it.

BLOCK: Well, what do you think about this new role as the poet laureate? You're in some sense an ambassador of poetry for the country.

Mr. MERWIN: Well, I don't know what to think of it.

BLOCK: Yeah.

Mr. MERWIN: I don't want it to change my life. But on the other hand I want to contribute whatever I can. And we've been thinking of various ways of doing that. I like having gatherings of children and talking with children and with students of all ages. And that's one way. And we've been talking about translation and talking with translators and poets from other languages. And that's another kind of extension.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Merwin, I was wondering whether we might end by having you read a poem, I'm thinking of a very small poem, three lines, called "Separation."

Mr. MERWIN: "Separation?"

BLOCK: Yeah.

Mr. MERWIN: That's a very old poem, you know, that goes back to the late '50s, I think. A long time ago. Yes, "Separation."

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

BLOCK: That's so lovely. W.S. Merwin, thanks for talking with us. And, again, congratulations on being the new poet laureate of the United States.

Mr. MERWIN: Thank you, bye.

BLOCK: That's W.S. Merwin speaking with us from his home on Maui.

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