LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
W.S. Merwin was a Pulitzer Prize winner and a former poet laureate of the United States. He died Friday at his home in Hawaii at the age of 91. Here is a one-line poem of his - "Elegy." (Reading) "Who would I show it to?" That seems an appropriate way to start this remembrance of Merwin from Noah Adams.
NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: W.S. Merwin wrote a lot. And he wrote for a long time. As a 5-year-old in New Jersey, he wrote hymns for the Presbyterian church where his father was a minister. And in later years, the inspiration was Maui and his conservation work. Here's a poem about his time there. The title is simply "Place." It was recorded at his home as part of a documentary film.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "EVEN THOUGH THE WHOLE WORLD IS BURNING")
W S MERWIN: (Reading) On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree. What for? Not the fruit. The tree that bears the fruit is not the one that was planted. I want the tree that stands in the earth for the first time with the sun already going down and the water touching its roots in the earth full of the dead and the clouds passing one by one over its leaves.
ADAMS: W.S. Merwin from the 2014 documentary titled "Even Though the Whole World is Burning" - the young Merwin, when he was ready for college, earned a scholarship to Princeton, where he also worked in the campus dining halls. He went on to Europe, became a translator and soon a poet. His books started to appear. And if you saw a photograph, you'd notice that. The poet Edward Hirsch thought, this is a great looking guy.
EDWARD HIRSCH: When I first saw his picture, I thought he looked like Orpheus. His physical beauty was really quite startling - always.
ADAMS: Edward Hirsch says Merwin, by the time of his fifth book, was in despair - worried about the planet, nuclear issues, Vietnam. He wanted his writing to be more urgent. And to start, Merwin decided to do away with punctuation.
HIRSCH: Suddenly, using punctuation felt like nailing words on a page. He was seeking something like the movement and lightness of the spoken word. Then, as he became more involved in the ecological movement, his poems began to root themselves in the earth. And one of the most amazing things in his work is by the time he became a poet of old age, he had sort of morphed into a poet of praise.
ADAMS: A poet of praise - that happened on the island of Maui. Merwin found a worn-out pineapple plantation and, with his wife Paula, worked to restore the rainforest. His day would begin early with tea and the birds and the wind and maybe some poetry notes on the back of an envelope. The afternoon was given to bringing back the palm trees. He talked about this in the documentary.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "EVEN THOUGH THE WORLD IS BURNING")
MERWIN: These big, beautiful palms - I planted them almost 30 years ago. I don't think anybody thought they'd grow here. But they look at home now.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: He has kept very diligently that precious, quiet oasis of solitude.
ADAMS: Naomi Shihab Nye is a friend of the Merwins. She's often traveled to Maui. She first read his poetry in 1969 and said, Merwin, this is a voice that could save us. Naomi Nye went on to become a poet herself and a teacher. And once, she was asked to give a week-long workshop at a private girls' school. They said, please use the work of only one poet. She chose Merwin. And afterwards, the girls wrote thank you notes saying it was the sense of mystery they really liked.
NYE: That was the attitude the girls had. How is it possible that poems, which are a little bit mysterious, help us to know so much more about our own lives?
ADAMS: The trees that W.S. Merwin raised as seedlings and planted - more than 2,000 - the home that was shared and the literary legacy will all be set aside as part of the Merwin Conservancy. Noah Adams, NPR News.
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