U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin Presents Poetry Reading

The Phillips Academy community welcomed 2011 United States Poet Laureate, W.S Merwin, to campus for at poetry reading Friday, May, 6.

W.S Merwin is a writer, translator, and environmental activist, whose writing career spans five decades, includes over 40 books, a National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes.

Merwin began his presentation with lessons on poetry, imagination and the environment, setting the stage for interpretations of poems he later read. He stressed the importance of reading poetry for one’s own enjoyment rather than for academic reasons.

“Poetry hasn’t been turned into something that you do because you’re going to get something out of it; because what you’re going to get out of it is a deep pleasure that you can’t altogether describe,” said Merwin.

Imagination was also heavily accentuated throughout Merwin’s presentation, as he stated, “It is part of pleasure and precious connection with all the earth and life.”

In Merwin’s poem, “The Unwritten”, he expressed similar themes in which he described a pencil containing words that have never been spoken.

“Especially at Andover, we have the tendency to think that everything’s already been done, and what we say isn’t going to be original,” said Jackie Murray ’13, “ But I think there are things that haven’t been said and ideas that haven’t been trademarked, and it was important to hear that and be reminded of that, because we can still do things and make a difference.”

In his poem “Empty Water,” Merwin used strong imagery of a toad and water, constantly repeating the word “believer,” allowing him to illustrate the message that humans need to respect and recognize that there is something to learn from every part of life.

Between individual poems, Merwin offered many personal anecdotes from his life, especially during his poems about Hawaii.

“They really helped me understand the themes of his poems and reinforced those sensibilities, and they really helped me approach him as a person, not only as a poet in academia, but also as a person who cares about certain values in the world,” said Jean Lee ’11.

One of the most emotional readings came from an excerpt from a narrative poem, “The Folding Cliffs,” about a man, wife, and son, where both the father and son are living with leprosy but refuse to be moved to a lepers clan. The audience drowned in powerful grief as they were taken on the wife’s sorrowful, mourning and wandering journey in the dark after her husband and son’s death.

“[Merwin] was so serene, and when he spoke, it was so quiet, but very confident, and you felt like there was a certain weight to the way he had thought about literature, about poetry, about human imagination,” said Aube Lescure ’11.

Merwin’s Hawaii poems also featured vivid and realistic imagery of tropical island waves, flora and fauna. In deep and thoughtful poems like “Waves in August,” and free and liberating poems like “Anniversary on the Island,” the audience was taken to the land that Merwin values so much.

Merwin shared the story of his dog, Mowli, who had been kidnapped but was returned after ardent searching, conveying both humor and pity. He continued with a reading of his poem, “Search Party,” written while he was searching for Mowli, which expressed dual feelings of knowing versus unknowing.

“I really liked the sound of [the word Mowli], and that’s what I remember. By saying then name, the dog returns to everyone. I think his poetry is like a place, you can get inside the poem and walk around and go places, and let him take you all the way to the ends of your imagination,” said Paul Tortorella, Instructor in English.

In another compelling poem, “The Chain to Her Leg,” Merwin lamented forgetting destructive aspects of human history like the electric chair, polar bears floating away and atomic bombs, but ended each description with the line “Topsy remembers.”

The poem allowed Merwin to reveal the central message that the acts of violence we commit on the environment are acts nature remembers. He stressed that human’s attitudes to life need to focus on the universe as a whole.

“I really enjoyed how Merwin connected his passion for the environment into his writing. It was nice to see somebody so passionate about something really taking action, and not just saying things,” said Arianna Chang ’13.

With a learned voice and one of an ideal “trusted elder,” Merwin not only managed to express his literary expertise, he also brought up many important global issues, leaving the audience stunned in beautiful words, but also in lessons and ideas for the future.

“It was interesting to see how he was really socially and politically involved with the external world, but he was able to convey those feelings through literature,” said Lee.

“I was inspired that a single poet could come and in a really short time cover all of these areas [of the environment, and all of this is available through English and through words. The sound of words can inspire us or make us so much more aware than what’s on the page, and a single sound can connect us better to the world around us,” said Tortorella.

Tonight, at this extraordinary and valuable reading, both the world and poetry were unified together and among the community.

“I was very happy to find that many people in a range of ages, all came to listen to poetry, and to realize that we all have it in common, that [poetry] is unique to each one of us, and that we love it and we can’t altogether say why,” said Merwin.