Happy birthday, Mr. Merwin

Friends, family and fans gather at the MACC to celebrate Maui poet laureate’s 90th year

Tom Sewell (right) shares a smile with two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Nobel poet laureate and environmental activist W.S. Merwin, who turned 90 on Saturday. A celebration honoring the literary legend drew a standing-room-only audience at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on Friday night. -- The Merwin Conservancy / BRYAN BERKOWITZ photo

How do you celebrate a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet’s 90th birthday?

You remind him that his words — and his life — have had a profound impact on the world.

The Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s McCoy Studio Theater was filled to capacity Friday night as family members, friends and residents gathered to express their love, gratitude and admiration for W.S. Merwin on the eve of his 90th birthday.

The event was part of The Green Room, a bimonthly environmental and literary salon series hosted by The Merwin Conservancy, which brings prominent authors, poets, musicians, botanists, environmentalists, artists and actors to Maui for public presentations.

The nonprofit organization also works to preserve the legacy of its namesake — Merwin’s Peahi home and palm forest — as a retreat for writers, environmental advocacy and community education.

Matthew Schwartz, the eldest son of the late Paula Merwin and president of The Merwin Conservancy’s board of directors, gives a touching birthday tribute to the world-renowned poet. “He is a great teacher, as well as a great friend and a father,” he said. -- The Merwin Conservancy / BRYAN BERKOWITZ photo

To say that Merwin is one of the most influential American poets of our time would be an understatement.

“There is so much to say. I wish I had an entire semester to talk to you,” said poet and Guggenheim Foundation President Edward Hirsch, who recounted Merwin’s literary journey to a rapt audience.

Gesturing toward Merwin sitting in the front row, Hirsch said, “It has been a remarkable journey.”

William Stanley Merwin was born Sept. 30, 1927, in New York City and was raised in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Merwin began writing poems as he penned hymns for his father’s congregation. In 1948, he graduated from Princeton University, where he studied with renowned poets John Berryman and R.P. Blackmur.

Merwin’s first book of poetry, “A Mask for Janus,” was selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1952. In the years that followed, he wrote more than 50 books of poetry and prose and translated dozens more.

Merwin has received nearly every major literary award, as well as fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation. He was appointed U.S. poet laureate twice, in 1999 and 2010, and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry twice, in 1971 (for “The Carrier of Ladders”) and 2009 (for “The Shadow of Sirius”).

Forty years ago, Merwin purchased a 4-acre parcel of land in the Peahi Stream valley — a real estate transaction that likely raised a few eyebrows at the time. Once a thriving native forest, the land had been decimated by a failed pineapple farm and labeled an “agricultural wasteland.” But Merwin and his late wife, Paula, painstakingly restored the land by planting thousands of palms — a passion project that evolved into one of the largest and most comprehensive private palm collections in the world.

Today, the now 19-acre palm forest is home to nearly 3,000 individual palm trees and more than 480 taxonomic species — many of them rare or endangered and some perilously close to extinction — as well as a living seed bank of biodiverse palm germ plasm. In 2010, The Merwin Conservancy was established to preserve and protect Merwin’s living legacy: his home and palm forest. And with a permanent conservation easement in place, the nonprofit is poised to carry on the Merwins’ vision in the years to come.

Among those paying tribute to the world-renowned poet Friday night were Hirsch; Paula Merwin’s two sons, John and Matthew Schwartz; Merwin’s longtime editor, Michael Wiegers; The Merwin Conservancy Executive Director Jason Denhart; and Gov. David Ige’s Maui representative, Leah Belmonte, who presented a proclamation declaring Saturday as “W.S. Merwin Day” in Hawaii. In a video montage, fellow authors and poets Bill Porter (known as “Red Pine”), Jane Hirshfield, Michael Ondaatje, Naomi Shihab Nye and Terry Tempest Williams all shared heartfelt birthday messages.

“You have changed lives . . . one line at a time,” Williams said.

Following an excerpt from “Even Though the Whole World is Burning,” Stefan Schaefer’s feature documentary about Merwin, John Schwartz took the stage.

“Just on the other side of those images and words is a man — he is the same person you see on that screen,” said Paula Merwin’s youngest son. “He is a great poet, and above all, a great human being,”

The Merwin Conservancy’s The Green Room will present former U.S. Poet Laureate and New York State Poet Laureate Billy Collins at 7 p.m. Dec. 8 in the MACC’s McCoy Studio Theater. To purchase tickets, visit www.mauiarts.org or call 242-SHOW.

To learn more about The Merwin Conservancy, visit www.merwinconservancy.org.