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The U.S. Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin and his Maui Journey
February 18, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama
Since W.S. Merwin’s relocation to Maui, the island shaped his evolution as an individual, a poet – especially in the important concept of sustainability, the preservation of nature. He is now in his mid-80s and has lived on Maui for nearly half his life.
His published works through the years reflects the changes in American poetry since World War II (the emphasis then on “classical” themes and disciplined usage of meters, rhyme and stanzas under the influence of T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden – even the title of his first book of poems “The Mask of Janus” – winner of a Yale Series of Younger Poets award -- exemplifies this period), into the 1950s (when colloquial speech, “personal” style revolutionized American poetry through “confessional” poets like Robert Lowell and his student Sylvia Plath*), the social and political turbulence of the 1960s with civil rights, the Vietnam War, role of women in society, and the first stirrings of environmental issues (Merwin’s two significant books of the period -- “The Lice” (1967) and “The Carrier of Ladders” (1970) – reflect the times with anti-war and “world-in-crisis” themes, so he is no late-comer to promoting ecological issues) -- and fast-forward from his move to Maui in the mid-1970s to now, as Poet Laureate of the United States (also twice winning the Pulitzer Prize, the latest in 2009 for the minimalist, memory and dream-filled “The Shadows of Sirius” perhaps the most powerful and influential American book of poems of the last decade) – quietly living in lush, green Haiku, and his evangelism for the care and nurturing of plants, trees, the island, the planet.
His is a voice for preserving and protecting Hawaii’s natural resources, and the crisis is particularly acute here in the Islands, as the chain has the unenviable claim of having “more endangered species than any other state and is sometimes called the endangered species capital of the world”.
Merwin has put his philosophy/writings into practice: in Haiku he has revived, resurrected a tropical rain forest (rare palm trees). In the free-verse poem “Rain at Night” from his magnificent 1988 “Rain in the Trees” collection, his voice is clear, accusatory, sad, with a sense of loss (and with his Maui immersion, he uses Hawaiian terms liberally):
after an age of leaves and feathers
thought of this mountain as money
and cut the trees
that were here in the wind
in the rain at night
it is hard to say it
but they cut the sacred ‘ohias then
the sacred koas then
the sandalwood and then halas
holding aloft their green fires
and somebody dead turned cattle loose
among the stumps until killing time
Over the past 30 years Merwin has planted more than 4,000 trees at his Haiku home, representing hundreds of species. Before Merwin arrived on Maui the Haiku property's trees had been chopped for firewood, then the land used for a cattle feeding area and was more-or-less a “wasteland”. Like English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (mid-19th century Great Britain's Poet Laureate), another poet with a love of nature, trees have always been part of Merwin’s poetry; for example, in his poem entitled simply “Place”:
On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree
Aside from environmental and political concerns (opposed to the Vietnam War Merwin would send a poetry prize award to a draft resistance group and in 2003, he was a member of the "Poets Against the War" group that protested the U.S. Iraq War in Washington D.C), Merwin has been influenced by Zen Buddhism (not unlike Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and other Beat poets from the 1960s -- interestingly that Haiku is close to the Paia Mantokuji Soto Zen Mission and re-built Rinzai Zen Mission*, located by Baldwin Park) and of course, Maui Nui. Merwin’s works of the 1980s all reflect this trio of influences: “Finding the Islands”, “Opening the Hand” and (my favorite) poetry collection “The Rain in the Trees”. About two decades after his move to Maui, in celebration of his island home, Merwin published “The Folding Cliffs”, a verse narrative of Hawaiian history and legend, reflecting his “great sympathy with native people and the languages and literature of native peoples”.
Returning to the deeply-evocative “Rain at Night”, the last section has optimism, renewal, and mystery, and each word has deeper, complex meanings, and is the essence of poetry – moving individuals to revere the word and world:
but the trees have risen one more time
and the night wind makes them sound
like the sea that is yet unknown
the black clouds race over the moon
the rain is falling on the last place
*I lived for a year in Northampton, Massachusetts, the central Massachusetts town where the all-women Smith College is located. My apartment was very near where the poet Sylvia Plath once lived near Smith. I recently discovered YouTube videos of Sylvia Plath reading her controversial poem "Daddy" and also the complicated "Ariel".
**I am looking forward to this Paia Okinawan-flavored stirring, lively Bon Dance (since I enjoy andagi and love Okinawan music) during the Buddhist O-Bon season, along with the Wailuku Honganji annual Bon Dance and its excellent chow fun.
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