W.S. Merwin at his home, a former pineapple plantation built atop a dormant volcano in Maui, Hawaii, on June 30, 2010. Merwin is to be named the 17th poet laureate of the United States. (Tom Sewell/The New York Times)

Tom Sewell / The New York Times

W.S. Merwin at his home, a former pineapple plantation built atop a dormant volcano in Maui, Hawaii, on June 30, 2010. Merwin is to be named the 17th poet laureate of the United States. (Tom Sewell/The New York Times)

March 18, 2019

YANDAVA | Predicting the Inevitable: An Ode to W.S. Merwin

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“Every year without knowing I have passed the day,” writes W.S. Merwin in “For the Anniversary of My Death.” That day was last Friday, when the former U.S. Poet Laureate passed away in his Maui home. Poets often seem rather too preoccupied with their own mortality, and Merwin was no exception. He wrote about death with all the lucidity of someone who had already died, or someone who knew death — the inevitability of death — intimately. In “Another Dream of Burial,” Merwin describes the various ways in which he has imagined his own burial but in the end, “turn[s] and walk[s] away from it / into the whole world the whole world,” as though making a conscious choice to keep living, to keep fighting to hold on to life rather than giving in to death.

Through both the example of his life and his poetry, Merwin instructs us on how to live and make peace with death, to maintain hope rather than give in to fear and self-doubt. As a Zen Buddhist, his work often drew on themes of spirituality and ecology, taking inspiration from the natural world as a reminder of the impermanence and fragility of life. On the death of his friend John Berryman, he wrote, “I had hardly begun to read / I asked how can you ever be sure / that what you write is really / any good at all and he said you can’t / you can’t you can never be sure / you die without knowing / whether anything you wrote was any good / if you have to be sure don’t write.” In light of the amount of awards Merwin won over the course of his long lifetime, though, it seems ironic and unlikely that he had no conception of his talent as a poet.   

Indeed, having died at 91, Merwin seems to keep with several other famous poets who have died recently at ripe-old ages — Mary Oliver and John Ashberry, for example. Such poets defeat the stereotype of the young artist who dies tragically and violently — who achieves fame posthumously and whose young death is later romanticized as poetic and almost aspirational.

Like these other poets, the figure of Merwin looms large over the contemporary literary canon, casting an impossibly imposing shadow. Commenting on whether the poet has any social role in America, Merwin stated, “I think there’s a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there’s still time. I think that’s a social role, don’t you? . . . We keep expressing our anger and our love, and we hope, hopelessly perhaps, that it will have some effect . . . one can’t live only in despair and anger without eventually destroying the thing one is angry in defense of. The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us. And you know, in a way, if you don’t pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness.”

Now that it seems so many of our great literary figures are passing away, I wonder if the role of the poet and of poetry has been diminished, too, in our society, especially at a time when we need to “pay attention to the things around us” in order not to “love only in despair and anger.” Or perhaps Merwin’s poetry is simply a reminder that it is not just for our artists to carry out this task. Instead, it is for all of us as we live our lives, to consider our effect on the world that is “still here,” even if the possibility of “sav[ing] the world” appears hopeless.

Ramya Yandava is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ry86@cornell.edu. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.