How would U.S. Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin define poetry? He wouldn’t.
The 84-year-old American poet visited the sixth grade recently and in an hour-long discussion that took place in the new meeting room, answered their questions about poetry and his life as a poet. Merwin, who has a deep interest in Zen Buddhism and ecology, often answered their questions with questions and spoke frequently about the natural world. Some of his responses to student questions include the following:
- After stating that he wouldn’t define poetry, Merwin noted that it does involve the total use of language. He quoted Samuel Coleridge, who wrote that poetry is “the best words in the best order.”
- When asked what inspired him to write poetry, he explained that his father was a minister and that the bible was his main source of reading at home. Merwin grew up loving the rich language of the King James Bible. The only poems he knew were hymns, which he tried to write at around age five.
- When asked his favorite poem, he said that he has different favorites for different parts of his life. He recited “Where Go the Boats,” from A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, his favorite poem when he was young.
- He urged the children to make poetry a part of their lives. He suggested that they read a poem frequently, paying attention to how it is structured, and each time finding things that they didn’t know were there. It is then, he said, that “the poem will finally become a part of you.”
- He was asked where he gets the ideas for his poems. Merwin introduced his thoughts on the natural world, saying that it is “a dangerous notion [that we] have dominion over the rest of life; it is a terrible and damaging way to look at ourselves. Rushing to judgment about other creatures is something we should be careful about. Imagination is what distinguished us . . . . [It] allows us to feel compassion, joy, sorrow, and anger—out of that, poetry comes.”
- Merwin often referred to the Quaker tradition of silence, saying that silence is a remarkable thing and that “silence is not nothing; it’s everything.”
In a beautiful speaking voice and with measured cadence, he concluded the conversation by reading aloud several of his poems, including “The Unwritten”; “Search Party,” written after finding his missing dog; and “To the Insects.”
W. S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. He grew up in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he finished high school and won a scholarship to attend Princeton University. He is credited with more than 30 books of poetry, translation, and prose.
The poet has received many honors, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (in both 1971 and 2009) and the Tanning Prize in 1993, one of the highest honors bestowed by the Academy of American Poets. In 2010, the Library of Congress named Merwin the 17th U.S. Poet Laureate. He lives on a former pineapple plantation built atop a dormant volcano on the northeast coast of Maui, Hawaii. He writes prolifically and is dedicated to the restoration of the islands' rainforests.