The post of poet laureate, at least in Britain, is sometimes a source of derision, as she or he is expected to compose verses in praise of the establishment. But the latest recipient of this honour in the United States may be one to break this mould.
In the US, perhaps somewhat curiously, the laureate is officially known as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress has seen fit to appoint an outsider, W.S.Merwin, as the latest incumbent for the job.
W.S.Merwin, appointed in July, was a strong critic of the Vietnam war and is today well-known for his strong ecological stance. Along with others like beat poet Gary Snyder, he has expanded and transformed nature poetry to confront ecological devastation and, as Synder has noted, search for “wildness wherever one can find it. Not just in wilderness areas, but everywhere human beings let go of the controls.”
Despite receiving a long string of accolades over the years, he has been criticised for having a strong political agenda in his work. Merwin, who is 82, has a string of prizes going back to the age of 16 when he received a scholarship to Princeton. Following a recommendation from poet Ezra Pound, he learned to translate from Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, Japanese, Russian and Sanskrit plus and other languages.
His 2009 collection The Shadow of Sirius, published by Copper Canyon Press, has been described as “almost hypnotic, like waves washing a beach”. It draws on his deep feeling for human beings as part of nature.
He is part of a generation of truly great and highly political American poets who include Adrienne Rich, Ruth Stone, John Ashberry, Robert Bly, and the late James Wright and Frank O’Hara. On the whole, they have not shirked from open criticism and defiance of the establishment. Merwin donated his first Pulitzer Prize money to anti Vietnam war activists in 1970.
He rejected the blandishments of US academe and moved to France in the 1950s. Today he lives in on the second-largest Hawaiian island of Maui where he has created the Merwin Conservancy. With his wife Paula Schwartz, he planted some 700 species of palm trees on what was an empty stretch of pineapple plantation which they work on every day in an effort to keep rare species from extinction .
According to Los Angeles Times reporter Dean Kuipers, Merwin jots down his poetry whilst working in the streambed of his mango trees. “I’ve never believed that the imagination, the thing that made poems, is separate from the rest of life at all. It’s a part of it. But we have a tradition as a society that is saying that the rest of life is there purely for us to exploit it without any concern about the consequences of it. It’s very short-term and in my view it’s suicidal.”
Merwin’s approach to the world around us in sharp contrast to that of the corporations, like BP, who published its report into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill which took place in April.
This is all the more vital in the light of yesterday’s publication of BP’s Accident Investigation Report. It is an unedifying spectacle of recrimination between BP and the string of companies responsible for the biggest oil spill of all time. BP is desperate to defend itself against accusations that it bears the main responsibility for the loss of life and vast ecological damage caused by the explosion and leakage. The report is being criticised as a damage-limitation exercise by trying to share the blame with Halliburton for their cement work and rig-operator Transocean.
All power to those who provide a different vision of human existence than that of the current economic and political system. Let’s hope that Merwin doesn’t pull his punches in his period as Poet Laureate!
A World to Win secretary