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“The Poem is Going to Surprise You”: Remembering W.S. Merwin
What the Pulitzer Prize winning poet taught us about life, death and embracing the unknown
By Courtney Suciu
“Every year without knowing it I have passed the day/When the last fires will wave to me.”
This is the first line of “For the Anniversary of My Death,”1 perhaps the best-known work by the late poet W.S. Merwin.
The poem, a potent and quietly courageous acknowledgement of mortality written when Merwin was in his 30s makes for bittersweet reading after the poet’s recent death at age 91.
In the 1960s, it also anticipated the voluminous body of work exploring themes of death, rebirth and openness to the unknown, which Merwin would begin writing a decade later. As the speaker of “For the Anniversary of My Death” mourns the eventual end of his life, there is a glimpse of the poet Merwin would become – one who approaches mystery without fear or anger, but with a tender awe: “Then I will no longer/Find myself in life as in a strange garment/Surprised at the earth…and bowing not knowing to what.”
Regarding this poem, the scholar Michael Thomas wrote in the journal Explicator2, “[Merwin’s] tone conveys his respect for all his days and indeed for time itself, the mortal experience which is necessarily defined by the timelessness of death.”
This reverence for the necessary relationship between life and death, and a gentle acceptance of its inevitability, is at the heart of Merwin’s literary legacy.
A chronicler of beauty and devastation
When Merwin was in his late 40s, moving away from the city (born in New York, he’d also lived in Scranton, Majorca and London) had a profound effect on his perspective and creative output. According to his biography on ProQuest Literature Online Premium3, “In 1976, Merwin moved to Hawaii, initially to study Zen Buddhism…At his home in Maui (having partly designed and partly built the house himself) he [was] responsible for the renewal of a devastated area of tropical forest.”
These two influences, his spirituality and commitment to the environment (Merwin raised more than 2,000 trees on the property around his rural Hawaiian home), fueled a bounty of poetry centered around bearing witness to the beauty and devastation of our planet’s lifecycles.
One of these works, “Rain Light4,” is “about what happens as you face the fact that the entire world is slipping, literally dissolving around us,” Merwin told Terry Gross5 on Fresh Air in 2010.
“You know,” he added, “we have that feeling about our civilization, about our species and everything else. It’s all endangered. And, indeed, it is. And we either face that…or we sort of groan and dread it, which is a waste of time.”
In “Rain Light,” Merwin neither groans nor dreads the dissolution that surrounds us. Instead, he lovingly chronicles the delicacy and endurance of being as nature dies and is reborn:
…all the flowers are forms of water
The sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without question
even though the whole world is burning.
Whether as the result of the natural course of death and birth, or from the harm we’ve caused with our own hands, Merwin always called on us to see the reality of our relationship to, and our dependency on, the planet. These thoughts were reflected in the 2010 PBS documentary The Buddha6, where he spoke about the spiritual awakening that comes with “accepting the earth, not owning the earth, not possessing the earth, but the earth just as it is, abused and exploited, and despised and rejected, and plowed and mined and shat on and everything else, it’s still the earth and we owe everything to it.”
By confronting us with this point of view, Merwin not only made us understand the great responsibility we share as the transient stewards of the planet and the lifecycles it supports, he also showed us how responding to this reality with compassion can liberate us to participate in it more fully.
Embracing the mystery
While we might struggle with the notions that everything we know, everything around us, is in constant flux – and that everything living will eventually die – such a realization can also free us to focus on what matters: the fleeting moment here and now. That was how Merwin described what it means to become enlightened in The Buddha:
Just this. Just this…this room, where we are. Pay attention to that. Pay attention to who is there. Pay attention to what isn’t known there. Pay attention to what is known there. Pay attention to what everyone is thinking or feeling, what you are doing there, pay attention. Pay attention.
Writing, for Merwin, extended from the act of paying this kind of attention – by being completely engrossed with listening, observing and experiencing his environment. In paying such attention, Merwin voluntarily relinquished some control over his creative process to the unknown, but was rewarded with a sense of perpetual astonishment.
In the documentary Poet’s View, Intimate Profiles of Five Major Poets7, Merwin explained that writing:
begins with hearing a dimension of words, hearing, hearing maybe the sound of words. It may be a phrase that I’ve heard someone say in the street and that I’ve heard all my life, and I think ‘That’s got it.’ It’s got that electric current. I’ve never heard it before, but there it is. And it’s part of a poem.
In this way, Merwin demonstrates how paying deep attention to our surroundings can transform something mundane and familiar, such as words often heard before, into something new, imbued with an exhilarating energy that takes on an existence of its own.
“Gradually, I find out what the poem is about,” he continued. “The poem is going to surprise you, right to the very end. You’re not, it’s not, the next line is not going to come from where you think it’s going to come. And I think that is very, very important, that element of surprise which begins with hearing words in the first place.”
Such openness to surprise, in life and writing poetry, required Merwin to have an abundance of trust in uncertainty; a trust which also empowered him to make peace with the flip side of life and writing poetry: “All my life I’ve thought when I finish a poem, there’s no guarantee that I’ll write another one,” he said. “If you feel as I do that the next poem comes from a totally unknown place, how can you know you’re going to write another [one]?”
For Merwin, life and death, writing poems and not-writing poems, all emerge from the same “totally unknown place.” By embracing the unknown, fear in it dissipates. When we are free of fear, we become open to the wonder of the unknown, of our existence, and of poetry.
This lesson, Merwin explained, is at the core of Buddhist studies.
“The Buddha saw death and life as inseparable,” he said. “These are two sides of the same thing. Death is always with us. Death is part of the whole large unknown.”
“And if we are unable to smile at the unknown,” he smiled, “we’re in real trouble.”
- Merwin, W. S. (1960). For the Anniversary Of My Death. Available from Literature Online Premium.
- “For the Anniversary of My Death.” Thomas, M. W. (1991). Merwin's FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH. Explicator, 49(2), 126. Available from Periodicals Archive Online.
- W. S. Merwin Author Page from Literature Online Premium.
- Merwin, W.S. (1993). Rain Light. MerwinConservancy.org.
- The Poetic ‘Shadow' of Memory, Mortality (2008). Philadelphia: NPR. Available from ProQuest One Academic.
- Grubin, D. (Producer). (2010). The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha [Video file]. Public Broadcasting Service. Available from Academic Video Online.
- Stuart, M. (Director). (2009). Intimate Profiles of Five Major Poets [Video file]. Filmakers Library. Available from Academic Video Online.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu