The Roots of the Old Palm

Patrick Walsh-Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

In a fragment scholars have dubbed “In Lovely Blue,” the great German Romantic poet Friedrich H枚lderlin wrote “poetically Man lives on the Earth.” And so we do, despite appearances.

But some dwell on this yet-verdant rock with exceptional poetry. What could be more poetic than a man of great lyrical sensibilities–a poet–who moves to the idyllic Hawaiian island of Maui and makes his home in a quiet village named Haiku?

Back in the late 1970s, the great American poet W.S. Merwin did just that. In his 50s, Merwin left behind those so-called literary hubs in which he’d once lived–New York, Boston, London–for the spiritual and creative calm of a tiny Hawaiian town “upcountry,” as locals say. Already crowned with most of the laurels a poet could receive, Merwin chose palms under which he could walk the rest of his days.

Many of those palms he would plant himself.

That long life peacefully ended on March 15th, 2019. Years before, while still a young man, Merwin found his true voice in a now-famous book of poems called The Lice. The year was 1967. He abandoned his poetic predecessors—he even abandoned punctuation. A groundbreaking work for both the poet and American poetry, The Lice contained what has become Merwin’s most famous work. Much-discussed and analyzed, it’s as good an example of his art as you’ll find. And now we know the date at which it guessed:

  • For the Anniversary of My Death
  • Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
    When the last fires will wave to me
    And the silence will set out
    Tireless traveler
    Like the beam of a lightless star
    Then I will no longer
    Find myself in life as in a strange garment
    Surprised at the earth
    And the love of one woman
    And the shamelessness of men
    As today writing after three days of rain
    Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
    And bowing not knowing to what

The meandering paths of Merwin’s journey as a poet were like the roots of a very old palm.

Born on September 30, 1927 in New York City, Merwin grew up the son of a Presbyterian minister in Union City, New Jersey and then Scranton, Pennsylvania. An emanation of the nascent poet, five year-old William Stanley started writing hymns for his dad.

A promising sapling.

While at Princeton University, Merwin studied with renowned literary critic R.P. Blackmur. Blackmur occupies a special spot on my brain’s bookshelf: along with the pleasing notion that he lived 25 years in the same town I call home, he wrote a sentence with a particular phrase I’ve cherished for decades: “The art of poetry . . . adds to the stock of available reality.” What an exquisite insight! If Blackmur hadn’t said it Wallace Stevens certainly would have (I bet it miffed the wily insurance lawyer up in Hartford to have been beaten to the punch on such a sterling coinage.)

Roots finding nourishment.

Also while at Princeton, Merwin became friends with Blackmur’s graduate assistant, a young poet named John Berryman. And he grew enthralled with the poetry and translations of Ezra Pound, growing a beard in imitation of the master and visiting him at St. Elizabeths Hospital. In a 2009 interview with Bill Moyers, Merwin recalled the advice Ezra Pound gave the then-18-year-old poet:

  • He said if you want to be a poet you have to take it seriously. You have to work on it the way you would work on anything else and you have to do it every day. He said you should write about 75 lines every day. You know, Pound was a great one for laying down the law about how you did anything. And he said, you don’t really have anything to write 75 lines about a day. He said you don’t really have anything to write about. He said, at the age of 18, you think you do but you don’t. And he said the way to do it is to learn a language and translate. He said, that way, you can practice and you can find out what you can do with your language, with your language. You can learn a foreign language but the translation is your way of learning your own language.

The palm digs deeper.

Merwin moved to Spain in 1952 and made the pilgrimage, like so many young minds, to the island of Majorca to meet the old Soldier-Poet, playwright, translator, and all-around legend Robert Graves. Around the time Merwin was born, Graves had moved to Majorca, a very physical gesture of his decision to say “Good-Bye to All That,” the phrase he used as title of his famous autobiography. While not as isolated as Merwin’s mid-Pacific Maui, the Mediterranean island 160 miles due east of Valencia may as well have been Bora Bora in 1927.

Perhaps Graves, so at home physically and creatively on Majorca, planted the seeds of Merwin’s own island seclusion. Merwin must have certainly been impressed with the old poet’s total fidelity to the Muse (“the White Goddess,” to use another of Graves’ famous book titles.)

Merwin had been hired to tutor Graves’ son, William. Though married to Dorothy Jeanne Ferry at the time, Merwin met Dido Milroy, whom he would eventually marry. The couple lived for a time in southwest France and then moved to London. While living in London, Merwin befriended fellow poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

A network expands.

While living in New York City, Merwin met Paula Dunaway, who would become his third wife and life’s partner of nearly forty years. Together they would transform an 18-acre parcel of a tilled and very tired Maui pineapple plantation into the lush preserve known as The Merwin Conservancy. It has become a haven to every species of palm tree on the planet, more than 3,000 of which Merwin and Paula planted themselves. And it was a heaven “in lovely blue” and vibrant green in which the couple nurtured each other while the poet nurtured his art.

I’ve been lucky to spend many years of my life in the Hawaiian islands. My first stint in Paradise, nearly four years on Oahu, came via the luck of the draw: the Army assigned me there. Many years later I returned winter after winter to Maui, the same island Merwin chose to call home decades prior. And not just Maui, but the island’s north shore and just around the corner on the Hana Highway from the upcountry town of Haiku. Supporting the Merwin Conservancy has provided an opportunity to give something back to an island which gives so much.

There are many things I admire about Merwin. Pound and Graves would have been proud of his dedication to the Muse. Merwin wisely steered clear of the pyramid scheme of academia, specifically “teaching” in creative writing programs, a treacherous path which has lobotomized so many of our potentially good poets. I admire Merwin’s devotion to the earth, of doing something constructive and tangible and lasting for the good of our planet. But most of all I admire his art. His poems exude a sense of guileless purpose, a blessed lack of the clever winks and knowing nods behind which our poetasters screen both their lack of something to say and a void of feeling with which to say it. His poetry has an integrity of earnestness: he’s trying to do something worthwhile with his gift.

The highest praise I can give any poet is that I enjoy reading his or her work. Merwin’s poems give me pleasure. I’ll leave you with one more. Toward the end of his life, Merwin lost his sight to macular degeneration, but with Paula’s help he wrote not of anger or bitterness but of gratitude.

  • Variation on a Theme
  • Thank you my lifelong afternoon
    late in this season of no age
    thank you for my windows above the rivers
    thank you for the true love you brought me to
    when it was time at last and for words
    that come out of silence and take me by surprise
    and have carried me through the clear day
    without once turning to look at me
    thank you for friends and long echoes of them
    and for those mistakes that were only mine
    for the homesickness that guides the young plovers
    from somewhere they loved before
    they woke into it to another place
    they loved before they ever saw it
    thank you whole body and hand and eye
    thank you for sights and moments known
    only to me who will not see them again
    except in my mind’s eye where they have not changed
    thank you for showing me the morning stars
    and for the dogs who are guiding me

The Merwin Conservancy:

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Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet.
He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.

©2020 Patrick Walsh
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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