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Tale

After many winters the moss
finds the sawdust crushed bark chips
and says old friend
old friend

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This lyric fragment appears as epigraph to W. S. Merwin‘s longer poem, “Unchopping a Tree“. This latter, republished in 2014 (originally collected in The Miner’s Pale Children), takes the form of a lovely little stand-alone book of the same title. The work is illustrated by drawings of artist Liz Ward: her exquisite studies of the cellular structures of trees are created with silverpoint and tinted gesso on paper and on panel. Created over 14 years, this little art collection is titled, The Interior Life of a Tree.

(On completing the book, I discovered that the lines of “Tale” quoted above are actually excerpted from a longer prose poem; and that this same excerpt first appeared in the 1970 collection, The Carrier of Ladders, which work earned Merwin the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.)

A prolific and respected poet, and translator from many languages, Merwin has received a commensurate degree of recognition throughout his life. Just a few of these honours: the inauguratory Wallace Stevens Award (also known as the Dorothea Tanning Prize, one of the highest honours bestowed by the Academy of American Poets); the National Book Award for Poetry; the Pen Translation Prize; the Bollingen Prize for Poetry; the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (an initiative of the Poetry Foundation, this is one of the most prestigious awards given to American poets and among the largest literary honors for work in the English language). He has twice received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and has served as the United States Poet Laureate. In 2013, he was named the first Poet Laureate of the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award (Warsaw).
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Merwin has resolutely addressed various themes in his writing. One of his most abiding passions has been a love for the natural world and a commitment to a “deep ecology” wherein humanity’s relationship with nature is keenly understood to be one of holism and radical interdependence. He has, for nearly 4 decades, been planting a sustainable forest of over 800 species of palm across 18 acres in Hawaii. This is the Merwin Conservancy, whose mission is . . . to preserve the living legacy of W. S. Merwin, his home and palm forest, for future retreat and study for botanists and writers, for environmental advocacy and community education. (merwinconservancy.org)

Planting a tree may be a little like writing a poem: nurturing new life by gathering and shaping into freshly-coherent form something that we care deeply about . . . And reading a poem, then, like getting to know an individual tree, consciously sharing some of your awareness, your energy, your time, your life, with it.

Final word to the poet, on poetry:
I think there’s a kind of desperate hope built into poetry 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.

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