At the time of his appointment in July of 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill was proceeding unabated. The well gushed from April to September in what would become the largest oil spill in history. The horror of this incident was difficult to measure but in retrospect served as appropriate timing for the Library of Congress to select W.S. Merwin as U.S. Poet Laureate.
Merwin’s love of nature intersects with his passion for social justice, as he says in an interview with Edward Hirsch, “I don’t make a distinction. The poisoning of the soil, the imminence of nuclear disaster are absolutely the same thing. You shut your eyes and you open them and you’re staring at the same thing but the form of it looks different. Here you are at a different movie but it’s all the same thing.” Elsewhere in describing his struggle with Walt Whitman, Merwin mentions that he couldn’t read Whitman without also thinking about Manifest Destiny and the destruction of indigenous peoples.
In 1971, when his second book of poems, The Carrier of Ladders, was nominated for a Pulitzer he used the occasion to denounce the American War in Vietnam. It was a decision he was chastised for, but one he defended saying on had to call attention to the atrocity and he saw the prize as an opportunity to do that.
There is a real sense in Merwin’s work of the artist reinventing his art. Merwin has commented that he expects every new poem to surprise him in some way, not to repeat what he has already done in his work. And though a Merwin poem is perhaps recognizable for its voice, the inventiveness of his work has kept it surprising through more than 30 books of poetry. Part of his commitment to the craft of poetry has been to work in translation and he has also translated more than twenty books of poetry.
Merwin’s deep commitment to eco-justice is embodied in the life he’s carved for himself as an avid gardener who has restored a bio-diverse palm forest on twenty acres of deforested and damaged land in Maui where he has lived for over thirty years. The story of Merwin and his partner Paula Dunaway‘s forest reclamation through the Merwin Conservancy, was celebreated in the gorgeous PBS documentary film, W.S. Merwin: To Plant a Tree.
When President Barack Obama asked Merwin to describe the theme of his post he said, “the fact that there’s no separation between human imagination and the rest of life. Put another way, humans are not a separate species. The world is a part of us. It should be part of our joy and our pleasure. When we destroy the world, we’re destroying ourselves.” His appointment as U.S. Poet Laureate offered recognition to an esteemed poet who has dedicated his life to these themes.
Melissa Tuckey is author of Tenuous Chapel, a book of poems selected by Charles Simic for the ABZ Press First Book Prize (2013) and editor of Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology (University of Georgia Press 2018). Her honors include a fellowship at Black Earth Institute, a winter fellowship at Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and writing awards from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the Ohio Arts Council. She holds an MFA from George Mason University, and teaches community-based creative writing workshops in Ithaca, New York, where she has recently been selected a Poet Laureate of Tompkins County. To read more by this author: "Forsythia Winter," Wartime Issue; "Time's Arrow," Museum Issue; Two poems, Split This Rock Issue.