U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin Celebrates Imagination In Speech At Harry Ransom Center

The Harry Ransom Lecture series closed its season with a biggie this week: a reading by U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin.

In front of 150 mostly silver-haired attendees, Merwin, the country’s 17th Poet Laureate and a rare two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, spoke for an hour and a half, alternating between his readings and opinions on the essence of poetry.

“When you talk about poets in the past, you really feel a connection,” Merwin said. “There’s some sinew, some chord that you share that goes all the way back.”

Merwin has lived on the island of Maui for the past 40 years, cultivating 19 acres of pineapple trees with his wife and practicing Buddhism.

In his readings he said there were two motifs he wanted to convey: Hawai’i, and the relation between who we are at our most indescribable and the life of everything that loves life.

The latter might seem too abstract to understand, and reading it now, I’m not sure I know exactly what it means, but in the way that poetry gives words to the things we’ve always known, it made perfect sense when Merwin said it.

In fact, I think that if Merwin told me my hair was blond, I would just sit there and say, “You know, he’s probably right, I just can’t see it.”

He has the kind of voice all great poets have, where the words grab you gently and then spirit you away to the cliffs on the island of Kauai or the tree in the backyard of Merwin’s childhood home.

Merwin is still agile for an 83-year-old and his mind continues to explore the imagination of the human mind. “Imagination is the real difference between humans and the rest of the world,” he said. “It’s what produces Blake, Mozart, and Mother Teresa.”

Outside the Ransom Center auditorium, an annex of overflowing listeners sat on folding chairs and watched a live feed of the reading. Inside, the crowd was comprised of mostly AARP members, save for a handful of people born after 1980.

While Merwin said that it was difficult these days for reality to exist “unless you can look it up on the computer,” he certainly brings non-digitized words to life.

In his piece “The Black Jewel” from Opening the Hand, he finds a meditative quality in his memory, “before I could talk/ I heard the cricket/ under the house/ then I remembered summer.”

Merwin stressed that “we have to keep learning, as long as there is anything,” in his penultimate poem, “Waves in August” from Migration: New and Selected Poems. But he also quoted Tennyson, who stated that Ulysses’ sin was knowledge for knowledge’s sake. It is what we do

with that knowledge, with our imaginations, that gives the world meaning and allows us to hear more than we thought we could hear.

“A poem should come to be like ice melting on a stove,” Merwin said. “It should ride its own melting until it is gone.”

U. S. Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin signs books after his reading at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith. Courtesy the Harry Ransom Center.


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