Last week the big poetry news was W.S. Merwin’s appointment as the U.S. Poet Laureate. It’s a largely symbolic honor, but an incredibly big one all the same. And yet it was hard not to fall upon the easy story-line, which most in the press did: why him?
The criticism is that unlike past poet laureates, Merwin is not all that accessible, what with all his mystical and Zen-infused lyrics? For a post like Poet Laureate, you want someone who can get a lay audience excited about the niche literary field. So it doesn’t make much sense to appoint an elusive figure like Merwin.
Moreover, he’s already an establishment guy. He’s got two Pulitzer Prizes, the second of which he won last year, and plenty of book contracts, so why not give the honor to some equally talented but less awarded figure? And anyway, he lives in Hawaii — D.C.’s already got a well-known new-comer from there. Perhaps it has something to do with politics, many have been suggesting: Merwin was an outspoken anti-war protester during Vietnam and is now largely known for his ecological philosophy. In the age of oil spill and climate change and grinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who better than Merwin?
But if you need a better argument for Merwin’s appointment, just watch him read live at the just-updated 92Y video archives. It’s wonderful. As literary folks in the city know, the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center is, hands-down, the city’s premier place for poet readings. There isn’t a star who hasn’t read there it seems, and at this 2005 tribute to Merwin (another honor, no?), they invited Edward Hirsch and Gerald Stern, both Jewish (and the latter of whom I wrote a feature about a year ago). Naomi Shihab Nye was also on the dais, but the segment shown here is just of Merwin reading from his own work.
Keep an eye out on his reading of "Dusk in Winter" — a nice mental ice-bath for today’s 100-degree heat.