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Archive for July, 2010

This past week, W.S. Merwin was appointed American’s 17th Poet Laureate. Deciding to write about Merwin opened a door in my memory.  I thought back to particular lines and spent an hour in the books where I knew I’d find them, each one taking me back to who and where I was when I first read them. And today, the lines still lingering with me all seem to be saying the same thing: that as a culture, we are approaching the end of something.

From One Story

When there is no more story, that will be our story.

When there is no more forest, that will be our forest.

From The Last One

Well they cut everything because why not.
Everything was theirs because they thought so.

Witness

I want to tell

what the forests

were like

I will have to speak

in a forgotten language.

I first met William Merwin at a writer’s conference in Montana. He spoke not about poetry but about his efforts to thwart plans for destructive geo-thermal development on his beloved island of Maui. I remember being surprised at the level to which this gifted artist had gone in his activism. In the years since, Merwin has inspired me to believe in whatever comes as a result of continual direct contact with nature and natural systems.  From him, I’ve learned that in the case of environmental destruction caused by greed and shortsightedness, anger and frustration are normal, but can lead to paralysis. I’ve learned to remember that we humans are no different or more important than any other species and that believing otherwise is at the deep root of our problems. Through his example, I have learned the value of listening.

Each year the Library of Congress appoints a new Poet Laureate after consulting with former appointees, the current Laureate and distinguished poetry critics. Each individual poet “serves as the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans”.  In the past, Robert Hass created the “River of Words” program to encourage creative environmental stewardship among young people. Rita Dove brought African Culture to the forefront and Maxine Kumin created poetry workshops for women.  Consciously or not, selectors seemed to have picked the right poet for the right time.  Consciously, Merwin deserves this honor. He has dozens of books to his credit and has won every major national and international poetry award. He is 83 years old. Unconsciously, his message—as if from the future—of acceptance and responsibility for what we’ve done to this planet, must be needed on the growing list of evidence that our species is in trouble and we don’t really know what to do about it.

We visited William and his wife, Paula, at their home in Hai’Ku Hawaii, during the holidays a few years ago. They live on what was a pineapple plantation when they bought it thirty years ago, which they leveled and replanted with native vegetation and seeds from the world’s most endangered palms.  Today their perfect simple house is surrounded by island paradise with palm trees too big to wrap your arms around, ponds, birds, and even frogs.  One night we were talking in their living room and I told William how excited I was that so many young writers wanted to make a difference with their work.

“That’s nice,” he said, “but I think it’s unfortunate.”  When he saw the shock on my face he explained. “If you sit down to write with the goal of making a difference, you’re not likely to succeed,” he said.

“What would you say to them?”

“I would tell them to write the very best story they can. -That story will make a difference.”

I’ve thought about that nearly every day since.  I’ve come to believe that stories, when told as honestly, as unapologetically, and from as close as possible to that deep unconscious space where we share the entire evolutionary history with every human who ever lived,  hold the code to our survival.

From Cover Note

…I hope I make sense to

you in the shimmer of

our days while the world we

cling to in common is

burning for I have not

the ancients’ confidence

in the survival of

one track of syllables

nor in the ultimate

moment of insight that

supposedly will dawn

once and for all upon

a bright posterity

making clear only to

them what passes between

us now in silence

on this side of the flames

.

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