W.S. Merwin lived on the corner of Fourth Street and New York Avenue in Union City from the time he was born in 1928 until his family moved to Scranton, Pa. in 1936.
Enamored with the natural world and history that surrounded him, the young Merwin often found himself talking to the big tree in his backyard. Or he would check out the building behind his home that had once been a barn, with a horse and carriage inside.
“It was a link to the past,” said Merwin in an interview last week. “Americans don’t think about the past very much, but we don’t come out of nowhere.”
“I think that everybody really loves [poetry] and doesn’t know it.” – W.S. Merwin
United States Poet Laureate on July 1. The title, officially bestowed upon one poet each year, means he will give readings and initiate special events.
“Isn’t that nice?” he said last week, when questioned about the honor.
Merwin said he was asked to take on the position during a trip to Washington in April for a reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library, but requested a month to think about it.
Now that he’s accepted the job, he will begin his rounds as the national laureate on Oct. 25 by giving a reading in Washington D.C.
He will be involved in other events throughout the year and will return to D.C. next spring for the closing of his term.
Hopes as laureate
Over the past six decades, Merwin has written over 30 books of poetry, translation, and prose. He succeeds Kay Ryan in the job, as the nation’s 17th poet laureate.
He hopes to have some impact on the nation’s love of poetry.
“I think that everybody really loves it and doesn’t know it because society doesn’t encourage it at all,” he said.
Merwin said that with poetry not being taught much in schools, he is hoping to tap into children’s natural inclination towards poetry by encouraging the vocalization of the style.
“That’s the essential thing about poetry,” he said. “You have to hear it. If you do hear it, it probably will be a pleasure to you.”
He is most looking forward to doing a “Q & A” session with students – “instead of telling them what I think they ought to listen to, they get to ask their questions,” he said.
Additionally, he hopes to bring to light the effects of the modern world’s attempt to cut itself off from the natural world.
“I would like to make the connection between the love of poetry and the love of the natural world,” said Merwin. “I don’t like these words like the ‘environment’ – there’s nothing that isn’t the environment, we are the environment.”
Originally a city boy, Merwin now lives in a home on Hawaii’s north coast surrounded by greenery. He doesn’t see any other houses. It’s a change from the tiny apartment he lived in in New York City’s Greenwich Village in the 1960s.
“The more I stayed [in Hawaii] the more fascinating I found it,” he said. “I loved it.”
A quarter mile from his home is a beautiful bay with the ruins of a huge Hawaiian temple, but a tiny back road that leads to the edge of the sea cliff is the only place to see the pristine waters. A brief, albeit slightly dangerous, trek is the only way to get down.
But Merwin admitted that he has indeed ventured down there himself over the years.
Despite the surroundings of paradise, Merwin said he doesn’t feel his new locale has had any direct impact on his writing.
“You have nothing to compare it to,” he said. “I just wrote wherever I was, I like to live very quietly anyway.”
Previous and future recognition
Merwin was honored in Union City in 2006 when a local street near his former home was renamed “W.S. Merwin Way.”
Local historian Kathie Pontus, who has led the charge over the past several years to memorialize Union City’s honorable native sons and daughters, said that she was “thrilled and excited” when she heard about Merwin being named Poet Laureate.
Pontus was a driving force in the street renaming and most recently for the planned dedication of a memorial plaque at the Edison School.
However after an array of delays, the creation of the plaque was ultimately put off by the Board of Education after the state’s freeze on all “non-essential” spending.
Representatives from the school board did not return calls for comment before to press time.
Now that Merwin has received another national honor, Pontus is hoping either the school board or city will revive the memorial plaque project – perhaps even amp it up a little.
Before the plaque idea, Pontus had originally suggested that the media center in the new high school be named after Merwin. It was instead named after former Gov. Jim McGreevey.
“I hope that they will now take the opportunity to do something,” said Pontus. “At this point, William is still alive and well. If they do something, they could probably have the opportunity of him being here for it.”
Lana Rose Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. What is a poet laureate?
The United States Poet Laureate is selected for a one-year term by the Librarian of Congress to serve as the nation’s official poet. The choice is based on poetic merit alone and has included a wide variety of poetic styles.
Though specific duties are kept to a minimum, the Poet Laureate opens the literary season in October and closes it in May, often suggests authors to read in a literary series, and plans special events during the literary season.
In recent years, many have initiated poetry projects that broaden the audiences for poetry.
The nation’s most eminent poets have served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry since the position was created in 1936.