U.S. Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin Talks with Librarians
Pulitzer Prize winner loves the sound of poetry in the branches
Posted Wed, 11/24/2010 - 12:15
W. S. Merwin at a special Poets House program for librarians.
Before assuming his post as U.S. Poet Laureate on October 25, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner W. S. Merwin met with a select group of librarians at New York City’s Poets House for an afternoon of reading and conversation. A nonprofit organization, Poets House hosted the event as part of “One City, Many Poems,” a discussion series—and offshoot of its library-oriented Poetry in the Branches program—that brings librarians and poets together for discussions on verse.
The librarians steered the conversation, which ranged from environmental preservation, to introducing children to poetry, to the act of reading poetry.
“People who say they can’t understand poetry come at it from the wrong angle,” Merwin told the roughly 40 librarians. “Understanding comes after.”
The message resonated with Gabriella Radujko, an information services librarian at New Jersey’s Oradell Free Public Library and a published poet herself. Poetry is “not easily understood and that’s the point,” she said.
“You hear poetry with your whole body. Poetry is physical,” Merwin said. “Poetry begins by listening and hearing, not knowing and understanding.”
Merwin noted children’s innate receptivity to poetry, and commended Poets House’s youth programs, which have attracted some 4,000 students on class trips since the organization opened its Battery Park City location last year.
“The marvelous thing is that you have these children’s programs, too, so that you bring people up with poetry,” he said.
Merwin began writing short hymns and verses as a child, but selected from his local library “books of legends and myths and things like that. And I read novels, stories about adventure.” At the age of 13, his mother gave him a volume of Joseph Conrad’s works, which influenced his writing. As a Princeton student, Merwin “spent lots, all of the time in the library.”
Libraries and institutions such as Poets House, with their open stacks, keep the art alive and “wake people up to poetry,” Merwin said.
“The important thing is to make it clear without making it a program,” he said. “Making it fun, making it pleasurable so that it becomes part of something they love doing and love reading and love having as part of their lives. If it isn’t, you’ve lost it.”
Merwin’s words made Billy Parrott, a New York Public Library librarian at the nearby Battery Park City branch, consider his library’s poetry programs. It was sometimes difficult to attract patrons to book discussion groups, Parrott said, but using poems instead of longer novels could draw larger crowds.
“I imagine over the next few days we’ll put a lot of holds on Merwin books,” Parrott said.
Sandra Payne, a retired young adult services coordinator at the New York Public Library who has been involved with Poetry in the Branches since its inception, said she appreciated Poets House’s programs for keeping her on her toes. “I’m continuing my education in poetry through Poets House,” Payne said.
Merwin commented on the imagery of the “Poetry in the Branches” phrase. “I love it when you say ‘in the branches’ because it’s like a tree. Imagine, a world without trees. Where would we be?”
Trees and the natural world figure prominently in Merwin’s work and life. He lives in Maui with his wife, Paula Schwartz, on a conservancy that they planted largely by hand. By request, he read “Place,” which begins, “On the last day of the world / I would want to plant a tree.”
“I can’t stop the destruction of the Borneo, the Amazon rainforests, but I can plant a tree,” Merwin said. “I can’t stop the rush of illiteracy, but I can write a poem.”
MARCELLA VENZIALE is a journalist based in New York City.