I've never felt compelled to look up why National Poetry Month comes in April. Some things you want to Google. Some things you just want to understand by living with them, all on your own, intuitively. But here in New York City, where today I woke to an inch of snow followed by freezing rain all day, it seemed clear to me that April's bounty of poetry was meant to correspond with the seemingly overnight (and soon, please!) appearance of daffodils and crocuses and morning birdsong, even in lower Manhattan, where I live. April doesn't have to be the cruelest month
? though when I think about the new wars and what we've done to the environment in just the last calendar year, Eliot
's scathing vision of spring's rebirth as a rebuke to manmade destruction is all too grimly current. But Poetry Month, the turn that's sure to happen in the weather, evening walks to the many poetry readings when the city air smells best ? the promise of all this, today, makes me think of Chaucer
's "Aprill," at the beginning of poetry in English, "with his shoures soote," bathing "every veyne in swich licour/ Of which vertu engendred is the flour."
This April I plan to reread W. S. Merwin, our current United States Poet Laureate, whose numinous verse always refreshes my sense of our myriad spiritual, physical, and intellectual connections to the natural world. He makes me want to garden, get out of the city as much as possible and spend time at my extended family's place upstate with my father's dogs and the beavers they taunt, and the chickens and the coyotes circling the coop at night, mica-eyed in our flashlight beams. For over 30 years Merwin has lived in Hawaii, where he studies Zen Buddhism and practices ecological preservation. His home is part of an old pineapple plantation, on the edge of a dormant volcano that rises 10,000 feet above the sea. For over 30 years he has painstakingly restored the land to its original rainforest state by populating it with rare and endangered palm trees. In a wonderful profile in O magazine Susan Casey writes of visiting Merwin's Hawaiian paradise:
As I approached Merwin's land, the vegetation grew denser. Over the past 30 years he has planted more than 4,000 trees here, representing some 850 species, beginning on the day he closed on the property, nestling 18-inch saplings along the road. "I had long dreamed of having a chance, one day," Merwin recalled in a recent essay, "to try to restore a bit of the Earth's surface that had been abused by human improvement." These 19 acres gave him his chance: They had been scoured by sugar growers, razed for firewood, mowed by cattle, plowed for pineapple, starved of water, and eventually left to die. Local officials had written them off as "wasteland." At first, when Merwin began to tend it, the soil was too poor to support the noble hardwood koas or the majestic Hawaiian Pritchardia palms that had originally grown here, but he patiently planted Casuarinas, heartier nonnative species that dropped needles, enriched the soil, added their lives to the place. "Now they are being replaced in the habitat they improved," Merwin wrote, "by young palms."
When asked, in 1987 by the poet Edward Hirsch, about the origins of his environmental consciousness, Merwin replied:
Such dispositions come long before most decisions, I think. But there are two things I remember. First, I had a rather repressed childhood. I was brought up never to say no to anybody, never to say I didn't like something, never to talk back. But one day ? I must have been around the age of three ? two men came and started cutting the limbs off the one tree in the backyard, and I simply lost my temper and ran out and started beating them. Everybody was so impressed with this outburst of real rage that my father never even punished me. And the second thing: I was so fascinated by these watercolors in a book about Indians that I began teaching myself to read the captions. The Indians seemed to be living in a place and in a way that was of immense importance to me. So I associate learning to read ? English, oddly enough ? with wanting to know about Indians. I'm still growing into it. I've never outgrown that. The Indians represented to me a wider and more cohesive world than the one I saw around me that everyone took for granted. I grew up within sight of New York City, and whenever I was asked what I really wanted to do, I would say I wanted to go to the country. I'd been taken out and had seen the country when I was very small and that was what I always wanted to go back to.
I'll sign off with a Merwin poem from the Poets Laureate Anthology, but before I do I want to say that one the book's most pleasurable moments came long after I thought my work was done. The manuscript had been delivered. It had been typeset, copyedited, and the final proofs were in. The book had just gone to the printers (an antiquated phrase I love) when we learned, in early July, that Merwin has been appointed poet laureate. Happily, the anthology contained a section on Merwin's work because in 2000 he, along with Rita Dove and Louise Glück, had all served joint appointments as special consultants in celebration of the Bicentennial of Library of Congress. We were able to stop the presses (love this phrase turn, too) and move Merwin's poetry to the very front of the book. It was a gift to know that the book would be up-to-date for at least another year (Merwin has the choice to serve one or two terms as poet laureate). But mostly it was perfect that the anthology's readers would now get to begin with Merwin's wise, intimate, quietly instructive voice. Here is on of my favorite poems from the book, which Merwin first published in the New Yorker in the spring of 2008:
All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning
"Rain Light" from The Shadow of Sirius by W. S. Merwin, and included in The Poets Laureate Anthology. Copyright 2008 by W. S. Merwin. Used here with the permission of Copper Canyon Press and the Wylie Agency LLC.
And here are some links to a few W. S. Merwin websites: