DISCOVERING W.S. MERWIN

A young W.S. Merwin
(Credit: Estate of W.S. Merwin)

I met W.S. Merwin forty-three years ago at the Koko-an Zen Center in lower Manoa on the island of Oahu. Other than his beautiful Hawaiian girlfriend, there was nothing that really distinguished him from others at Koko-an. Back then, I didn’t even know his name. We didn’t talk much. We both were there to practice Zen. We often sat in silent meditation for long periods. During week-long retreats, we worked silently together cleaning the grounds, chopping fruit or washing pots and pans. One evening, we went to a free movie at the University of Hawaii. Even then, we spoke little.

At the time, I had no idea I was in the presence of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet.

Thirty-three years later I discovered W.S. Merwin.

In 2009, his photo appeared in a magazine announcing that, for a second time, he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Turning to Google, I learned that Merwin met Dana Naone in 1975 while on a reading tour in Hawaii. Later that year, Merwin and Naone went to study Buddhism at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado where Alan Ginsberg ran the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. An incident involving the two at Naropa was featured in a 1995 New York Times article by Dinitia Smith titled A Poet of Their Own. The article is excerpted below.

W.S. Merwin and Dana Naone

“Naropa was presided over by a Tibetan guru, Chogyam Trungpa, a tireless drunk and womanizer. At a Halloween party, while Ginsberg was away, Trungpa ordered everyone to undress. Merwin and Naone refused. Trungpa’s bodyguards tried to batter down the door to their room. “I was not going to go peacefully,” Merwin recalls. “I started hitting people with beer bottles. It was a very violent scene.” Trungpa’s bodyguards stripped them, and the two figures cowered together before the guru like a chastened Adam and Eve.

“The incident came to be mythologized as “The Great Naropa Poetry Wars.” Naropa became an epitaph for an era, a paradigm of the difference between two kinds of poetry — between Ginsberg’s passionate, declamatory style and Merwin’s restrained, Western formalism.

“After Naropa, Merwin moved to Hawaii for good. He built his house with an inheritance from his mother. Later, he bought additional land with money left to him by George Kirstein, former publisher of The Nation. Eventually, he broke up with Dana Naone.

“Despite what happened at Naropa, Merwin is still a Buddhist. He likes to quote the 13th-century Buddhist teacher Dogen, a contemporary of Dante’s: ” ‘You must let the body and mind fall away.’ ” In his house, Merwin has a zazen (meditation) room, a sparse place with four pillows, where he meditates — 45 minutes before breakfast, and again before dinner.”

In Buddhism, periodic rites are observed after a person dies; one occurs on the 49th day. In homage, I note that today marks the 49th day since W.S. Merwin passed away in his sleep at the age of 91 at home on the island of Maui.

Living with the news by W.S. Merwin

Can I get used to it day after day
a little at a time while the tide keeps
coming in faster the waves get bigger
building on each other breaking records
this is not the world that I remember
then comes the day when I open the box

that I remember packing with such care
and there is the face that I had known well
in little pieces staring up at me
it is not mentioned on the front pages
but somewhere far back near the real estate
among the things that happen every day
to someone who now happens to be me
and what can I do and who can tell me
then there is what the doctor comes to say
endless patience will never be enough
the only hope is to be the daylight

published in The New Yorker, July 20, 2014

The Buddha said:

Life is a journey.
Death is a return to earth.
The universe is like an inn.
The passing years are like dust.

Regard this phantom world
As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp – a phantom – and a dream.