W.S. Merwin is the nation's 17th Poet Laureate.
W.S. Merwin is the nation's 17th Poet Laureate.

American writer W.S. Merwin has been named by the Librarian of Congress as the nation's 17th Poet Laureate. The honor tops Merwin's long list of achievements, which includes over 50 volumes of poetry, prose, criticism and translation, two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award.

Like other poets laureate, Merwin will gain a unique pulpit from which to advocate for one of society's most beloved art forms.

With his snow-white hair, clear blue eyes and handsome, chiseled face, W.S. Merwin exudes the intelligence and gravitas one might expect from America's most public poet. But it is the inner worlds of love, loss and sorrow that Merwin endeavors to explore, as in these words from the poem called "Separation:"

Your absence has gone through me
like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Merwin eschews prettiness in his poems, choosing instead to reveal the wildness and poetry within himself as a bridge to the inner lives of others, and to nature itself.

"But it would have to be that way, wouldn't it? I can't take you to your place. I don't know your place. What was it our great prophet, Thoreau, said 'Another man's mind is a dark forest,'" say Merwin. "There is always part of the forest which you discover and which you don't know and which you wander in, and which persists in fairy tales. Every child recognizes that forest. It's the place where you can't tell the difference between dreaming and waking."

It is that shoreline between waking and dreaming, land and sea, that we hear in Merwin's short poem "The Tidal Lagoon," which he wrote in Hawaii, where he has lived since the 1970s.

From the edge of the bare reef in the afternoon
Children who can't swim fling themselves forward calling
and disappear for a moment in the long mirror
that contains the reflections of the mountains

Merwin says that poetry often deals with levels of reality that lie just outside our everyday perception, but that can be reached through the poetic imagination.

"Poetry is about what cannot be said. Poetry is that Iraqi woman on the front page of the paper with her mouth open because her husband has just been destroyed by a bomb in front of her. And what on earth can be said? It's just one long scream coming out of her. From that, comes poetry."

For Merwin, what makes human beings unique is the capacity for imagination, and therefore compassion - both qualities that poetry evokes.

"It's what makes us concerned about the suffering of the whales or the porpoises, or the people dying of AIDS in Africa, or the plight of a single mother with three children," he says. "That is something that is largely developed in our own species, the capacity for compassion, for recognizing that one's situation is one's own situation, that there is no separation, that suffering really is the same."

It was both compassion and rage that fueled Merwin's collection of poems called "The Carrier of Ladders." The volume dealt with America's military involvement in Vietnam, and it won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. It includes the poem "The Asians Dying."

When the forests have been destroyed their darkness remains   
The ash the great walker follows the possessors
Nothing they will come to is real
Nor for long
Over the watercourses
Like ducks in the time of the ducks
The ghosts of the villages trail in the sky
Making a new twilight

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead   
Again again with its pointless sound
When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

The nights disappear like bruises but nothing is healed   
The dead go away like bruises
The blood vanishes into the poisoned farmlands   
Pain the horizon
Overhead the seasons rock
They are paper bells
Calling to nothing living

The possessors move everywhere under Death their star   
Like columns of smoke they advance into the shadows   
Like thin flames with no light
They with no past
And fire their only future

Merwin's profound connection to the natural world, and his sadness at its continued degradation by man, has been a theme in his life and poetry since he was a child. He remembers that 20 years ago, he could hear the separate songs of nine nightingales in the rural French village where he once lived. Today, when he visits the village, he hears no nightingales there. There were once hoards of swallows in the village as well. Now there are none.

"No one seems to notice that. I don't know what distresses me more - the fact that they aren't there or the fact that nobody notices. What does that say about us that we think it's okay to have a world without swallows in it?"

Merwin says he wrote his poem, "For a Coming Extinction," in response to the Mexican government's decision to build a bridge across the Sea of Cortes which would have sealed off the Gray whale's breeding grounds.

Gray whale
Now that we are sinding you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing

I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you
Tell him that we were made
On another day

The bewilderment will diminish like an echo
Winding along your inner mountains
Unheard by us
And find its way out
Leaving behind it the future
And ours

When you will not see again
The whale calves trying the light
Consider what you will find in the black garden
And its court
The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas
The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless
And fore-ordaining as stars
Our sacrifices
Join your work to theirs
Tell him
That it is we who are important

Raising the alarm is a big part of how Merwin envisions his role as America's poet laureate.

"I don't want to be a preacher, but I do want to say once in a very public place, in a very official place this: I think we're doing something very dangerous. We are really insisting on driving at 80 miles an hour with a stone wall not very far down the road. Somebody has to at least question it."