The great poet, W.S. Merwin, has died at age 91. He was the author of scores of books—mostly poetry, but also prose, and translations. He was dictating poems to his wife Paula even after he lost his eyesight a few years ago.
I remember discovering Merwin’s poetry in the college bookstore when I was 20 years old. I stood there, leaning against the bookcase, stunned and awed as I read one poem after another, and then reread them. Although I had very little money in those days, I had to buy that book.
What struck me then and continues to pull me back over and over to his work is that Merwin’s poems don’t hit you over the head with their messages, like those of some contemporary poets. You don’t read a Merwin poem once, then nod your head: Yes, I get it, I know about that. Rather, a Merwin poem wafts over your skin and your sensibility like a breeze. You can’t catch the fragrance in that verbal breeze right away, but have to turn back into it again and yet again to be stroked alluringly into greater awareness.
I met Merwin a few years after my first encounter with his work, when I attended a poetry reading he gave at Wesleyan College in Connecticut. We stayed in touch on and off throughout all these years. The last time I saw him was at a reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York about five years ago. Last year I wrote to him at his home in Hawaii to ask if he would write a blurb for my new book. Knowing that he was 90 years old and now blind, I didn’t even expect to hear back and was so very honored that he agreed. Here’s what he wrote:
“It’s a great vision that Trebbe Johnson is sending out into the world, and it is very much her own. The great central truth of what she is doing is the very hard lesson for all of us in our lives, and yet it is our blessing.”
—W.S. Merwin, Former Poet Laureate of the United States
Merwin is gone, but his poems will live on and on and on, because they are timeless.