Grace Schulman shares snippets from a lifetime of correspondence and friendship with the poet W. S. Merwin, who died on March 15, 2019.
“We must not vanish all at once; it’s too hard on the survivors,” W. S. Merwin wrote in a letter to me late in his life, referring obliquely to the passing of his contemporaries, John Ashbery and Galway Kinnell. In the dark hours following Merwin’s own vanishing on March 15, I thought of how he first appeared in my life.
Our friendship began in 1972, during my first week as poetry editor of The Nation. Inside a box of submissions was his packet of poems with the usual stamped self-addressed envelope. Besides my predilection for his poetry, I’d known that he’d held my job at The Nation in 1962, and that he’d written for them an eloquent plea for the containment of nuclear power. His poetry came on October 14, 1972, a date I remember because exactly two years before, during the Vietnam War, he had famously refused to sign a loyalty oath before a reading at the State University of Buffalo (SUNY), and went home refusing his badly needed check. Still, knowing what I did, I was unprepared for the lines I read:
I have to trust what was given to me
if I am to trust anything
it led the stars over the shadowless mountain
what does it not remember in its night and silence
what does it not hope knowing itself no child of time
Over the din of office typewriters, I heard the music and silence of those lines, the surprise of faith in one who is accustomed to doubt, the rhetorical questions suggesting all memory, all hope. He’d sent that poem, “The Gift,” along with others from his forthcoming book, Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, hoping that The Nation might feature them before the book appeared in 1973. It had been The Nation’s practice to print one poem at a time, often as filler. I asked the publisher, James Storrow, Jr., for space to print not just one but the cluster Merwin sent, and when he looked askance, I read him the closing lines of “The Gift,”
I call to it Nameless One O Invisible
I am nameless I am divided
I am invisible I am untouchable
nomad live with me
be my eyes
my tongue and my hands
my sleep and my rising
out of chaos
come and be given
Mr. Storrow nodded, and granted the space.
Then we met, Merwin and I. At first he evinced formality, even when introducing himself as William. But soon afterward, he dropped his initial reserve. He talked to me about his deepest concerns, such as his regard for animals. When we walked through Greenwich Village, William greeted every dog we met, once lifting a terrier and looking into its eyes as though searching for its ancestors. There were warm evenings at Harry and Kathleen Fords—Harry had been his editor at Knopf. There were drives to his zendo in Riverdale, where William, a Zen Buddhist, sat zazen and I watched from a bench for the unenlightened. In 1983, I attended his beautiful Zen Buddhist wedding to Paula Schwartz Merwin. And later we became a rollicking foursome, William, Paula, my husband, and I.
William was not always nearby. The poet was born in New Jersey, he’d lived in Spain and owned a farm in France, and, finally, he moved to Hawaii in the late seventies, where he turned a barren, abandoned pineapple plantation into a lush forest. He lived and died there.
Nevertheless, the geographical distance did not diminish our friendship. We wrote letters. Paula and I exchanged messages, as well. She wrote of how she missed her friends in New York but knew her garden well. When I sent her a photo of what I thought was a hydrangea, she answered, “But Grace, that’s an azalea.”
William’s handwritten missives continued until around 2007. After that, when his eyesight began to fail, the letters were typed, though he always added handwritten comments. I was especially moved when I received his handwritten note in April, 2016, his pen strokes seemingly put down with faith that they would not miss the page, evoking times when I used to fall off bikes. Referring to an honor I’d received, he wrote, “Your Frost Award, long overdue, takes me back to the days when you fell over handlebars and before…”
Rereading the letters, I am struck by how they emphasize his complexity. He enjoyed traveling abroad, and yet felt most himself at home. A poet of many languages and cultures, an activist for nuclear containment, a protester of loyalty oaths in the seventies, W. S. Merwin was a characteristic American. Even his remarkable translations from French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Sanskrit show an adventurousness in our native variety.
He craved solitude and yet thought continually about his friends. About my husband, Jerry, who had been disabled, he wrote:
Does Jerry have a walking stick? The Chinese poets all love their walking sticks and I now have three and I use them because my eyes are not trustworthy on the slopes of this garden. For a while I kept tripping over things but since I have my stick with me I have stopped doing that.
When Jerry died in June 2016, William and Paula wrote soothing condolences, and William phoned to say, “You must miss him terribly. You will see him in the animals.”
Merwin’s contradictions affirmed his vastness. He was sui generis and yet felt himself to be an integral part of the community. Most of all, his letters expressed a twin desire for city and country, nostalgic for the former, choosing the latter.
About his Hawaii home, he wrote in 2014:
We love our very quiet life surrounded by palm trees and bird song. The garden is not a petunia bed—it’s nineteen acres. We’ve made a Conservancy of it hoping to save it into the future.
I am surrounded by palms all of which I planted. The world’s greatest taxonomist, John Dransfield, who came here last year to re-document the garden told me that there are more species in this garden than there are in any botanical garden in the world.
And yet in another letter of 2014 he writes of his love for the metropolis:
If I have one city in the world at all, it’s New York. I long ago realized that I didn’t want to live in a city again. But I miss my friends there…
His correspondence recalls themes in his poetry: the beauty of the natural world and the danger of human alienation from nature. The Compass Flower (1977), Opening the Hand (1983), and The Rain in the Trees (1988) contain powerful poems that urge preserving the countryside, for, as he writes, “In the dark / there is only the sound of the cricket.” Other poems, those of the seventies and eighties, show the city in all its vivid particulars. Of “St. Vincent’s,” for example, a hospital (now gone) which he could see out the window of his Seventh Avenue apartment, he is lyrical: “I have seen the building drift moonlit through generations / late at night when trucks are few.” He attends closely to the details:
inside it the ambulances have unloaded
after sirens’ howling nearer through traffic on
Seventh Avenue long
ago I learned not to hear them
even when the sirens stop
then asks in his concluding line: “who was St Vincent.”
That question is a profound inquiry, not an invitation for research. The poet tells us all about a subject in detail while retaining mystery at its heart. That quality recalls the medieval English ballads, in which there might be “four white horses,” for example, and yet we don’t know just why they ride. Merwin sings of all that is incomplete, disrupted, attenuated—just as life itself. Over and again he returns to the fragmentary, and to the elusiveness of everything we mistakenly think we possess. That song is heard in his greatest poems, early and late, which offer details and yet withhold the answers. In “What Can We Call It” from Garden Time, written near the end of his long career, the questions prevail:
where were we where are we where will it be
each time it has taken us by surprise
and vanished before we knew what to say
but who could have taught us what to call it
it can join in our laughter and sometimes
startle us for a moment in our grief
it can be given but never be sold
it belongs to each one of us alone
yet it is not anyone’s possession
wild though it is we fear only its loss
Those unanswered questions may save us, for they are addressed to our deepest fears, losses, and loves.
Grace Schulman is the author of the memoir Strange Paradise. Her most recent of seven books of poems is Without a Claim. She was awarded the Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American Poetry in 2012.