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,”