New Poet Laureate’s Unusual Washington Roots

W.S. Merwin went abroad after visiting Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital

By: Drew Bratcher

W.S. Merwin, who was appointed the next US poet laureate today, couldn’t get any less Washington. The 82-year-old Zen Buddhist lives in a rainforest in Hawaii, where he spends much of his time nurturing endangered plants.

Merwin’s poems, which he still composes in longhand, are spare, unpunctuated, and ethereal. Often limning the immutability of nature and the deficiencies of human language, they owe more to Asian and Latin American poets, many of whose work Merwin has translated, than to Beltway favorites such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Frost.

But Merwin’s new Library of Congress post could also be called coming full circle. At the outset of his career, while studying with poets John Berryman and Galway Kinnel at Princeton, Merwin paid a visit to Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast DC. Sent to the famous psychiatric institution after pleading insanity to charges of spreading fascist propaganda in Italy during World War II, Pound was in many ways a ruined man.

Yet to Merwin’s generation of poets, Pound—who helped shape the careers of T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats and whose epic poem, The Cantos, was already becoming a sacred text—remained the very embodiment of the modern bard and America’s closest touchstone to Ovid and Dante, poets of old who had risked all for art. Pound counseled Merwin to go abroad, to find his voice, as Pound had done, by translating the work of foreign poets. Merwin listened. Over the next two decades, he lived in England, France, and Spain. He tackled the work of Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, and Osip Mandelstam. He made friends with tortured lovebirds Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. He tutored Robert Graves’s son in Latin on the island of Majorca.

Most important, he proved Pound a prophet by discovering a voice as unique and prolific—and as refreshingly unadorned—as any in American poetry in the last half century. Ultimately it’s that voice—whose concern with the natural world seems prescient given the realities of climate change and the Gulf oil spill—that has secured for Merwin, here in the winter of his career, a return ticket to Washington.

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