Remembering W.S. Merwin

A Purchase College memory of the late, great poet.

(Editor’s note: W.S. Merwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former U.S. poet laureate, died in his sleep at his home in Maui on March 15. He was 91. Recently, Purchase College history professor Lisa Keller wrote about his visit to the college and what he meant to the community. Here are her reflections:)

I believe it was the fall of 2005 when W.S. Merwin came to Purchase College to read his poems in a “Spoken Word” series I had begun a few years earlier. The series featured poets and writers of great eminence, including David Sedaris, poet laureates Robert Hass, Billy Collin and Charles Simic and Princeton University classicist Robert Fagles reading his translation of Homer’s “The Iliad,” along with actors Estelle Parsons and Mary Beth Hurt and (Columbia University American Studies professor) Andrew Delbanco.  These events had great meaning for me. When I attended Vassar College, I had the opportunity to hear famous poets, writers and others who were brought to our campus to speak to students. I had a strong conviction that Purchase students should have the same exposure to such people. 

Each one of the readings was wonderful and packed with students, but somehow the evening with Merwin remains one of the greatest. The evening was a double bill:  Somehow, and I don’t remember how, I had managed also to get Adrienne Rich to read her poetry that same evening. Her fame among literary circles was as high as Merwin’s. They stood as bookends of great poetry, writers whose styles could not have been more different. Together, they were thunderous in the beauty and grace of their words.

Merwin, though, has particularly special meaning to me. My son was studying at Brandeis University, an English major specializing in poetry. His mentor at Brandeis was a poet named Olga Broumas, a person of great warmth, compassion and talent. Olga adored Merwin, so they came down from Massachusetts to Purchase for the evening.

We camped in my office in Humanities, Merwin in my ancient, big, red chair, all of us hovering around him. He seemed fragile but wasn’t. Still an incredibly handsome man, his hair was white but his blue eyes were piercing and his demeanor sharp. Olga was worried he was tense, and stood behind him in the tall, red chair, massaging his shoulders. It was all very familiar and comfortable somehow – a room full of people who loved poetry and the poet with us.

Adrienne Rich, physically fragile but strong in spirit, was resting in the upper lobby of the Performing Arts Center. I recall she had asked for a couch to rest her tiny frame on. When we got to the PAC, she was there on the couch, behind the screen that had been set up for her privacy. Several of us went in to talk to her, and we chatted for a while.

When Merwin and Rich took to the stage, it was a veritable hour of magic. The readings were breathtaking, with time suspended. We were all captured by the cadence of their words, the complexity of their ideas, the rhythm of their verse. More, more, I kept thinking, knowing full well neither could continue for much longer.

When William Merwin died on March 15, the memory of him in my office was as if it had been a week ago. A practicing Buddhist, Merwin had a calmness that contrasted with the complexity of his ideas. The obituaries place him in the rankings of the top poets in the United States in the modern era. His writing changed over time, and he was greatly influenced by many others, including titans of poetry such as John Ashberry and Stanley Kunitz. In “The Wings of Daylight,” Merwin writes “Brightness appears showing us everything/it reveals the splendors it calls everything/but shows it to each of us alone/and only once and only to look at/not to touch or hold in our shadows/what we see is never what we touch….”

Thank you, William Merwin, for sharing your brightness and splendors with us at Purchase College.

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