Poetry Friday: Aloha, W.S. Merwin

Apr 12, 2019

The poetry world lost a gem last month when W.S. Merwin died at the age of 91 at his home in the aptly named town of Haiku, Maui. He was a Pulitzer Prize winner, a Poet Laureate, and a crusader for the environment. KNAU listener Margaret Erhart feels a kindred connection with him, and in the latest installment of Poetry Friday, she reads Merwin's Before a Departure in Spring, to honor his life - and death. 

The late Poet Laureate, W.S. Merwin, 1927-2019
Credit The Cornell Daily Sun

Margaret Erhart:

I have been a hiking guide in Grand Canyon like so many other people who went before me and will come after me. And I’m a writer. I write novels and I write non-fiction. And so, of course, language is a passion of mine. I’m also a Zen Buddhist, as was Merwin, and that interests me about him. He has a great way of describing absence and connection. I love the fact that Merwin decided at some point in his career that punctuation tethered him and tethered his poems. And so he just said, ‘Ok. No more punctuation.” I love that. I love that about his poetry; it moves and it expands. And I think he’s right. Punctuation does tether us. He is an ecologist. He moved to a pineapple plantation and restoried it in Hawaii. And, he just made the big move from life across to death. And I think that’s one reason I really feel strongly about honoring him, especially with this poem.

This poem is called Before a Departure in Spring, and it’s from The River Sound, that’s the title of the book:

The late poet, W.S. Merwin, 1927-2019
Credit The New Yorker

Before a Departure in Spring, by W.S. Merwin

Once more it is April with the first light sifting

through the young leaves heavy with dew making the colors

remember who they are the new pink of the cinnamon tree

the gilded lichens of the bamboo the shadowed bronze

of the kamani and the blue day opening

as the sunlight descends through it all like the return

of a spirit touching without touch and unable

W.S. Merwin with wife, Paula, and dog, Peah
Credit Nina Subin

to believe it is here and here again and awake

reaching out in silence into the cool breath

of the garden just risen from darkness and days of rain

it is only a moment the birds fly through it calling

to each other and are gone with their few notes and the flash

of their flight that had vanished before we ever knew it

we watch without touching any of it and we

can tell ourselves only that this is April this is the morning

this never happened before and we both remember it

Poetry Friday is produced by KNAU's Gillian Ferris. If you have an idea for a segment, drop her an email at Gillian.Ferris@nau.edu.