One of the more humiliating nights of my life took place at the University Club in midtown Manhattan on a night W. S. Merwin read from his work. That spring, I was interning for a literary journal, and the event ticket was given to me by one of the editors’ wives. I had been at their house reading slush, and she didn’t want to go to the reading. Thinking nothing of this arrangement, I hopped in a taxi with her husband, brimming with excitement. I was even undaunted by the country club dress code for which I was unprepared. I wasn’t wearing jeans, and as a scrawny twenty-year-old kid, I figured I’d blend into the background.
I had recently read Merwin’s The Lice, and despite my age, my reaction to the collection was agitation: Why hadn’t anyone told me about Merwin earlier? It was all in there—the whole human spectrum of joy to sorrow. Not that I think poetry has to have healing powers (sometimes it’s enough to agitate), but someone articulating the impossibilities of life was comforting. It was my first taste of negative capability, and I was hooked.
What was remarkable was that for the hour that Merwin read from his life’s work, my anxiety vanished. I was bewitched, and an hour is a really long time to listen to anyone.
On the night in question, I wasn’t thinking about anything as pretentious as negative capability. I was thinking I might get to meet Merwin. I didn’t. My first clue that something was amiss appeared as I reached out to shake hands with a poet who shall remain nameless. She did not take my hand, but nodded curtly at me. It was the second brush off, though, that enlightened me. A woman running the event was complaining about disorganization to the editor I was with. I suggested that everything looked great. Her replied had ice in it: “That’s not what’s important, young lady.” She—and who knows how many others—thought I was sleeping with the editor. Thankfully, he went off to get wine and mingle while I tried to blend into the background, chameleon-like. No one spoke to me, but I received a few real or imagined glares. What’s remarkable about this evening, though, is not my naiveté nor the fact that I didn’t laugh at how rude everyone acted. That would certainly be my reaction now. I mean, really? The man was more than thirty years my senior, and life does not resemble tabloids as much as we think it does. What was remarkable was that for the hour that Merwin read from his life’s work, my anxiety vanished. I was bewitched, and an hour is a really long time to listen to anyone.
While affirming my cynicism in people, the evening affirmed my optimism for poetry. Merwin is easily one of the most celebrated poets of our time, and he deserves every garland. He is the United States’ only poet to rival Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam, and Marina Tsvetaeva in their intensity. We forgive them their humorlessness in return for their wisdom. Merwin is the ideal choice for poet laureate because, if nothing else, he leads by example. Thus far, I have heard no grumbling about this choice, though typically a fair share of trash talk follows the poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize announcements. I’ve certainly thought a few recent choices were yawn-worthy myself, but that doesn’t diminish the quality of our poets. The most heated conversations I’ve had about poetry revolve around the hackneyed idea that “it’s who you know, not what you know.” I don’t believe that’s true, or at least not entirely. Otherwise, our top poets wouldn’t be so damn good—Merwin, John Ashbery, Rita Dove, etc. And I’m talking about fame here, where the equivalent in movies includes a boy famous for playing a pacifist vampire.
On a panel recently, I was asked by a belligerent young man why presses insist on publishing intellectual poetry. It was a question that could only be asked by someone who doesn’t read contemporary poetry. There’s more fast-talking, slang-slinging verse around than ever before, and some of it extraordinarily good. (I’m looking at you, Barbara Hamby.) He may have been thinking of poets like Merwin who are challenging. But what’s wrong with a challenge? Everything else is so easy. Can’t be bothered to read the latest bestseller? No worries; it’s coming out next month as a movie starring Robert Pattinson.
The ideas that Merwin tackles are the ones John Keats would approve of. Keats coined the term “negative capability” and defined it as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, [m]ysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” In writing of an anniversary rarely celebrated, that is, a person’s own death day, Merwin explains, “Then I will no longer / Find myself in life as in a strange garment / Surprised at the earth / And the love of one woman / And the shamelessness of men.” You can listen to Merwin read his haunting poem “For the Anniversary of My Death” on the Academy of American Poets website in the privacy of your own home, far from wagging tongues and disapproving eyes.
Bio: Erica Wright is the poetry editor at Guernica. Her “interview with John Ashbery”:https://guernicamag.com/interviews/507/houses_at_night_1/, “Houses at Night,” appeared in Guernica’s February 2008 issue. Read her last recommendation of writer Angela Carter “here”:https://guernicamag.com/blog/1847/rec_room_erica_wright_angela_c/.