In Memory of W.S Merwin: Life as Spontaneous Poetry

W.S. Merwin, one of the great American poets, passed away on Friday at his home on Hawaii. We admired him for years the his most remarkable poem, Trees, which so tenderly captures their gift:

I am looking at trees
they may be one of the things I will miss
most from the earth
though many of the ones I have seen
already I cannot remember
and though I seldom embrace the ones I see
and have never been able to speak
with one
I listen to them tenderly
their names have never touched them
they have stood round my sleep
and when it was forbidden to climb them
they have carried me in their branches

We’ve learned only upon his passing and reading the New York Times’ obituary, that he was a conservationist who spent years painstakingly restoring the depleted flora on the former pineapple plantation on Hawaii where he made his home. His poetry is shot through with the natural world…


I want to tell what the forests
were like

I will have to speak
in a forgotten language

Like this one, many of his poems were elegies, reflections on the death of someone or thing, sometimes even himself


On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

what for
not the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time

with the sun already
going down

and the water
touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing

one by one
over its leaves

Sally Schneider

He wrote For the Anniversary of My Death in the 1990’s, decades before his actual passing.  It is at once anticipatory and strangely commemorative:

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star
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
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
His last line speaks to his poetry and his life…

bowing not knowing to what

Larry Cameron/The Merwin Conservancy

A friend of a friend who knew Merwin well described a cherished memory on Facebook:
I shared many occasions with William. The one I remember most was having wine at his home with his lovely wife Paula and listening to him recite spontaneous poetry.
Then he looked at me and said, “Your turn . . .


In honor of Merwin, today we’ll try our hand at spontaneous poetry….


We’re buying ourselves the two-volume Collected Poems of W.S. Merwin as a big fat gift.

For more excellent reads on this extraordinary man’s life, we recommend Windows to the World: At WS Merwin’s Old French Farmhouse on Literary Hub, and Whole Earth Troubadour in the New York Review of Books.

5 Responses to In Memory of W.S Merwin: Life as Spontaneous Poetry

  1. Jim Dillon 03.18.2019 at 7:25am #

    Gray whale
    Now that we are sending you to The End
    That great god
    Tell him
    That we who follow you invented forgiveness
    And forgive nothing

    He was perhaps the greatest living poet – – – in poems like that one (“For a Coming Extinction”) he spoke as a true prophet, telling us what we don’t want to hear, must not hear.

  2. Mary 03.18.2019 at 9:01am #

    Thank you. Thank you.
    I always start my day with you
    Today is my birthday
    Receiving this was a gift

    (I too am buying his collected works today)

  3. nina saltman 03.18.2019 at 12:30pm #

    Thank you Sally
    That was a beautiful tribute.

  4. Sally Schneider 03.18.2019 at 8:51pm #

    Thank you, deeply, Jim.

  5. Sally Schneider 03.18.2019 at 8:52pm #

    W.S. Merwin’s collected works is a perfect birthday gift to buy yourself. Happy Birthday!!!

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