Thirty years ago, fresh out of college and working as a bookseller in charge of the store’s poetry section, I received a package from Knopf containing a handful of publicity materials highlighting its newly revivified poetry list. In that box were a few bookmarks, some postcards, and a signed hardcover copy of The Rain in the Trees by W. S. Merwin. Knopf’s venerable editor/designer Harry Ford’s design and typography for The Rain in the Trees were classical and beautiful, the paper stock was toothsome and elegant. And I’d become seduced by the book’s cover photo of a Hawaiian hillside forest.
Merwin had been living in Haiku, Hawaii, for a decade when the book was published, and he and Paula had been married for half that time. He had started to write about their home and their love in equal measure. When I first read The Rain in the Trees, with its beautiful cover I knew very little beyond a vacation image of Hawaii. I had no idea about the larger vision William and Paula had engaged on their eighteen acres of abandoned land, but I read how “On the last day of the world / I would want to plant a tree.” I was caught by the book’s forests and rain falling, its seedlings and birds rising, and as I read it again now, perhaps as notable is that this is the first of his books dedicated to Paula, who at the time of its publication had already become an important contributor to his writing and life, including the planting of trees and the stewardship of the land. She collaborated as his trusted first reader, editor, and critic and was someone with whom I would work for two decades. These days, I still turn to those poems about trees and the damage we’re doing to the earth, but since Paula’s death in March 2017, I am just as likely to seek out these poems that mark the early years of their marriage.
On one of the paths that lead to the front door of their home near Haiku, visitors pass a knee-high Buddhist shrine as well as a small burial and memorial plot. Paula passed away in bed alongside William, after an awful, prolonged, and humiliating argument with pancreatic cancer, and the headstone that she already shares with William is set into the hillside together with the engraved burial markers for their dogs. Along with the Merwins’ names and dates, the simple stone bears an inscription that reads, “We were happy here.”
Beyond this plot, one descends via stone stairs past a concrete cistern filled with water, large stones, and a small frog sculpture—part of a water-filtration system Merwin modelled directly on traditional versions he had seen during his many years living in the countryside of France’s Midi Pyrénées region. Past this cistern, on the front lanai, a few gardening tools are scattered, and an orderly row of shoes are lined up outside the front door. The first time I visited Merwin on Maui, a pile of papers was also stacked at the corner of this porch, and he quickly apologized for not having taken them out to the compost. Slightly confused and knee-jerkingly editorial—not to mention overly urbanized—I corrected him: “You mean the recycling.” He responded generously and explained that all organic matter went back into the land. So I asked, a bit surprised, “You mean all those manuscripts from young poets wanting blurbs—those go into the compost too?” With a slight grin he looked up from the path, through his eyebrows, and said, “Yes, Michael, they go into the compost too.”
The home on Maui has been central to Merwin’s life since he moved there in the 1970s to study Buddhism with Robert Aitken. As a young student he started corresponding with Ezra Pound, and after earning his degree at Princeton with R. P. Blackmur and John Berryman as teachers, and Galway Kinnell and James Merrill as classmates, he moved to Europe and worked first for the Portuguese royal family and then later for Robert Graves. He befriended Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, declined T. S. Eliot’s offer to publish his poems at Faber, was chosen as a Yale Younger Poet by W. H. Auden, refused his Pulitzer Prize, and even tells a funny story of making gazpacho with Samuel Beckett in his French publisher’s apartment. After thirty years of living around the world—including a storybook farmhouse in France, an apartment in Greenwich Village, a townhome in London, and a colonial adobe building in Mexico’s San Cristóbal de las Casas—he moved to Maui in order to find a place where he might start “putting life back into the world.” After all these influential relationships with writers and landscapes, Maui had finally become his beloved home. Even before Paula’s death, Merwin decided he would no longer leave—his own health as well as Paula’s had become too unreliable. In the past, whenever he left and then returned to the island from his mainland readings or trips to his home in France, he would make an offering at the pathside shrine. The Pe‘ahi valley is where he sought to put life into the world, and it is where he is determined to die.
In the past few years, Merwin’s eyesight has mutinied, so he can no longer read for himself, much less give public readings, and he relies on others to read to him and even finalize some of his writing. A large portion of his last book, Garden Time, was dictated to Paula, and at one point, when her illness had left her too weakened, she in turn asked me to come to Maui and sit with him at the table, poring over the edited manuscript. I found myself a poor substitute in the intimate role Paula undoubtedly would have assumed were she healthy: reviewing his poems with him, page by page, line by line, while sitting on the lanai, swatting mosquitoes from my ankles and reading out loud to him in pursuit of clarity.
I was intimidated at the prospect of going through an edit face-to-face with William but recalled an evening years before, dining with them. At the time, I was early into my work of publishing his books and was more than a little nervous. In a side conversation with Paula I admitted as much. As one who never suffered fools, she cut through my bullshit and scolded me for being overly reverential and self-conscious, saying something impatient along the lines of “Oh, get over yourself.” And as tough a critic as she might sometimes have been—Lord knows how she would scold me for any of my errors here!—in the years that I knew her, I was always charmed by her affection for “Willy” and the warmth with which she received almost anyone.
William (these days he prefers his given name over Bill) turned ninety in September, and continues to live in their home, even though it is not an easy place to live. It is a remarkable off-the-grid house designed toward self-sufficiency and self-reliance. A simple two-storey Hawaiian plantation-style structure, it is constructed largely from salvaged wood and rises on stilts an additional storey above the water catchment tanks. He dug the septic system himself, and on top of the house and the nearby garage, solar panels installed thirty years ago provide enough electricity to power the house and sell surplus back to the power company. Because of the trees, during the hot summer months, the house stays ten degrees cooler than the surrounding area.
When seen from the dry streambed below, the house appears very tall. Yet it blends harmoniously into its wooded surroundings: acres of rare palms and other tropical plants engulf the home in green. Within the forest, a visitor might be only a few steps from the house and not know it’s there. Every gesture of this home has been considered with the future in mind, with how the trees might provide the conditions for more diversity and biomass. When seated on the north lanai between Merwin’s office and the kitchen, one is in the canopy of trees. More than three thousand palms, koas, and ironwoods that the Merwins germinated, planted, and nurtured over several decades have grown up around them, providing privacy, cooling shade, quiet, and company. (William is an intensely private man, carefully guarding his meditation, gardening, and writing time, and the trees now protect him.) From each window in the house one sees a riot of green shapes and textures.
Remarkably, considering the abundance around the property, the majority of the trees he has planted—more than twelve thousand of them—have not survived. Some of the palms require several years for their seeds to germinate, much less grow, and one in particular was near extinction when Merwin ventured, successfully, to grow it. After forty years of planting and cultivating, through trial-and-error and close study, more than three thousand palms are known to be living on the property now, as identified and documented by the foremost palm specialist in the world, John Dransfeld, of Kew Gardens. Some of the species Merwin planted perished early on because the conditions weren’t favourable, while others lived their full lifespans before returning to the land. His forest is now its own living organism, changed with each visit. While in the literary community many of us have come to revere Merwin for how he revivified poetry and translation in his time, some aficionados in the palm community recognize him as this crazy guy who would spend the time and attention required to nurture a palm from seed to full-grown tree.
When Merwin first bought the property in 1977, it was designated by the state of Hawaii as “wasteland.” The acreage was a dry, infertile patch of land. Industrial farming had stripped its topsoil of nutrients and left behind chinaberry and other invasive weeds. It was also subjected to full sun—not the ideal conditions for starting seedlings accustomed to shade. So at first he would start the plants in the shaded heat of his attic or in the shade house he built downhill from the main house. As he cleared the invasive weeds from the property, often toiling long hours in tropical heat (and losing one finger to a wood chipper), he learned how the water flowed on the property, he studied the contours, and he discovered evidence of native Hawaiian lives that preceded both him and the industrial farmers before him. Located near the remains of Maui’s second largest heiau (temple), at the beach landing where one of the most brutal colonial battles occurred, such evidence includes two recently discovered ancient imu (baking pits) alongside a now-dry waterfall. The people, the plants, and the waterfall were all casualties of industrial agriculture. Merwin learned early on that before he could bring the tropical plants back to life, he would need to build up the soil, starting at the micro-organic level. Before all the trees currently living on the property were there, he discovered, after some initial failures and studying what the land had to say, that if he planted the right trees—ironwoods—uphill, the tropical rains would eventually carry their nutrients downhill, slowly fertilizing the entire property. He built “bio-piles” around the acreage, composting the cleared invasive waste, the organic matter that accumulated as things began to grow, and food scraps, along with the manuscripts and mail arriving from around the globe. The soil he and Paula “grew” was in turn used for planting the seedlings he was carefully germinating. Out of that literal groundwork, he has now created the conditions for a sustainable seed bank and the possibility of replicating his efforts elsewhere. The setting also allows him an oasis among abundance, where he can meditate twice a day—the original structure he built on the property, pictured on the cover of Garden Time, was a dojo that also served as a gardening shed—and plant trees, all while writing poems on scraps of paper carried in his pocket.
Through a daily methodical practice, Merwin has brought wildness and life back into poetry, as well as into the larger natural landscape out of which poetry grows. His and Paula’s lives have become a model for rightful living, transcending one person, one couple. He has provided other palm experts with rare seeds propagated from the trees they nurtured. Eight years ago, he and Paula donated the lands and house to a fledgling non-profit, The Merwin Conservancy, so that, through fellowships, residencies, and conferences, such work might continue in the future.
I like to consider W. S. Merwin’s writing practice in terms similar to his botanical practice. Both are backed with deep study and rumination, are informed by tradition yet remain attentive to their unique time and place and resistant to received expectations. Both are propelled by daily practice, persistence, and intentionality and have flowered and matured because of the soil below them: the living history that made it possible for the poems and the palms to thrive.
We have seven decades of poetry by Merwin, as well as dozens of books, so it’s foolish to try to categorize it in any one way. Some may prefer the later work, others may point to the stylistic change of The Lice or the monumental epic of The Folding Cliffs, but I’d suggest that in his poetry, as with his home and land, his presence is felt more than it is seen. Nearly every gesture is well considered and natural, and yet the effect is immediately recognizable as Merwin’s. Driving down the road to his home, there’s a sudden change in the quality of light, the temperature, the amount of life there. I have read his poems many times and still am moved by the mystery of them and by the way in which they catch and release time as they move, refusing to be stapled to the page. His poems are suggestive, elusive, and flowing, yet they carefully balance clarity, protest, and love. A Merwin poem is unafraid to use its elusiveness and negative capability to invite readers toward the betterment of humanity, especially when the poem’s voice is at its most intimate and personal.
I try to avoid hagiography when I talk about Merwin, yet I’m still easily persuadable. I marvel at the literary life he has lived, in particular the way others have helped him toward a living practice. He has befriended many thinkers and writers along the way, yet he is largely self-taught and governed by his own discipline. There is no M.F.A., no degree in botany, no curriculum vitae. There continues to be extensive study and a deep knowledge of history, a daily practice of experimentation and trial-and-error, and a commitment to listening to his surroundings. He represents a direct link to a now-passed great generation of writers, and he is reshaping poetry written in and translated into English, just as he planted the seeds that reshaped the landscape. His poems have influenced generations of younger poets, some of whom may not recognize where their poetic mannerisms come from. He made the effort. He did the work. He has cultivated wildness.
On my first visit to Maui, Merwin handed me a seed and pointed overhead to the tree it came from, Hyophorbe indica. He explained that he was sent seeds years ago, when the species was nearly extinct, and that there were only eight known specimens on Earth—four of which were growing on his once-barren piece of land. The last time I visited him, there were more of these seeds on the ground around the grown trees, as well as some delicate seedlings just getting started. A few seedlings had been potted and were growing in the shade house, to be sent to other botanists and nurseries. Whenever I visit William and walk through the forest he and Paula have nurtured and shared, I visit the gardening shed and shade house, I pause at the gravesites, and I look for the vestiges of the native Hawaiians who lived there before the haole farmers destroyed the land. And I see how this once-dying land transforms and creates new life. Many times over the past decade, Merwin has repeated a very simple idea, encouraging those who might listen: “you can do this too.” Among those trees, I consider Merwin’s life of poetry, nurtured by others the same way that a nurse log—or a manuscript-fertilized bio-pile—provides nutrients and growth for the next generation, and I find my belief reinforced again. Maybe poetry can save us.
Michael Wiegers is the editor of What About This: The Collected Poems of Frank Stanford and The Essential Merwin. His days gather themselves in Port Townsed, Washington, where he serves as the editor-in-chief of Copper Canyon Press and the poetry editor of Narrative Magazine.