The First Time: Derek Mong on Merwin

Today’s guest for The First Time column, in which poets talk about the first poetry reading they attended, is Derek Mong, author of Other Romes (Saturnalia 2011).

FIRSTS: W.S. Merwin

Jane Scott, the longtime rock critic for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, used to say her career began with the greatest interview of her life.  The year was 1966, the Beatles were playing Municipal Stadium, and Scott had managed to secure an exclusive with Paul McCartney.  He was “charming as predicted,” she’d later write, though he warned that “the band would have to start singing hymns” if the censorship got any worse.

When Scott died last July at the age of 92, I thought of this story, and of the one time I heard her tell it in person.  I was 17, working as a cartoonist for the teen section of The Plain Dealer, and—though I hardly knew it yet—less than a year away from a quasi-Beatles moment of my own.  I was about to meet W.S. Merwin at a small college in Ohio.

Such visits occur, year in and year out, at schools all over the country.  Posters dot departmental tack boards; emails circulate with scans of anthologized poems.  I have come to think of them like off-season exhibition games; a poet flies in, buoyed by the crisp sheets of a summer’s writings, landing gently at various lecterns between August and Christmas, January and June.  Their real work, we all acknowledge, happens in silence (or secret) somewhere else.  When you live near a college or independent bookstore—as I have done much of my life—you’ve the pleasure to freely sample whoever cycles through.

This pleasure, though, is a learned thing, and when Merwin arrived at Denison University I focused on everything but the poems themselves.  This was my first year in college, and I had little sense of poetic appreciation, let alone any of Jane Scott’s plucky aplomb.  I remember Merwin’s white hair and immaculate suntan.  I recall how he referred me to a famous Yeats poem—“Easter, 1916,” or maybe “Leda and the Swan”—in response to a question I cannot now recall.  He wanted, at one point during a talk, to make clear that he had taught, if only for a semester or two, at a school in New York.  He said he now lived in Hawai’i.  This was a fact that we all seemed to envy.

There are times when we find ourselves idolizing someone we meet briefly, know little of, and do not—at first meeting—earmark for emulation or praise.  Such heroes will surprise us, years later, in an anthology or journal, their poems like a flashlight cast into some forgotten cupboards, some place where a fingerprint can remain remarkably undisturbed.  Merwin has become that poet for me, though I still struggle to characterize the impression he left one autumn night at the start of the decade just passed.

What impression indeed?  My different answers to that question—raised whenever I read The Lice or encounter a Merwin poem in The New Yorker—have all been predictable and unsatisfactory.  For some time I attributed the delayed potency of that night to the novelty of the occasion itself.  Here was a grown man reading to us from a short stack of slim books.  That was certainly new.  Or perhaps I’d just absorbed that “great poet” aura, emanating from the stage like a soft-focus glow?  I’m thinking here of a sentiment captured by Mark Strand in “The Great Poet Returns”:

When the light poured down through a hole in the clouds,

We knew the great poet was going to show. And he did.

A limousine with all white tires and stained-glass windows

Dropped him off. And then, with a clear and soundless fluency,

He strode into the hall. There was a hush. His wings were big.    (lines 1-5)    

This rendering made sense for a while, and helped to explain—as well as deflate—the plaudits poured onto Merwin by the faculty.  He was the greatest American poet living, I was told, and thus a man who commanded the admiration of those I had just begun to admire.  A little of Strand’s irony went a long way toward shrinking the stars in my eyes.

And yet the memory of Merwin’s reading lingers, sustained by something more than novelty or greatness or the strength even of his language.  I’ve tried many times to remember the poems he read, but have never succeeded.  The persistence then comes from something else, and it took fatherhood to make this apparent, and more than a few nights of holding my son who will want—from time to time—nothing more than to be read to, quietly on the couch.  This also helped me to realize why I think poetry readings matter at all.

My thought then is this: to read to others, sitting in rapt attention, is to provide a sense of security that is faintly parental.  Likewise, to be read to is to be made secure, by the voice and the story we’ve all come to hear.  To enter these readings spaces then—be they auditoriums or bookstores, library nooks or after-hours classrooms—is to enter a bedroom years in our past.  The lighting remains low. A water glass and book are the only objects that count.  This must connect, I imagine, to an instinctual awareness we all have regarding the arts.  Literature implies leisure, and leisure is predicated on a freedom from want or harm.  It’s telling then that I used to believe Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—that famous pyramid, grounded on food and aspiring toward love—contained a place for literature read aloud.  For years I thought this was true, and even taught the idea to my writing students until a psychology major kindly informed me I was misinformed.  I must have made that tranche up.

The best poetry readings then—to my mind—honor this instinctual need, and do so while catering to more than few others: social cohesion, love of language, the acceptance of crowds.  This is why I find poets who read with an air of glib resignation or flip satisfaction so unappealing.  Likewise the scholar who thinks readings are little more than group hugs with free cheese and wine.  The former abdicates one of the poet’s oldest role: to accompany the campfire.  The latter, finding little in a reading to feed his peer-reviewers, dismisses the occasion as trivial.  Both misconstrue the occasion completely.  Good poetry readings make children of us all.

I have often wondered when exactly Jane Scott realized that her McCartney interview wouldn’t be topped.  At some point the anecdote surely settled, grew roots, and started to bear fruit—a story to pass on to the fledgling reporter, an opener at banquets and for rare occasion that interviewers turned mics in her direction.  I never thought to write her and simply ask.  For me, Merwin became Merwin only years later when, playing with my son, I thought to pull a book down from the shelf and read to him while he played with his trucks.  I do this from time to time, knowing that he will intermittently listen, occasionally look up.  The poem I read came from The Lice:

If I could learn the word for yes it could teach me questions

I would see that it was itself every time and I would

Remember to say take it up like a hand

And go with it this is at last


The child that will lead you (from “The Child”)

I like to imagine that Merwin read this poem that autumn night in Ohio.  It seems unlikely, given the dates, but with no memory of the actual reading I can never be sure.  I suppose it doesn’t really matter much.  I have been lead back to that reading by my own son, who takes my own voice—or so I imagine—as a pleasing reminder that I’m there.  This is the first of many doors his little hand will unlock.

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