Earlier this month, the Library of Congress announced the 17th U.S. poet laureate: W.S. Merwin, author of more than 30 books of poetry, translation, and prose on subjects ranging from Vietnam to environmental activism.
From his home on a former pineapple plantation located on a dormant Maui volcano, he told The New York Times that during his tenure, “he wants to emphasize his ‘great sympathy with native people and the languages and literature of native peoples,’ and his ‘lifelong concern with the environment.’
Known largely in the 1960s as an anti-war poet, Merwin, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner now in his 82nd year, moved to Hawaii in 1976 to study Zen Buddhism. He became active in environmental issues and began growing endangered palms on his property. “He said he has cultivated more than 700 endangered species of indigenous plants on the formerly denuded plantation, including the hyophorbe indica, a palm tree he helped save from extinction,” wrote Patricia Cohen for The New York Times.
His ardor for the environment was shared by other renowned poets. “Like William Wordsworth, he is passionately interested in the natural world,” said Patricia Gray, head of the Library of Congress's poetry and literature center, in an article that ran in The Guardian.
Concern for that world, and what happens when people lose that connection to it, surfaces in his verse. Over his six-decade career, “a recurring theme is man’s separation from nature. The poet sees the consequences of that alienation as disastrous, both for the human race and for the rest of the world,” according to The Poetry Foundation. From Merwin's "The Last One:"
Well they'd made up their minds to be every
where because why not.
Everywhere was theirs because they thought so.
They with two leaves they whom the birds despise.
In the middle of stones they made up their minds.
They started to cut.
His interest and commitment to Zen Buddhism perhaps strengthened his affinity for the natural world around him. “With that exhilarating connection comes responsibility, however,” The New York Times article stated. “You don’t just exploit it and use it and throw it away any more than you would a member of your family,” said Merwin. “You’re not separate from the frog in the pond or the cockroach in the kitchen.”