Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

Remembering W. S. Merwin

Just over a week ago on March 15, 2019 one of the world’s greatest poets, American poet laureate W. S. Merwin, passed away.  He was 91. As soon as I heard the news, I was flooded by many memories.

1969. I was twenty-one in my last undergraduate year of Trinity College (Hartford, USA).  I was then a floater, stung from the Vietnam War protests, disillusioned from Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968.  Amidst all the uncertainty the one redeeming factor in my life was my friendship with W. S. Merwin, who was Trinity’s poet-in-residence. However, friendship is actually not the right word.  I would rather call it an initiation into the world of poetics and the possibility of living a life as a full-time artist.  That same year I had witnessed thousands of workers streaming out of the main Aetna Life Insurance building at 5 PM.  To me all these poor souls looked like ants stuck in a loop. Suddenly I had an epiphany: that the lives of those people seemed to me pitifully useless.  It was then and there that I decided that I had no choice but to be a full time artist.  My teacher and mentor  in that time of transition was W. S. Merwin.

Aetna Life Insurance Building, then (Courtesy)
W. S. Merwin as the author remembers him (Courtesy)

Merwin would “hold court” on the main Quadrangle, usually with a half-a-dozen of us like-minded souls listening to him ad libitum.  The luscious green-grassed Quad was a sort of non-sequitur set inside of a large square U of buildings which now remind us of Hogwarts.  (It’s still real spooky at night, but functional at daybreak).  The Quad became our steady meeting place; we would talk about almost anything, but especially poetry.  Once and a while I would be treated to a one on one conversation with Merwin.  I was amazed how natural the encounters were, as if I had known him for years.  At the time, I especially admired his translations of poetry from around the world (W. S. Merwin, Selected Translations 1948-1968, New York: Atheneum,1969). His translation of “The Little Mute Boy” by Frederico Garcia Lorca from Spanish, had special meaning for me:

The little boy was looking for his voice.

(The king of thre crickets had it.)

In a drop of water

The little boy was looking for his voice.

 

     I do not want it for speaking with;

I will make a ring of it

So that he can wear my silence

On his little finger.

 

     In a drop of water

The little boy was looking for his voice.

    (The captive voice, far away,

Put on a cricket’s clothes.)

On the Quad I would often play my flute or once in a blue moon the soprano saxophone.  He liked this.  He would  half-way doze, still deep in thought.  He called me “Steve Music”, something that was to me both flattering and slightly comic.  I went to all his college-wide readings.

Our meeting place, the Trinity College Quad and its huge elm tree (Courtesy)

One of the Quad “crew” was my good friend Jon Lomberg (a brilliant artist and futurist who was Carl Sagan’s creative assistant for many years).  The day of Merwin’s passing, Jon wrote the following resonating words in a personal email: “…We spent hours listening to rock and Mozart operas and talking about art. He was the first True Artist I ever met who showed me that you could make that your path in life, sans job, sans salary, sans anything. He made an enormous impression on me...”

Upon graduating, I moved to 69 Putnam Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts and started to write poetry while existing on a macrobiotic diet.  I attribute this burst of creativity to Merwin.  Soon the Vietnam War plagued me; it was something I was obliged to deal with, but that is another story.

While in Cambridge I frequented the legendary Grolier’s bookshop  (founded in 1927), a sanctuary for local poets, including Robert Lowell, Robert Creely and others.  I was privileged to meet them all.  At the “helm’ of the store was the late Gordon Cairnie (“old man Grolier”); we would talk for hours!  I was also privileged to receive a charge account, something given only to faithful “poets/artists”; if you couldn’t pay for a book, Gordon would simply float the charges until you could afford it.    Writers would sit four hours and simply read.  Grolier’s had the most amazing collection of poetry I had ever seen!

Today I have been reading Merwin’s Carrier of Ladders, published in 1970 (New York: Antheneum), and one of the books I purchased from Grolier’s in the same year.  I noticed just how much sound and music infuses these poems. I suddenly imagined myself sitting on the Trinity Quad while serenading Merwin and company.  In Carrier of Ladders the flute (and pipe) are mentioned several times, but it is the book’s very last poem that hit me in the gut:

In the Time of the Blossoms

As tree

sacred to her who sails in

from the one sea

all over you leaf skeletons

fine as sparrow bones

stream out motionless

on white heaven

staves of one

unbreathed music

Sing to me

W. S. Merwin, poet of our times

 

 

 

 

About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and educator. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He has been a recipient of the Israel Prime Minister's Prize for Composers and the National Endowment of the Arts (USA). His teaching has included Bennington College, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; residencies at Stanford University, York University, California Institute of the Arts, and others. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
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