Saturday, April 21, 2001

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin has written 14 books
since moving to Maui in 1976. His work continues to reflect a
love of the environment and of native cultures.

Catching up
with Maui’s most
famous poet

At home and at peace in a
tropical landscape, W.S. Merwin
enriches the literature of nature

By Gary T. Kubota

PEAHI, Maui >> Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin points out several of the more than 600 species of palms that form a canopy overhead around his home in rural East Maui.

"I always hoped it would be like this," said Merwin, 73. "It's great to have a garden all year round."

Like many of the palms from elsewhere, the New York City-born poet has found fertile ground in a secluded area of Hawaii.

He has also developed a close relationship with the native culture and incorporated Hawaii subjects in his poetry.

"It's very nice to be associated with an ancient language and ancient culture," he said. "I feel close to that."

William Stanley Merwin has written 24 books of poetry and prose -- 14 of them since living on Maui -- and he has continued to receive praise and awards for his writing, the latest the John Hay Award last month, recognizing his mastery of poetry and his contribution to nature literature.

His next book of poetry, "The Pupil," is scheduled to be on the bookshelves by fall.

His poetry without punctuation flows from one sentence to the next, and as melodiously as the wind through the trees near his home on the slopes of Peahi.

"William Merwin is an astonishingly original poet," said Laurie Lane-Zucker, director of the Orion Society, the John Hay Award sponsor. "He marries powerful poetic insights to a profound love of the land, passionate political convictions and literary vigor."

MERWIN WAS AWARDED the Pulitzer Prize 1971 for his book "The Carrier of Ladders" -- many poems touching on man's connection with nature and also about man's lust for power and destruction.

At the time of his Pulitzer recognition, whales were being hunted in the North Pacific, four Kent State (Ohio) students were fatally shot during a Vietnam War demonstration, and native Americans protested against ill treatment by the federal government.

Merwin's poetry reflected the sentiments of many people in the early 1970s -- sorrow about the loss of wildlife habitat, about western expansion and about the deaths of the young to the Vietnam War.

The sky goes on living it goes
on living the day
with all the barbed wire of the west
in its veins

-- excerpt from Homeland, "The Carrier of Ladders"

Since 1976, Merwin has lived on Maui, where he has written nine books of poetry and five prose books.

His largest work is the 325-page narrative "The Folding Cliffs," a story about the destruction wrought by Westerners and the struggle of Koolau the leper to remain with his family in Kauai's Kalalau Valley shortly after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

and they could hear the voices and Ko'olau stood braced between
rocks with his rifle raised and then a soldier's head appeared
in front of the ledge and he shouted -- I have found
the trail -- and Ko'olau shot twice and the man was gone

-- from "The Folding Cliffs"

Merwin moved to Maui to study under Zen Buddhist master Robert Aitken.

Although the son of a Presbyterian minister, he views himself as more inclined toward Buddhist teachings, where man holds a connection but no dominance over nature.

In Peahi, with 90 inches of rainfall a year, untended land quickly turns into dense green thickets of high grass and guava trees among stands of native forest.

Within several miles of Merwin's home, communities have sprung up with alternative lifestyles with business names like the Vegan restaurant, Mana Foods and Reincarnation Motors.

People come here to reinvent themselves.

Asked about his transformation, Merwin said, "I do it every day."

On 18 acres of land, he helped to design and build his wooden house, made of dark bark eucalyptus, and install solar panels for electricity and a roof catchment system to capture rainwater.

In the mornings and evenings, Merwin meditates in a room in his house.

Near a window overlooking mango and palm trees, he writes in the morning.

He works on the land in the afternoon, sometimes planting more trees.

MERWIN DESCRIBES THE ERA in the 1960s as a "dark" period in his life, with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and continuation of the Vietnam War, fought mainly by minority Americans and nurturing disrespect of Asians.

"It was disturbing our whole sense of ourselves. I don't think we've ever recovered," he said. "I would awake in the mornings feeling more despair."

Merwin said he felt the North Vietnamese people were fighting for national independence and that history has shown the futility in engaging in such a war.

"They were never going to give up," he said.

"The first example was the American Revolution. We were going against the most powerful nation in the world, and we won."

In his early years on Maui, Merwin hauled loads of horse manure onto his property and spread it along with wood chips and seaweed on soil depleted from decades of erosion.

Once a tropical forest, the land had been logged and burned, then used for sugar cane, pineapple and finally for grazing cattle.

Merwin wanted to re-create a Hawaiian tropical forest on the land but found many species in Hawaii adapted to specific regions, and "only a forest can make a forest."

"It's not as easy as all that," he said. "Of the hundreds of koa I've planted, there are only dozens left."

HE TAKES PLEASURE in recycling, restoring what's possible and helping in environmental causes.

Merwin, who sits on the board of the nonprofit Environment Hawaii, has written letters against geothermal energy on the Big Island and the extension of the Kahului Airport runway for international flights.

In the mid-1990s he helped to organize a watershed preservation conference that was held in Keanae on Maui, Waipio on the Big Island and Waiahole on Oahu.

"He is someone who takes seriously the duties of a citizen," said Patricia Tummons, editor of Environment Hawaii.

"He's very supportive of what we do."

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