This photo of W. S. Merwin signing a book was taken after his reading at The Kenyon Review Literary Festival last Saturday night. The audience packed into Rosse Hall, putting me — delayed by traffic congestion on I-71 — in likely the worst seat in the house: the first row, smack up against the stage, in front of the podium that stood at the edge of the stage.
Imagine sitting in the first row of a movie theater, and you’ll get the idea of my crooked neck. All I could see was this U.S. Poet Laureate’s brilliant blue eyes and thick white hair. But what did it matter? One attends these events to listen.
W. S. Merwin read first from his collection The Vixen: Poems, published by Knopf in 1996, and later from The Shadow of Sirius, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. In between and among his readings of poems, he talked about his role as poet laureate, his love of dogs and our human connection to the natural world, which he said we should neither ignore nor exploit.
There was no Q&A after the reading. W. S. Merwin was escorted to a desk on stage where he signed one book per person. That’s his signature below on my first edition of The Shadow of Sirius. I also got another take-away from this event — curiosity to investigate, perhaps re-read, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame. Merwin invoked the satirist when he quoted from the Miscellanies: “I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.”
Merwin’s first collection of poetry, A Mask for Janus, was published in 1952. From The New York Times: “Mr. Merwin came to wider attention for his hard-edged political allegories that condemned the Vietnam War and environmental destruction, starting with his 1967 collection, The Lice.” He’s written more than 30 books of poetry and prose as well as many translations. The Poetry Foundation provides a comprehensive list of his work.
William Stanley Merwin is the nation’s 17th poet laureate.