"you are what I wanted to see": On W. S. Merwin

Introduction of Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin
O, Miami Poetry Festival
Closing night, April 30th, 2011
Miami, Florida

How many of you went to the beach today and saw the airplane overhead pulling a banner with the famous last line of Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo?”


Now, there’s an advertisement. For some reason, there was no 1-800 number to call.

The Rilke banner was just one of the many projects this extraordinary O, Miami Festival has employed to take poetry outdoors. For the entire month of April, poetry has come to find us. And on this perfect spring afternoon, it found us at the beach. I was there with some friends from out of town and we were standing waist-deep in the warm blue bath of the Atlantic, and there Rilke was floating in the sky. All of us smiled.

Nobody does a poetry festival like O, Miami. The only thing that would have topped it off would have been if the nation’s poet laureate had walked by in a Speedo.

He did not.

But, in fact, the nation’s poet laureate is with us now. Tonight we welcome back to Miami a great friend of this city, W. S. Merwin.

Though he lives in a rainforest in Hawaii, six time zones and 4900 miles from here, Bill Merwin has been to Miami many times. We thank him for coming again to help us celebrate a month of poetry in the life of our city.

Bill Merwin is a poet who understands Miami’s cultural humidity—Latin, Caribbean, Anglo and bling. And trust me, he knows more about our palm trees than you or I.

He has won every major prize in American poetry. He is one of the great translators of Spanish-language poets from Lorca to Neruda. Born in New York City—I’m told he HAS finally produced his long-form birth certificate—he has traveled and lived throughout the world.

He is a passionate environmentalist and one of our most eloquent advocates for peace.

And he is someone whose work looks unflinchingly at, but offers a corrective to, what the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton called “the violence of everyday living.”

No poet has told us more urgently how our lives are woven into the fabric of a fragile world, how everything is deeply interconnected and how we will live—or die—by what we pollute, maim, destroy … or nurture.

Famously, Merwin’s poems have no punctuation.

And as I was standing in the ocean today, I thought how his work has the undulating pull of waves. His lines seem to flow unceasingly, like water.

Another of our poets laureate, Billy Collins, once asked Merwin, “How did you manage to transcend punctuation?”

Merwin answered that eliminating punctuation, rather than being liberating, was an imposition of form. It made it harder.

It makes it harder for himself—while making it look effortless to us. Perhaps that is where brilliance and a kind of glamour meet—in the modest, quiet hard work of making things both beautiful and true.

Bill Merwin is perhaps our most graceful poet. Even his anger has poise, and so his poems haunt us: long after the lines recede, their power and clarity, their urgency, returns like the tide. It’s a voice that keeps us afloat, a voice that offers rescue without the histrionics of heroism. It’s a welcome voice. We are fortunate to be able to hear it tonight. We are so glad he has traveled far to return again to Miami.

That sense of pleasure, Miami’s warm welcome, can actually be best expressed in Merwin’s own words, from his poem, “A Birthday”:

when I open my eyes you are what I wanted to see

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