October 14, 2011

Poet laureate attracts big crowds, short attention spans

W.S. Merwin, a former U.S. poet laureate whose career has spanned over five decades, gave a reading October 6 at the Harold Washington Library Center downtown. Merwin, 84, read to celebrate the 57th annual Poetry Day, originally conceived by Robert Frost to fundraise for Chicago’s Poetry magazine. Though Merwin now lives in Hawaii, he spoke of his love for Chicago because of its connection to Poetry, saying, “If I’m not going to be at home, I’d like to be right here.”

Merwin read to a packed audience of almost 400 in an auditorium of the Chicago Public Library. The packed, standing-room-only crowd, though unusual for a poetry reading, was hardly unexpected, for over his career Merwin has never had a problem drawing a crowd. The energy of the audience was considerable.

“This is going to be my very first poetry reading, and I’m excited,” said Lydia Gonzales, a student whose literature professor had mentioned the event in class. She had never heard of Merwin. Others in the crowd were more seasoned Merwin readers. Michael Cresciona, 57, a medical journalist and poet from Chicago, said he was a longtime Merwin fan.

Merwin gave a short talk before the reading, during which he touched on many subjects. He spoke first of human imagination, and then of the environment: “I think we’re destroying ourselves, as well as the whole world around us.”

Merwin soon moved to the meat of the evening, his poetry, which he said he did not want to read in chronological order but with a thematic coherence. He proceeded to read two poems from early in his career, “Summer” and “The Wilderness,” written when he was 27 and 31, respectively. Of the latter poem, he said it dealt with “that hunger to be alive in the world just because, just because, not because of what’s in it for me.”

In the question and answer session that followed, Merwin was asked if he could describe what it’s like when he’s writing a poem. “Absolutely not!” he burst out. A poem, he explained, is concerned with “what can’t be said.” Merwin was not always so terse: He gave a lengthy answer to a question about his childhood experiences with poetry. Because his father was a minister, he had entire sections of the King James Bible memorized. Merwin’s childhood also cemented his need for poetry that can be heard as well as read. “For poets, the primary sense is hearing,” he said.

After answering questions, Merwin proceeded to read a dozen more poems, including “The Nomad Flute” from his 2008 book Shadow of Sirius, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and “Departure’s Girlfriend.” After finishing the latter, Merwin was silent for a moment, then said, “Now how would I know where that poem came from?” He continued, explaining the narrator’s sense of disconnect from place in the poem: “The moment a tree is in the ground, that’s a place. A tree is a place. And the same is true of us…we forget that we are places.” Merwin also read several poems about animals, saying, “To animals, language is sound,” and reiterated that poetry is as close as humans come to understanding language the way animals do.

Unfortunately, though Merwin was an engaging speaker, as the reading carried on well over the hour mark, impatient members of the audience trickled out the sides of the spacious room. At the end of the evening, even W.S. Merwin, one of the most commercially successful poets of his time, fell victim to the modern attention span. One woman in an aisle was heard whispering, “There are people on the sides of the stage motioning to him to stop, and he can’t see them, and he’s not stopping.” She snapped her cell phone closed and trotted out of the auditorium.