It is not often that a world-renowned poet is introduced by an equally well-known botanist, but that is exactly what happened in the JSB Auditorium on Tuesday.
W.S. Merwin is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet. He was introduced by Paul Cox, who graduated in botany and philosophy from BYU. Cox and Merwin have been friends for years. Cox has even seen Merwin’s garden of more than 850 species of palm trees at Merwin’s home in Hawaii. They greeted each other with a hug after the introduction. Cox believes that poetry and botany are the world’s oldest pasttimes and has a love of Merwin’s poetry.
“[He is, in my opinion] the greatest poet, of not just the 20th, but the 21st century living in this world,” said Cox in his introduction.
Merwin is currently the Poet Laureate of the United States.
“[It entails] interminable interviews, but they take it rather more seriously than I do,” Merwin said. “I agreed to do it only because I wanted to talk about the human imagination. … If we honor that, we honor ourselves, if we destroy that, we destroy ourselves.”
While he feels strongly about the human imagination and wanted the opportunity to speak about it, Merwin does not believe poetry should be used to convey messages.
“Most poetry does speak to emotion and make something happen, the idea that it should makes something happen is dangerous because it can turn into propaganda,” Merwin said.
Merwin read excerpts from a few of his poems. He said poetry is meant to be heard. That is the best way to understand poetry. While reading, his normally powerful voice turned rather soft and frail, reacting to the emotion with which he read. It fit the feeling that some students get while reading his poetry.
“His writing is haunting, but beautiful,” said Emma Wise, an English major from Vienna, Va. “It speaks of a giant collective unconscious. There is a deeper essence to his poetry.”
One of the excerpts he read was from the poem “Yesterday” which was popular with many students at the event.
“It talks about words,” said Amanda Garlock, a middle school teacher in Sandy, who graduated from BYU in English teaching. “Some words we never speak again, but they are important because we spoke them and experienced them. They will be a witness to our lives.”
Merwin gave advice to aspiring poets as well.
“Listen, listen listen. Listen to everything,” he said. “Listen to people at the bus stop, people down on the corner, listen to a birdsong. … Eventually, you will find that you are listening to yourself.”
Merwin was born in New York City and educated at Princeton University. He has traveled extensively in France, Portugal and England. He is the author of more than 20 books of poetry. He has also published more than 20 books of translation, numerous plays and six books of prose.