September 16, 2010

Poem and Prayer #2: Poet Laureate, W.S. Merwin

This month, Martin Dickinson (@dickinsonpoet) introduces us to W.S. Merwin, our new Poet Laureate. Read on . . .

W.S. Merwin, our new Poet Laureate, creates quiet, powerful poems that open our hearts and minds to big questions about life, time and the universe. And he does it so subtly you hardly notice. The public is invited to hear Merwin read on Monday evening October 25 at the Library of Congress when he takes up his duties as Poet Laureate. It will be a great occasion for American poetry and has been a long time coming.

Merwin, now 83, has been writing since he was a student at Princeton. “Now all my teachers are dead,” he says, “except silence.” He is the author of more than 40 books of poetry, prose and translation. He won his second Pulitzer Prize last year for his poetry collection The Shadow of Sirius.

His editor Michael Weigers connects Merwin’s ability to infuse the personal with the timeless to his daily Zen Buddhist practice. "In a daily practice,” Weigers told the LA Times recently, “you follow your breath. He's removed all the punctuation. The words seem to float above the page — they follow the breath. He's making a poetry less fixed in time."

Merwin is at his best, it seems to me, in “The Black Virgin,” a poem that appears in his 2001 collection The Pupil. His poem is addressed to the Virgin of Montserrat, represented by a statue of the Virgin Mary and infant Christ at the Santa Maria de Montserrat Monastery in Catalonia, Spain. The Virgin of Montserrat is one of several very famous black Madonnas of Europe. The Black Virgin is very special and one of my favorites.

The Black Virgin

You are not part of knowing are you
at the top of the stairs in the white cliff
in the deep valley smelling of summer
you are not part of vanity although
it may have climbed up on its knees to you
and paid to be a name cut on the way
you do not need the candles before you
you would not see them I suppose if you
were to open your eyelids you are not
seen in what is visible it appears
and the crown is not part of you whatever
it is made of nor the robe of days
with its colors glittering you are not
part of pride or owning or understanding
and the questions that have been carried to you
life after life there unseen at your feet
oh presence in silence while the dark swifts
flash past with one cry out in the sunlight

W.S. Merwin

Image: La Moreneta, the Black Virgin of Montserrat

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