In his 88 years, William Stanley Merwin has published 30 collections of poetry, 28 translations, eight works of prose, three plays, and garnered two Pulitzer Prizes, not to mention two terms as the U.S. Poet Laureate (among many other honors and awards). You might think that after all these accomplishments and years, W.S. Merwin would begin to slow down. You would be wrong.
Apparently drawn to large numbers, Merwin is now cultivating over 700 species of palm trees on his three acres in Maui, Hawaii, and PBS Television is airing a documentary on Merwin’s conservation work in partnership with The Merwin Conservancy and Hawaii’s premiere hotel chain Halekulani, just in time for Earth Day. W.S. Merwin: To Plant a Tree is on air in 42 states (plus Washington, DC) through the end of April, with most stations scheduled to air the piece on Sunday, April 24th.
Merwin’s conservation efforts align well with an Earth Day story. But how did the son of a Presbyterian minister, growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania and Union City, New Jersey inherit the broken soil of a pineapple plantation in Hawaii? What drives this award-winning poet, mentee of Ezra Pound himself, to spend his rich, final years in the quiet gardens of palm trees?
When he was 16, Merwin went to Princeton on a scholarship, leaving a home that taught him the art of writing hymns for his Presbyterian preacher father, but shadowed his childhood with his parents’ tragedies. In college, Merwin was introduced to the work of Ezra Pound, and became a fan: “I had great admiration for Pound when I was in college. That was partly it; a rebellious stage, because almost no one else admired Pound, and I used to walk around with a beard which I grew just like Pound’s.” Pound would eventually influence Merwin to begin translating, advising him to “read the seeds, not the twigs of poetry.” One of Merwin’s early translations was Spanish Ballads, originally published by Merwin in 1961 and dedicated to his friends Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
For his first Pulitzer Prize in 1971, Merwin took a political stance: donating his $1,000 award for The Carrier of Ladders to antiwar activists. In perhaps an alternative move to the Vietnam War, and proof of his preference for a “marginalized existence,” Merwin moved to Maui, Hawaii in 1976 and began rigorously practicing Zen Buddhism and gardening.
With a small inheritance from his mother, he bought land on the slopes of the volcano Haleakala, a former pineapple plantation that he continues to restore after years of erosion, logging, and agriculture. In this sanctuary, living off the grid with a rainwater catchment system and solar panels, Merwin continues to live with Paula Schwartz, his third wife and dictation companion (Merwin’s sight has declined in his later years). According to an interview with the LA Times, “He’s already got a grave prepared there too, next to those of six of his dogs.”
Merwin’s patient gardening cultivates mindfulness, and this flows into his poetry, including his forthcoming Garden Time (Copper Canyon Press). “Poetry is about listening,” Merwin told Dean Kuipers of the LA Times in 2010. He also told Kuipers of his hope that “others will understand that these trees are only where the poetry starts.”