Traverse City Record-Eagle


January 13, 2013

Fleda Brown: Thoughts give way to poems

While we're lamenting about what we didn't get done last year, or planning how we're going to do better this year, or simply going back to work with no thought of what's next, W. S. Merwin stops and notices the time-that-is-no-time, that slips in whether or not anyone notices. The tips of the top leaves pick up a bit of sunlight. A dove calls.

And the year is here.

I am a great fan of W.S. Merwin. He's often a quiet poet, and a passionately committed one. In the 1970s, he moved to Hawaii and bought a former pineapple plantation and has been painstakingly restoring it to rainforest. His poems, when they are political, are more aware than they are partisan. He often writes about America and its values.

As a boy, Merwin wrote hymns for his Presbyterian minister father. He studied classical languages as a post-graduate and modeled many of his early poems on traditional forms. Gradually, though, he began to shift, and his poems now, most of them, resemble the one you see here: no punctuation, no traditional form. You would think you were listening to his thoughts. We're barely aware of the artfulness. His work has won, among many other prizes, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He was U.S. Poet Laureate in 2010-2011.

Merwin was once asked what social role a poet plays — if any — in America. He commented, "I think there's a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there's still time. I think that's a social role, don't you? ... We keep expressing our anger and our love, and we hope, hopelessly perhaps, that it will have some effect.

"But I certainly have moved beyond the despair ... one can't live only in despair and anger without eventually destroying the thing one is angry in defense of. The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us. And you know, in a way, if you don't pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness."

This is the beauty I find in "To the New Year." It pays attention to the things still around us.

Fleda Brown of Traverse City is professor emerita, University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. For more of her work, and to see her website, go to

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