In a 2008 in an essay for Larry Smith’s anthology, The Cleveland Poetry Scene, I wrote from Boston that “for me, these days it is the books and news of my fellow Clevelanders that keep me company, some quite far-flung, some deceased…[i]t was always about the words of that company, which we kept, which we keep, across the miles, despite the years.”
HUMPH, I am here to say that while all that is well and good and true enough, there is nothing quite like meeting again in the flesh, which is what I was able to do last week when W.S Merwin read at Kent State University.
There in the flesh would be Merwin, whom I remember incarnate at readings in Ohio in the early 1980s right about the time when the Naropa Poetry Wars was published and James Wright had died, and a group of us took him and his companion out to eat at the Greek restaurant near CSU. Still, the moment that stands out clearest from that visit was his reading of his poem on the recent death of Wright, a poem so true in its tiny five lines, that it both hurt and consoled. When he read that poem, I could not breathe. I have never heard an audience so quiet. I also remember Merwin as my hero during a week at a translation workshop in the late 1980s when I felt the academics terrorized the creative writers until Merwin’s arrival. But that is another blog. NOW, he is returning as the Poet Laureate. Not that that made that much difference to those of us who have loved him all along for his poems and not for his position.
Before Merwin, KSU Provost Tim Chandler gave a welcome. I have heard administrators give both knuckle-headed and self-serving intros (a UMASS intro to Russell Banks a year ago springs to mind in the latter category), but I have never heard an administrator give such a warm, insightful, meaningful welcome to an event. Chandler was followed by poet and Wick Poetry Center Director David Hassler, who was as insightful and meaningful in the intro and conclusion to the event as I have always known him to be both in speech and on the page.
The Merwin that stood before me last week was definitely older and more loquacious than in the 80s, but disciplined in his loquaciousness. When he rambled, he was definitely rambling down three themes he had chosen for the evening. One concerned his ongoing debate with Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, about which he notes, “If you have a voice, it will come through the influence.” (Take that all you beginning poets who don’t want to read because you don’t want to be influenced—sheesh, do visual artists ever say they aren’t going to look at other people’s paintings?) He began with “Grace Note,” a poem which was printed as a broadside for the evening as the latest of Kent’s “Traveling Stanzas” broadside project. The poem ends with the image of a bird flying in and out, “leaving me/believing what I do not see.”
That poem also introduced his second theme for the evening, animals, leading him to read “Fly” and “Vixen,” two of my favorite Merwin poems, as well as “Air,” one of the last he read, one of the first of his poems I ever read, back in 1975 in Alberta Turner’s Contemporary Poetry class at CSU. That poem was a link to his third theme, song. It was a long, rich, thoughtful reading. I felt afterward like the Seamus Heaney lines: “and we all knew one thing by being there,/The space we stood around had been emptied/Into us to keep….” Immediately after the reading I felt that way, that is, because long after the reading, Merwin stayed quite late to sign for the throng that stayed to ask him to sign, and the special mood did dissipate a bit.
Before lining up, I said good-bye to my seatmates, Larry Smith and Joel Ruddinger, the first two editors who ever published a poem of mine, back in 1973 in Firelands Mixer. In the meantime, Larry has generously published my work many times. Now, nearly forty years later, I had met Joel for the first time. I gave them the seats I had been saving for Kate Fox, just in case she needed them as several hours previously she had posted to Facebook that she had gotten a flat tire on the long road from Athens, Ohio. I never found Kate until the next morning on Facebook, when I learned she was probably just a few feet ahead of me in the signing line.
Before I made it there, I stopped to buy the “Grace Note” broadside and heard a voice behind me say, “Oh my gosh, here is Diane,” and there was Zena Zipporah, who said, “Diane, I was just telling my friend that you and I went to Breadloaf together.” “Yes, and did an OAC residency with eight graders together,” I said, and we could have gone on about the poetry things we had done together, not to mention the eating things (Zena’s all-garlic dinner) and the parties and meeting things we had lived through when I lived in Cleveland.
By the time I made it to the line, I was the end. Fortunately, so was my long-time (I no longer say “old”) poet friend and new colleague, Robert Miltner. He didn’t make the line go any faster but the talk grew richer as he posed the question, “Who would you like to hear give a reading that you haven’t heard yet?” And we all laughed as the first response was “Neruda” to which we added Dickinson, Whitman, and a host of greats no longer around. My living choice is Wislawa Symborska, so please everyone, keep your eyes open for her this side of the Atlantic and let me know. Robert had a great Copper Canyon broadside to be signed by Merwin, who was amazed to see it and suddenly wondering if he himself had ever gotten a copy of it. I had Merwin’s poem “Canso,” open to sign in The First Four Books of Poems, which seemed to mystify him, even when I told him that my husband chose it to have read on our wedding day, and we are about to celebrate our 25th anniversary. But he signed, and now I am wavering in my plan to remove it from the book and frame it.
By then it was past 10:00 p.m., and the large ballroom was emptying out, cooling down. I had a long drive home and had to be up at 5:30 a.m. the next morning. I managed to say hail and farewell to David Hassler, who was still rushing around. I had missed saying hello to Maj Ragain and any number of favorite Ohio poets who were there and gone already, including Kate Fox, who had sent a message from Facebook that she had a flat tire. She made it, but I never saw her. However, I know I will see her and Maj soon. Meanwhile, what a great literary homecoming. Or, as Merwin’s poem dedicated to his friend Galway Kinnell puts it: “Charity come home/Begin.”
believing what I do not see.
Coast of Maine
---“Poets aren’t prophets, but if the prophets aren’ts saying these things, the poets have to try.”
Dusk in Winter
The Black Jewel
Fly: …I who have always believed too much in words.
Love for October
Blind Seer of Ambon: …I continue to arrive at words.
Convenience: ...All we have to pay for it is ourselves.
A Step at a Time
A Chain to Her Leg
A Messae to Po Chi
Laughing Thrush: …if there is a future/ here is where they all sing the first daylight/
whether or not there is anyone listening
whether or not there is anyone listening