A Visit from W.S. Merwin

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Our poet laureate cast a gentle spell in the Duke Family Performance Hall.
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By Anthony S. Abbott

A remarkable thing about the Joel Conarroe Lectureship is that it not only brings to Davidson writers like Joyce Carol Oates and Salman Rushdie, but it brings Conarroe ’56 himself, whose introductions of the authors are a beautiful and integral part of each year’s  event. I have heard all of them, but this year’s was the most moving for me because of his deep love and respect for the current poet laureate of the United States, William Stanley Merwin.

Clearly Merwin embodies those values that Conarroe holds dear, and in his evening at Davidson, Merwin expressed those values poignantly. He accepted the position of poet laureate, despite great misgivings (“I really like a private life”), because he had something to say. It was this: “The thing that makes us distinct is not our intelligence…. our great distinction is our imagination.” When we live by our imaginations, said Merwin, we live with “great joy that we are all awake together.” We rejoice in beauty and lament the loss of any living thing. “In my childhood,” he said, “my best friend was a tree.” Judging by his careful and systematic cultivation of palm trees on the island of Maui in Hawaii, where he has lived since 1976, it may still be true.

He read 15 poems, 13 from his brilliant National Book Award winner, Migration: New and Selected Poems. The other two came from The Shadow of Sirius, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Earlier, then he talked with students and faculty at lunch, he said, “Each of us knows if he is telling the real truth—if the artist doesn’t do that, there is no hope for him.” Merwin is one of our great truth tellers, and Davidson was honored by his presence: his lyricism, his passion for language, and his belief in the human imagination.

Professor Emeritus Tony Abbott is the author of two novels and five volumes of poetry.

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