W. S. Merwin won the first $100,000 Tanning Prize for mastery in poetry Sept. 29. Three days later, all tickets to his Columbia speaking engagements this weekend were sold out.
"We expected to fill it, but not so soon," said Ellen Conroy Kennedy, president and executive director of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), the sponsor of the poet's visit.
Mr. Merwin will present a "Craft Talk on Creative Writing" seminar tomorrow afternoon at the Bryant Woods Center. Sunday, he will read from his works at historic Oakland Manor.
It won't be the first time a visiting poet has played to a packed house in Columbia.
When Mark Strand read three years ago, the same year he was named U.S. poet laureate, crowds spilled out of the Howard Community College lounge to the elevator. "People crawled where there were no seats and sat at his feet," Ms. Kennedy
It also won't be the first time a distinguished poet has won a prestigious award shortly before a reading in Columbia. Last October, a month before Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stanley Kunitz appeared in Columbia, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts for poetry by President Clinton in a ceremony on the White House lawn.
But it is the first time HoCoPoLitSo has been inundated with requests -- by phone and mail -- for tickets.
"Monday, somebody called me and said, 'I have money,' " Ms. Kennedy said. " 'I'm on my car phone. I want 10 tickets for the reading. I'm on my way.' I told her, 'Don't come. Call me tomorrow instead. I'll put you on my waiting list.'
"The notoriety that goes with this particular prize, and the hoopla it caused, made people more aware," Ms. Kennedy said.
The hoopla is directed at a gentle and modest man known as much for his passion and politics as he is for his powerful imageries.
"He's a person who cares a great deal about the human condition and environment -- and he tries to do something about it," said poet Lucille Clifton of Columbia, distinguished professor of humanities at St. Mary's College and a HoCoPoLitSo board member.
"He speaks using both intellect and intuition and straight through to the human heart."
A zealous environmentalist, Mr. Merwin uses his art to bring down the walls that separate humanity from the natural world.
'It's about what we share'
"Everything that's alive is something we have to link with," he said from his apartment in Greenwich Village, New York. "The walls we put up between sexes and races are artificial and blind us. Even slight distinctions can be dangerous.
"Compassion means to feel what happens in life, what happens to us. We're it. That's what the arts are telling us. What happens in any work of art -- it's not us, it's about what we share."
The 57-year-old poet, who has written for the theater and translated from the classics, insists that poetry is the only medium where writers' thoughts can be communicated beyond the written word.
"Poetry makes the most complete use of language," he said. "In prose, you're usually trying to say what can be said. In poetry, you try to go beyond what they say. That's why people get impatient with it. If you're just trying to get information out of it you have to stop and change gears. You can't pay attention to it like you would reading a headline.
"In moments of great passion, grief, anger or love, you try to go beyond what the words say. Poetry comes close to doing that."
He also maintains that, to grasp a poem's meaning, its words must be heard before they are read.
"You can't speed read it," he said. "Sometimes the poems you read you think make no sense at all, but once you hear it, then it makes sense to you. When poetry happens, it happens to your whole body.
Mr. Merwin uses words sparingly to convey his intensity. "He is a master of wonderful, powerful images and can do it simply in a very short space," said Roland Flint, a professor of English at Georgetown University in Washington who has written six poetry books.
Mr. Flint, of Silver Spring, will introduce Mr. Merwin at the reading and tape a segment with him Monday for HoCoPoLitSo's cable series, "The Writing Life," on HCC's Cable 8.
As an example of Mr. Merwin's economy, Mr. Flint points to what he calls "Merwin's shortest poem":
"Your absence goes through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with these colors."
The recipient of numerous awards including the 1971 Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the P.E.N. Translation Prize and the Aiken-Taylor Prize for Poetry and the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, Mr. Merwin's mastery was recognized with the first Tanning Award presented Sept. 29 at the Library of Congress in Washington.
The $100,000 award is the nation's largest literary prize. Administered by the Academy of American Poets, it is endowed by 84-year-old painter Dorothea Tanning, wife of the late painter Max Ernst.
"I feel good that the money was earned by artists and given to artists," Mr. Merwin said. The poet was selected by a panel of three other poets: James Merrill, Carolyn Kizer and J. D. McClatchy.
At the award ceremony, Mr. Merrill declared that the poet "has attained . . . a wonderful streamlined diction that unerringly separates and recombines like quicksilver scattered upon a shifting plane, but remains as faithful to the warms and cools of the human heart as that same mercury in the pan-pipe of a thermometer."
"I was amazed," Mr. Merwin said of receiving the award. "I don't expect such things. How could one expect such things?
"I haven't heard from the IRS," he said with a laugh, but then added seriously that he'd rather pay taxes under the Clinton administration than a Republican one.
"Government exists for the sake of the governed. Before, money went for military expenditures. I feel bad about spending taxes on that."
Those convictions were tested during one of the country's most turbulent times. In protest of the Vietnam War, Mr. Merwin refused his 1971 Pulitzer Prize money for his book of poetry, "The Carrier of Ladders."
"I didn't refuse the Pulitzer Prize. That would've been disrespectful," he said.
"I said it was a public honor, but felt I could not accept it in a public way because I was ashamed of our involvement in the war. I wanted to accept it in a private way."
"I felt that there were others who wanted the opportunity to speak against the war and could not. I felt I should speak out -- not only for myself -- but for others who felt that way."
He donated part of the prize money to the War Resistance League, and the rest to a painter who had been blinded by a stray police bullet during an anti-war demonstration in San Francisco.
Months earlier, just before a scheduled reading at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he was asked to sign an loyalty oath to the U.S. Constitution and the state of New York.
In front of a gathered crowd of faculty and students, he declared that the oath was an "outrage against individual liberty guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. . . . I cannot believe that the framers of the Constitution of the United States meant it to be a humiliating experience to be an American."
He waived the state-funded reading fee, then gave the reading.
Of that event, Ms. Kizer wrote in the "Regions of Memory," a collection of Mr. Merwin's short stories, "Pervading all . . . is that scrupulous moral sense that informs his art."
The impassioned poet was born William Stanley Merwin in 1927 in New York. He grew up in a strict Christian home in Union City, N.J., and Scranton, Pa., where his father was a Presbyterian minister.
His love of language took root when, as a boy, he would listen to the hymns sung in his father's church.
"The first poems I heard were hymns," he said. "All the hymns sounded strange. Children like things that sound strange. Nobody talks that way, you can't understand half of it. The language is thicker, there are rhymes. There's a dimension to it most languages don't seem to have."
He began reading and writing poetry as a scholarship student at Princeton University, where he studied romance languages and medieval literature.
He later traveled to Europe, where he worked as a tutor in France and Portugal. He studied mythology and ancient history with British poet and novelist Robert Graves while tutoring Mr. Graves' son.
He paid tribute to Mr. Graves in his first book, "A Mask for Janus."
Fluent in French, Spanish and Portuguese, the writer moved to ** London where he worked as a translator of French and Spanish classics for British Broadcasting Corp.
He later won acclaim for his book-length translations of "The Poem of the Cyd" and "The Song of Roland."
When he returned to the United States, he wrote for the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets.
In the mid-1950s, he tried his hand at play writing. But after his fourth play, he turned his attention back to poetry, completing more than 12 books, including "The Dancing Bears," "Green With Beasts," "The Drunk in the Furnace," "The Moving Target" and "The Lice."
Twenty years later, he moved to the island of Maui in Hawaii, where he purchased 18 acres with his parents' savings.
He spends his days gardening with his wife of 11 years, Paula, and two stepsons, growing endangered species of palm trees and other tropical vegetation.
Using the land and ocean as inspiration for many of his works, Mr. Merwin prefers not to use the word "natural" when speaking about the environment.
"We limit it to ourselves by saying what's not natural," he said. "The human world is not just gossip and buildings. It's the whole thing.
"People say they want to get back to the real world. But this is the real world. They speak as if the ocean and the species are not reality."
Despite his accomplishments and fluency in several languages, Mr. Merwin said, writing still remains for him a daunting task.
"I always find it difficult. As a matter of fact, I think it's impossible," he said. "But we do it anyway. We just keep trying to write, trying to say what can't be said.
'To live poetry'
"The important thing is to live poetry, not to fall in love with what you've written."
For Sunday's hourlong reading, Mr. Merwin will read selections from his latest book "Travels," his 6-year-old "The Rain in the Trees," some of his older works and an unpublished manuscript.
" 'Travels' is not only about real travels, but also the travels one makes inside oneself," said Ms. Clifton, who also has read with Mr. Merwin.
"The Rain in the Trees" speaks of Hawaii, the flora and "the vegetable kingdom rather than the animal kingdom," Mr. Merwin explained.
To accommodate the overwhelming demand for tickets to Mr. Merwin's reading, HoCoPoLitSo was told Tuesday that the foyer in Oakland will be opened to add another 20 seats to the 115 in the adjacent ballroom.
"We're going to be filled up to the gills," Ms. Kennedy said.
Despite the writer's popularity, HoCoPoLitSo deliberately chose smaller rooms for their warmth and view.
"We like intimacy," Ms. Kennedy said. "We usually use the lounge at HCC for the readings. There is a glass wall that looks out at the trees. So when the poets lift their eyes, they look at
the trees. The readings usually begin in the late afternoon, so when they're done it's twilight.
For tomorrow's seminar, Ms. Kennedy rejected a slightly larger media room at Howard Community College, choosing instead the Bryant Woods Center because of its woodlands.
"Merwin has a tremendous feeling for nature," she said. "The room at HCC was dark and enclosed. This room has windows looking at the trees' leaves turning.
"It was right for the person so connected to the natural world and so sensitive to it, as he is."