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Humanity's Greatest Quality - W S Merwin on Imagination

Screengrab of KCRW's Bookworm webpage
I only caught the last few minutes of this week's Bookworm on Los Angeles' outstanding public radio station KCRW, but they were quite exceptional.

Bookworm presenter Michael Silverblatt was interviewing America's octogenarian Poet Laureate, W S Merwin, and asked Merwin what made him accept the position of laureate - a post Merwin most likely would not have been offered in the 1960s, when he was a vocal anti-Vietnam War poet.

Merwin replied that part of the terms he established for accepting the position was that there would be a theme to "string the whole thing along" - and that theme would be, "the human imagination."

The next five minutes, which I listened to as I drove, were absolutely mesmerizing: a highly eloquent and entrancing meditation on the human race.

"The human imagination," Merwin said, "I think is the one really distinctive thing that humanity has - not intelligence or language, both of which I think are dubious in different ways - but imagination, the thing that allows us to sit here in the Palomar Hotel in Los Angeles and be distressed about the homeless people in Darfur and the whales dying of starvation in the Pacific, and elated by a little girl getting a prize for playing Mozart in China when she's seven years old.

"Other animals have this quality but it's not primal in their lives, it's not the center - it's what makes us, you know. Each one of us is here in our imaginations, seeing the world a little bit differently..."

The words alone are beautiful but the cadence of Merwin's voice and the profound depth of his empathy and compassion made Merwin's commentary on imagination like a poem itself - in fact, rather more like a piece of music, with the perfect precision and harmonic eloquence of Mozart.

I am embedding below a link to KCRW's online Music/Talk Player with the W S Merwin Bookworm show. Please listen to the whole program, if you can - but if you can't, at least find the final six or seven minutes and listen to those, because they are a rare and moving observation on one of our greatest strengths - but also a warning of what might just be our fatal flaw.

It is wonderful to find a writer and a poet so engaged with humanity - and, despite his reservations, so hopeful for it. In addition to his writing, Merwin is a committed conservationist, personally responsible for planting over 800 species of palm trees on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where he and his wife live, as part of his commitment to helping restore the Hawaiian islands' rainforests.


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