Skip to main content

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.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The High Tower Apartments and The Long Goodbye

This beautiful apartment complex in Los Angeles is called the Hightower or High Tower Complex (the High Tower name refers to the central elevator, I believe), and was designed in 1935-1936 by architect Carl Kay - and made famous in 1973 by my favorite film, Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (see Why I Love Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye).


Although Altman used the building as Philip Marlowe's apartment in his somewhat post-modern Long Goodbye (the film plays with references to Old Hollywood and opens and closes with the song, Hooray For Hollywood), the building has another direct connection to Raymond Chandler.


It was apparently the inspiration for Chandler in his book, The High Window (the first Chandler novel I ever read), in which Chandler describes the residence of Philip Marlowe as being on the cliffs above High Tower Drive in a building with a fancy elevator tower. (Thanks to the Society of Architectural Historians Southern California Chapter webpage for that.) 


This ph…

Andrew Hale and Sade

On Thursday evening, we saw our longtime friend Andrew Hale perform with Sade at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, in one of the most beautifully conceived and produced concert performances I have ever seen.

Sade is a rare musician, in that she and the band only write, record and tour every eight to ten years, so that in a very real sense you can measure your life by her.

The band's music is always fresh and always newly conceived - for their previous album, Lovers Rock, they stripped everything down musically to a minimalist sound and banished the saxophone that had been so much a part of Sade's heavily soul- and jazz-influenced style.


The latest album, Soldier of Love, released in 2010, is one of the most tender, moving collections of songs yet, from the astonishingly beautiful Morning Bird, which features exquisite keyboards from Andrew, to the soulful, retro, return-of-the-sax melodies of In Another Time, and the deeply touching, reggae-influenced charm of Babyfather - a partic…

From Dawn to Sunset on the Beach - Pelicans, Whales and Memories of my Father

This post about my father and the ocean is very important to me right now. It was written when we first moved to Santa Cruz, which we insisted on calling Aldabra because it is so magical...
From Dawn to Sunset on the Beach - Pelicans, Whales and Memories of my Father
Living and writing by the ocean - in a spot we like to call Aldabra (which in reality is a remote and very beautiful atoll in the Indian Ocean) - the beach figures large in my thoughts and daily routine.

Usually I wake early, and on occasion I walk at dawn through the waves, past the occasional fisherperson, enjoying the darkness slowly transforming into light, the spray of the breakers, the pull of the tide around my feet, the constant barking of the sea lions, the damp of the ocean mist - and the sight of the sun breaking over the horizon to the east.






Recently, a few days before what would have been his birthday, I thought of my father as I trod the beach at dawn. He came from a tiny Scottish fishing village, Rosehearty, se…