• ©2011 Tony Novak-Clifford.

    On My 42-Year Correspondence with W.S. Merwin

    Howard Norman Reflects on the Collective Meaning of 416 Letters

    Over 42 years, 416 letters passed between myself and the poet William Merwin, some few of which are deposited in the Merwin Archive at the University of Illinois. Sent from Ann Arbor, my first letter, March l975, was addressed to Bill, as one was encouraged to call him back then. His response was indeed signed Bill, and is dated in April l975. Later, when he began living on Maui, 32 letters were exchanged during his first three years there.

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    In re-reading his early Hawaiian letters in particular, so many things offer such vivid immediacy, including their air of erotic intoxication, Bill’s signature noticing of native and transgressive Natural History (no surprise that he was so knowledgeable about the life of William Bartram), his sense of joyful discovery, the sense of a new life. Perhaps a deeper devotion to Buddhism, an organizing framework of a lifelong spiritual probity, very much applicable to his study of deep ecology, and eventually the cultivation of a palm tree forest.

    He had initially gone to Hawaii to study with the Zen master Robert Aitkin. I was very new to his life; many early Hawaiian letters contained an intellectual intimacy, long landscape descriptions, but little autobiographical gossip or introspection—later, from time to time, this changed. Here, in a letter dated September 21st, l976, written from 227 Waverly Place in New York City (an apartment I occupied in l980), he responds to a letter I’d sent from the Canadian Northwest Territories:

    Another of those wonderful letters from you—they’re a joy to have. Keep sending letters. Your words about the (caribou) migration are full of it—that antler forest rising through the morning mist. I’ve seen those tundra fogs, though not those exactly. Lapland, and summer versions; obviously less dense, less loaded with impending winter (and much louder with mosquitoes). I know, too, that feeling of having been in a place that eludes designation, for a long time, and the sense as one emerges that that place, and one’s presence there, go on and on, forever. Of course, they do, and one has simply had a chance to glimpse it. The species of goose you read about, here in the islands, is the Nene. It was virtually extinct some years ago. Humans, and the goats they introduced, and the mongoose they introduced. Humans killing it for food and “sport,” I suppose. Goats destroying its habitat and the things it browsed on. Mongoose killing the young, and eating the eggs (in reverse order). There are preserves now, on Maui and Hawaii, but the birds are still rather rare even in the areas where they breed.

    Over the years, letters themselves were a subject of some of our letters. In five consecutive ones in 1996, William suggested a bibliography. There were Keats’ letters of course; there were of course Hart Crane’s letters. Dawn Powell’s. The list was quite long, really, and suggestions were not confined to the 20th century, and I eventually read them all, all the way through, and wrote back about each and every volume. One of my favorite exchanges was about the letters of T.E. Lawrence (edited by Malcolm Brown), which he sent to me. Especially curious here was a letter to a Mrs. Charlotte Shaw (22.V.29) which in part read:

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    Thence to Cambridge, where I saw Lucas and Forster. We talked rather like Aldous Huxley characters: froth: hence to London, where I saw Laura Riding. She has broken her pelvis, and three bones of her spine, but will recover, they say, in six months. For love of an Irishman, Geoffrey Phibbs (who did not love her any more) she had thrown herself down four stories into Robert Graves’ area at Chiswick.

    William mentioned in another letter that he was “enormously enamored” of Laura Riding and told me a lot of reasons why. He was less forthcoming about Robert Graves, at least in letters to me, and believe me I had asked directly. Then, in a letter in 2010, he allowed himself a page-long paragraph about Graves, whose details were generous, and memorable. But the longest attention to the world of letters took up two full typewritten pages, and were about the deeply devoted correspondence between Edmund Blunden and Sigfried Sassoon, “mates in the mustard gas trenches” as Sassoon put in in a lecture. “Their letters make for one of the most deeply touching  treatises on friendship imaginable.” (WSM letter, September l996).

    But I am no scholar of all of this. I’m just looking through boxes of letters handwritten and typed. Let me put it simply: William was a wonderful person to write letters to and receive letters from. Reading all of these letters engenders a kind of fugue state of memory and why wouldn’t it? I should mention honestly that there was a four-letter exchange in l988 that made for a real clash of temperaments, I thought he’d been reckless, and I certainly felt a friendship was at risk; this resulted in a much-desired rapprochement, which did not take place in letters but at a kitchen table.

    To say the very least, the letters I sent to William cannot possibly be thought of with anywhere remotely near as high a level of regard, William being one of the great poets—one of the great literary figures—of the 20th century and on two decades into the 21st. Everything he wrote is of tremendous interest. And I knew he wrote letters to many, many people; I was grateful to be one of those.

    Just last week I discovered something in William’s letters . . . It is all about prescience and foreshadowing, I suppose, it is perhaps also about how the unconscious mind auditions a thought, a locution, a line of poetry.

    Looking through all the boxes, I discovered that there were two periods in which (the reasons would take pages and pages) I wrote William letters almost daily for months on end. The first was in 1978 when I was intermittently working in Churchill, Manitoba with Inuit life histories, poetry and folktales. I must have sent him a hundred Inuit folktales and dozens of poems, and he responded both conversationally and instructionally in terms of craft, consummate translator that he was.

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    The second period was in the late summer and early autumn of 2007, when I was walking the Okonohosomiche (“Narrow Road to the Far North”) that Matsuo Basho had walked in l689, after which he composed certainly the most iconic travel diary in Japanese literature. (Cid Corman’s translation was the version William most admired.) Anyway, every single day I wrote William a letter from Japan during typhoon season and posted them when I could. I suppose one could say these became a manuscript of epistolary nonfiction. Here is part of one:

    SEPT 8 , 2007

    Dear William,

    Typhoon #9 has entered the capital. In Kurobane, we had a night of rain and lightning. How admirable he is!/Who does not think “Life is ephemeral” / when he sees a flash of lightning! (Basho) The best way to speak of haiku is to recite them. I’d had my window slid open so as to hear the roof tiles, overlapped like the scales of a carp, runnel rain into the eaves trough, which in turn delivered it to a ten-foot-high “rain chain,” which “relayed water musically downward”(Cid Corman, l955)—each stage of descent had its own sound. Finally, the sky cleared. Po-po-po of an Oriental Cuckoo, also called a Himalayan Cuckoo—it flies off at the knock on my door, “Sumi-masen Sumi-masen Ohayo gozai-mass! (Excuse me. Excuse me Good morning!)—my wake-up call, though I’d been up hours reading “Essays Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenko,”  and, “Time and Materials,” a collection of poems by Robert Hass. And like any tourist wrote postcards.

    10:00 a.m., we arrive at Sesshoishi “poisonous rock.” Approximately on June 3, 1689, a Deputy of the Castel sent Basho here. The groom leading the horse asked if Basho would write a poem. “What a refined request,” Basho thought, and in turn requested of the groom,

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    Across the plain,
    turn my horse sideways
    toward the sound of a cuckoo

                                                                      (Trans. By Cid Corman)

    The “Killing Stone” is 7 feet square and 4 feet high and is located in Nasu Hot Springs, a protected area accessible by a boardwalk. The stone itself is fenced in. This morning there are twelve other visitors, and photographs are taken. A few people scrunch up their faces and pinch tight their nostrils, and one pretends to faint. In Okonohosomiche Basho reports that there were so many dead bees and moths around the stone, the color of the sand could not be determined.

    The stone’s smell
    summer grasses look red
    dewdrops warm

                                                                       (Trans. By Cid Corman)

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    A rock that has an odor, almost hallucinatory red grass; dew that would usually emit a cool sensation is warm—! One scholar interprets the red as representing “the burning hatred of a fox. Naturally, this stone exists within a legendary context. (Or perhaps as novelist Soseki Natsumi said,“—long ago certain things in nature provoked a story into being.” According to that legend, a fox with nine tails transformed itself into a beautiful woman and with patient imaginative cunning managed to seduce Emperor Toba (ll03-56) and have all manner of persuasion and power until an exorcist was brought in and exposed the woman’s true identity. Fearing for its life the fox traveled by night to Nasu Plain, but it was caught and killed, and to this day the “Killing Stone” exudes that very fox’s revengeful spirit. There is a Noh play based on this legend, which I saw in a grainy—and quite haunting—l955 “live performance on film.” From the path above the “Killing Stone”, I look down at a congregation of dozens of stone figurines, most in red knit caps and aprons, holding their hands up in prayer. These are each called a jizobosatsu—they are protectors of children. Sometimes they judge who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell;  until Buddha returns, in some five billion years, they’ll serve as caretaker-Buddhas. (I counted twenty-three near a playground.)

    Walking for two months, up in the Dewa Mountains, along the Japan Sea, and ending at Basho’s grave shrine, when I got to my hotel in Kyoto, there was a letter from William waiting, full of response to those travelogue letters that had already reached him in Maui. (“I certainly could use some caretaker-Buddhas,  don’t you think we all could?”) Unafraid of sentimentality here, I should mention that one of the final letters I received (William slowly losing his eyesight) which may have been dictated, in late autumn of 2017, referred to our original meeting, during a veritable Pleistocene snowstorm in Ann Arbor, thus in a sense bringing the epistolary friendship almost full circle. “I remember you bringing snowshoes for me to try out. I remember you joking that you expected to see a wooly mammoth on the Univ. of Michigan campus. I remember how your grandfather who attended my reading, wanted to be sure that I knew Mandelstam, whom I’d translated with Clarence Brown in Princeton, was a Jewish poet.”

    Just last week I discovered something in William’s letters that one could only discover by reading them all. It is all about prescience and foreshadowing, I suppose, it is perhaps also about how the unconscious mind auditions a thought, a locution, a line of poetry. Anyway, in a letter from Hawaii in l987,  William writes, “I notice  more and more the plovers here. I had not noticed them enough before, I think. One can never notice them enough. I heard their calls as if for the first time. That wistfulness, that—almost—feeling of homesickness, from listening to plovers. Theirs or mine I couldn’t tell. Ten years later, in another letter sent from Hawaii, “I sometimes think plovers must experience, in their own original way, a kind of homesickness. I like thinking of the science of migration—how it works, but the metaphysics of it, too, anyway as much as we can ever know and not have to prove.” And then in the volume of his poems The Moon Before Morning, published by Copper Canyon Press in 2015, in the poem, “Variation On A Theme,” appears a line so powerfully replete with Merwinesque certitude: “for the homesickness that guides the young plovers.”

    I was hardly indispensable to William Merwin’s life; he remains—his letters do—indispensable to mine.


    Howard Norman’s new novel, The Ghost Clause, is out now from HMH.
    Portrait of W.S. Merwin by Tony Novak-Clifford.

    Howard Norman
    Howard Norman
    Howard Norman has completed a memoir about friendship, The Wound Is The Place The Light Enters You. He was awarded The Lannan Award in Literature.

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