About two weeks ago, one of the greatest American poets, W.S. Merwin, passed away at the age of 91. I’ve loved Merwin’s poetry for decades: profound, moving, full of grief and joy, stars and earth, eternity and the present moment; words that stay with you for the rest of the day, or maybe much longer.
As some of you may know, I have a radio program called Harmonia that has been on the air since 1991, syndicated nationally since 1995, and available pretty much to anyone on the globe via the internet. In 1998, when I was still living in Bloomington and acting as host, producer, writer, editor, and occasional interviewer for Harmonia, we aired one of my own favorite episodes of the program featuring medieval bowed-string player extraordinaire Shira Kammen and the late-lamented, incredible singer and instrumentalist John Fleagle. A short while after it aired, I received a letter in the mail–this was back in the day when people actually wrote letters to radio hosts–postmarked “Honolulu, Hawai’i.” That in itself was not unusual, since I knew that Harmonia aired in Hawai’i. But the return address on the envelope flap said “Merwin, [address redacted], Haiku, Hawai’i.” I knew that the poet Merwin lived in Hawai’i, but it did not cross my mind that the letter would be from him. But it was. He had loved the program with John and Shira, and asked for any information that I could give him about them, and about the music, and complimented me on “my lovely program.” It was signed “W.S. Merwin,” with “William Merwin” typed underneath. I have, of course, kept the letter all these years. Now that W.S. is departed, it feels OK to share it, and tell the story.
I ran around the radio station for about an hour saying “OH MY GOD, W.S. MERWIN WROTE ME A LETTER” to anyone who would listen. Not everyone reads poetry. My husband Chris does read poetry, and is also a great admirer of Merwin, so it was satisfying that he, too, was amazed when I told him.
I resolved to find the information Merwin was looking for, so I did some homework, got contact information for John and Shira so that Merwin could be in touch with them, and wrote back to him, trying very hard find a way to tell him how much I loved his poetry without completely fan-girl-ing out on him.
To my immense astonishment, a couple of weeks later, he replied:
It is hard to explain how it feels when another artist whom you greatly admire expresses their admiration for one of your own creations. “Deeply humbled” is the closest I can come at the moment. But this is not the end of the story.
I did not know at the time that John Fleagle, who would have been perhaps in his early forties, was very ill. Ironically, I had talked with him at the Berkeley Early Music Festival just a few months before, when a group of us early music folks had gone out to eat together after an event, but I wasn’t aware of his struggle with cancer. A short time after I received the second letter from Merwin, I came into work one afternoon and there was a message on my work phone. It was from Merwin. He had indeed tracked down John and Shira, and he wanted to let me know that “my friend John” was quite ill, ill enough that perhaps he might not live, and Merwin didn’t know if I knew that, but he thought that I would want to know. The message was short, heartfelt, and clearly did not request any kind of response. I was completely speechless. This would have been in perhaps late September or early October; John passed away the following May of 1999.
When I heard of W.S. Merwin’s death last week, I read all the obituaries and tributes, and several mentioned that he lived in Hawai’i in a kind of seclusion—which I knew—and that he avoided technology and rarely used the phone, which I did not know, and which made all the more poignant the fact that he had called and left me a phone message to tell me that John was ill. I found myself reflecting on the fact that I had, without having any notion of the possibility, introduced one of my favorite poets to two of my favorite and most-admired early music heroes—we never really know what the results of our actions or our creations will be, do we?
A strange thread of karma and impermanence runs through this story, which I think Merwin would have appreciated, practicing Buddhist that he was. Two years after John passed, I was attending the radio conference at which Alan Bunin, the much-loved radio host who had given Merwin my contact information, and whom Merwin mentions in both of the above letters, died of a heart attack at the age of 40. Now Merwin is gone as well. At the end of Merwin’s second letter to me, he wrote “I love your program, and hope that we may meet some day.” When I retrieved the letter from my keepsakes and re-read it last week, that line particularly moved me, as it had in 1998; but now the impossibility of it deepens its impact. And yet, who knows–perhaps we will meet some day, in some space-time continuum; and perhaps that in that same other dimension, W.S. and John are having tea while John sings the Roman de Silence.
3 thoughts on “Merwin’s Letter”
What a wonderful story! I’m a huge fan of both Merwin and Shira, and loved this. Rarely do I experience the crossing of paths of two of my life passions: poetry and early music. Thank you!
Thank you for this story and glimpse into the meta-ephemera of several lives lived well.
Hi Angela, I still grieve over John Fleagle. Hearing his voice evokes a complex mix of wonderment and sorrow. I have recently discovered some of what he sang on PAN and am enjoying that. 2 things, both actually questions: Have you read Merwin’s prose about living in France and learning some dialect (? form of French) for which there was not a grammar. I urge you to go tomorrow and buy all his prose. I think he’s a wonderful poet and an even more wonderful prose writer. Secondly, would you know how I could get a copy of St Brendan’s Voyage, performed by Fleagle and Kammen? I have been trying to get my hands on that for years. I had an almost 30-year correspondence with Richard Wilbur, another great poet and Merwin’s peer, and the “handwriting” looks familiar, as was the thrill you described upon receiving the correspondences.