The wonderful poet W.S. Merwin died two weeks ago. I had the pleasure of meeting him once and being in his presence twice, and I had the honor of designing one of his books (Flower & Hand: poems 1977–1983, a reissue of his early work by Copper Canyon Press) and designing the cover of one more (East Window: the Asian poems, also for Copper Canyon). I came to his poems from designing the first of these books, but his work has become a touchstone for me and an example of what poetry can be.
The time I got meet him was when he was in Seattle for a reading at the Seattle Asian Art Museum (in fact, it might have been so long ago that it was still the Seattle Art Museum, before SAM opened a new site downtown and the Art Deco building in Volunteer Park became the Asian). After the reading proper, Merwin was ready sign books – but the art museum was strict about its closing time, so we ended up on the loading dock at the north end of the building, in chilly weather, with Merwin gamely signing books for everyone who had bought one and wanted a signature. I’m sure he later remembered that somewhat trying moment.
He came back to Seattle for a later reading, at the Seattle Public Library’s main branch downtown, and afterward there was a party at the tippy-top of Smith Tower. It was hosted by a patron who was living in the almost-secret apartment at the top of Seattle’s oldest skyscraper (for a brief time, around the turn of the last century, the Smith Tower was the tallest building west of the Mississippi), tucked into the top, above the level formerly known as the Chinese Room (now an observatory and bar) that everybody thinks of as the highest part of the tower. The family that lived there was well-off, obviously, or they wouldn’t have been there; and they welcomed a bunch of artsy types into their home to celebrate the work and the presence of W.S. Merwin. Details I remember: the Dale Chihuly glass-sculpture chandelier (bottom left) hanging down from the pointed top; the mezzanine/balcony level running around the interior of the pyramidal space; lots of very fine food and wine catered on tables on the main floor; and the ladder to the actual tip of the tower, where you could crawl out into the night air and view the lights of downtown Seattle (I decided that I was probably not svelte enough to make this ascent, and declined). I never did actually talk with Merwin at that event, but I think he had sufficient attention from the other admirers present.
Merwin’s elegiac poems from his later years speak volumes to me, and fit my own autumnal sensibility as my friends and I age and as the world seems (sometimes) to be descending into darkness. But then, the world always seems to be doing that, at least when you yourself have gotten old. I take Merwin’s late-in-life poems as a guide and a voice in the mist; and I appreciate all of his words, recent and old, as an expression of what it means to be human. Thank you, Bill Merwin.