I can't write about poet W.S. Merwin without getting personal, so I've turned what would normally be a "profile" piece into a personal column.
The reason is this: For years, W.S. Merwin was my model.As incredible as it sounds, I was a poet in the early '70s; not a good poet, alas - but a poet just the same. And for me and hundreds of others, W.S. Merwin was the mentor.
I remember buying a record album of Merwin reading his poems. We'd put it on, turn the lights off and let his soothing voice give us a sponge bath.In 1972, Merwin was the age I am now. I was 22 then. I was impressionable, but I also knew good stuff. And Merwin's language (to cop a line from Randall Jarrell) was pure enough for dogs and cats to understand.
Last week, the poet came to Utah for the first time in decades. Westminster College and the University of Utah brought him in to read, and that gave me a chance to ask him questions I'd wanted to ask for 20 years.
His black hair is bone white now, but his eyes still show a blue flame. And he hasn't lost his taste for exotic shirts. We always liked that.
I asked if the adulation we kids heaped on him in the '70s had been a negative or positive thing. Did being our personal "guru" take its toll?
He seemed intrigued by the question.
"It was probably a good thing for my character that I didn't know much about it at the time," he said. "I was living abroad and traveling a lot then.
"I don't like to set myself up as someone giving advice from some great height. My father was a preacher, and I have no wish to be a preacher. But I like the idea of writing things that people want to take with them. The more crucial it is, and as their choices narrow, you hope you've written something they'll want to take with them."
For several minutes we talked about his early poems, how spare and lean they were; about his translations; about the spiritual feeling he brings to his work.
I asked how he was able to reconcile the gentle, monklike poems he wrote in that era with his passionate poems against the Vietnam War.
He shook his head.
"For many years," he said, "I couldn't get the two sides of my life to be at peace with each other. At least I thought I couldn't. And I would write about that dualism. Then it gradually hit me that both sides were true. It was a division I'd just have to learn to live with. And once I came to be at peace with that idea, things began to resolve themselves."
Since the '70s Merwin and I have gone our separate ways. In 1972 he was living on Majorca and I was living in Brigham City.
Now he lives on Maui and I live in Brigham City.
He's published several books since the '70s. I published no books before 1970 - and none since.
But last Thursday night at his reading, there we were: Merwin and Johnston, together again.
The place was packed.
After a lofty introduction, W.S. Merwin stood and read: