The Forest that Grows Itself, The Poem that Writes Itself

In Memory of W.S. Merwin, September 30, 1927 – March 15, 2019

How do you make a palm tree grow on the page? How do you capture the feeling of April? These are the kinds of questions that William Stanley Merwin’s poetry may be able to answer. His long association with a particular environment, a rainforest which he himself planted on previously barren earth in Hawaii, would seem to have informed, and indeed to have made possible, his writing. In memory of this great gardener and writer, I will explore the relationship between Merwin’s forest and his poems.

For over thirty years, up until his death, W.S. Merwin worked to re-plant a rainforest on an eighteen-acre piece of land in Hawaii that had been deforested, overgrazed, burnt and plowed for use as a sugarcane and a pineapple plantation. During that time, he wrote a great number of poems that describe the forest growing and changing with the seasons. In those poems a style develops that is so unique it seems to be almost without precedent. His poetic voice flourished on bare land, so to speak, as did the rainforest he created.

When Merwin began trying to plant trees on that ruined land, it was close to impossible to get anything to grow there, as the topsoil had been completely lost. But Merwin diligently kept the sun off the soil and managed the leaf litter. Slowly, the trees began to take root and, over decades, the canopy began to return, until one could imagine it looked just as it had before the over-farming and deforestation.[1] Among the 850 species of palms now growing on his land are some severely endangered species.[2]

When describing his method of gardening in an interview with Hal Crimmel in 2012, Merwin placed an emphasis on the autonomy of the forest. He plants trees, he said, but the forest grows itself. There’s no way that we could really understand how the ecosystem of the forest works. Once enough trees are in the ground, they ‘take over’ and continue to grow on their own, knowing, by some instinct, exactly what to do to make a forest. This was something that he found very moving, he said, and something that he felt many people did not recognise.[3]

If, for Merwin, the forest knew how to take over and grow on its own, might he have thought the same about a poem? If provided with circumstances conducive to its growth, if the metaphorical sun was kept off the soil and the leaf litter managed, would the words begin to lead into one another and to grow a little longer down the page, as if by their own instinct, all by themselves?

In an early poem, when describing his lessons in poetry with John Berryman, Merwin wrote:

he suggested I pray to the Muse

get down on my knees and pray

right there in the corner and he

said he meant it literally[4]

Here, Merwin seems to have conceived of the poem as coming to the poet of its own accord. His role, as Berryman constructs it in the poem, is to kneel and pray, ‘literally’, for that arrival. When Merwin prayed, then, what was it that came?

West Wall

In the unmade light I can see the world
as the leaves brighten I see the air
the shadows melt and the apricots appear
now that the branches vanish I see the apricots[5]

The first words of this poem lead to, or create, one another. ‘I can see’ becomes the more certain ‘I see’. First of all, the ‘I’ sees ‘the air’, an invisible thing, but then, the ‘I’ sees ‘the apricots’. Over the four lines, the speaker moves from the notion of being able to see to seeing an actual material. On the way, other things appear and disappear. Leaves brighten: the sun does not fall on them and brighten them, but light seems to come out from within the leaves. Shadows melt: heat enters the air, joining the light. In the fourth line, a cause-and-effect relationship seems to be suggested, in which it is necessary that the branches upon which the apricots rest vanish in order for the apricots to become fully visible. The apricots appeared in line three, but in line four the ‘I’ sees them, that is, they are perceived with agency.

This opening doesn’t present a landscape that “makes sense” to the eye. We’d never really see an abstract ‘world’, or the air, or branches that vanish. Instead, the words trace the path of the speaker’s imagination, as he or she moves from the ideas of ‘unmade light’ and seeing a world to noticing and changing aspects of the landscape. It is the ‘I’ that makes the branches vanish. The speaker becomes filled with creative power, inhabited by the Muse, perhaps, just as Merwin’s rainforest, as it grows, becomes inhabited by its own spirit. Merwin tells this story without any ‘and’s or ‘then’s: it’s as if all the events in these lines somehow overlap. ‘Appear’ and ‘air’, ‘branches’ and ‘vanish’, ‘light’ and ‘melt’ create little sonic echoes that allow those events to unfold gradually and, in a strange way, simultaneously. As with the tangle of the forest growing all on its own, so with the tangle of sights and events.


The palm is in no hurry

to be different

and it grows slowly

it knows how to be a palm[6]

These lines unfurl, one might say, like a palm leaf. Slowness of syntax welcomes complexity into the poem, the shifting directions of meaning imitating the unknowable being, the palm tree, which they point towards. The first line might seem to imply that the palm is in no hurry to grow, but that verb goes unwritten. Merwin makes use of a line break and turns in a different direction, with the choice of ‘to be different’. Only then doesthe growing appear: ‘and it grows slowly’. Lines one and three almost say the same thing: the palm is ‘in no hurry’ ‘and it grows slowly’ (emphasis mine). This effect is like repetition, but far more delicate. In the following lines, the palm continues to grow through phrases that almost repeat, but don’t quite. The poem’s meaning twists, perhaps, upwards and sideways, as the sun moves across the sky.

Before a Departure in Spring

Once more it is April with the first light sifting
through the young leaves heavy with dew making the colors
remember who they are the new pink of the cinnamon tree
the gilded lichens of the bamboo the shadowed bronze[7]

And so this poem departs, or, takes flight on its own newly-forming wings, each detail moving in time with every other detail, like muscles contracting and extending alongside one another. There are ‘young leaves heavy with dew’, and ‘the gilded lichens of the bamboo’: these gentle rhymes make each sight necessary to the sound of the poem, and so irreplaceable. The pink of the cinnamon tree is ‘new’ and the colours are remembering ‘who they are’: both novelty and familiarity are possible at once. The agency is within the colours, the landscape recovering itself, just as Merwin thought the rainforest would remember who it was as it grew.

This entire poem moves like a single body, made up of sudden sights, each leading to the next in a way that seems unpredictable and inevitable. The speaker’s attention moves like the light sifting through the leaves, touching and changing everything that it finds. At the very end of the poem, the speaker reaches the thought that this April, this morning, ‘never happened before and we both remember it’. Memory, Merwin suggested, was a thing of the past and of the present. What is seen and felt comes from before, and it happens now. And how many Aprils exactly are present in this one? Surely we will never know. Merwin’s present tense gains its strength from its relationship with a continually accumulating, immeasurable past.

What did these poems learn from the rainforest when they were written, and how can we look out at nature with that knowledge when we read them today? Perhaps they begin without a sense of where they will end; perhaps they could not begin any other way. Perhaps they remember who they are, endlessly, growing on the page by forgetting slightly and remembering slightly differently. Perhaps they are ‘in no hurry/ to be different’, and in this, find their true difference. Perhaps their elements tangle and lean into one another, like the numberless, not-quite-distinct elements of a rainforest. Amidst all this greenery, Merwin’s role seems to have been to set out, like the ‘first light sifting’, across the landscape and across the page, and to follow wherever he might be led.

[1] Conversations with W. S. Merwin, edited by Michael Wutz, and Hal Crimmel (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2015), 194.

[2] See e.g. The Merwin Conservancy.

[3] Conversations with W. S. Merwin, 194.

[4] W.S. Merwin, “Berryman” from Migration (Port Townsend, WA:Copper Canyon Press, 2005); Copyright © 2005 by W.S. Merwin.

[5] W.S. Merwin, “West Wall” from The Rain in the Trees (New York, NY: A.A. Knopf, 1987); Copyright © 1987 by W.S. Merwin.

[6] W.S. Merwin, “Palm” from Opening the Hand (New York, NY: Atheneum, 1983); Copyright © 1983 by W. S. Merwin.

[7] W.S. Merwin, “Before a Departure in Spring” from The River Sound (New York, NY: A.A. Knopf, 1999); Copyright © 1999 by W. S. Merwin.