I am obsessed with the physicality of poetry.
We’ve already talked about specific locations holding lines of verse, and the scavenger hunt that occurs when we try to find them. This month, ever so slightly more traditionally, let’s talk about visiting places that are associated with poets and poetry, from the past to the present.
I am not the first person who’s ever thought to visit the grave or birthplace or home of a favorite poet. There is power in these places that reaches just beyond our level of understanding. We go to these places in the hope that we’ll somehow see what they saw, or better still, feel what they felt.
As someone who tries to focus on the present instead of the past or future, it felt right to make my own initial poetic pilgrimage to the childhood home of my favorite living poet, W.S. Merwin. The fact that said home is only half an hour from my Womb is a happy coincidence.
For any of you who haven’t read Merwin, I cannot recommend highly enough his 2008 collection, The Shadow of Sirius, which won the Pulitzer the following year. His clear, concise poems, evocative to the extreme, will draw in even the staunchest “I don’t read poetry” holdout.
I had learned that in 2006, the town of Union City NJ had changed the corner of Fourth Street and New York Avenue to W.S. Merwin Way. The house he lived in until age nine is still standing, complete with the large tree in the backyard that he apparently loved as a small boy.
Driving out there one morning this past April, it really did feel like a pilgrimage, an adventure, a place to visit to somehow offer gratitude to a poet whose work moves me deeply. Pulling up to the street, seeing the sign, I’m not ashamed to admit my heart skipped a beat.
I brought my copy of Sirius with me, stood on the corner beneath the street sign and read the poem The Nomad Flute while looking up at the house, imagining the five year old boy writing out hymns for his minister father. I wondered if he somehow knew, even then, that poetry would shape his life.
I wondered how many people cross that street every day, and if they look up at that sign and that house and wonder who Merwin is? I wondered if it would inspire them if they knew? I also wondered which houses, in Union City and elsewhere, were sheltering the poets of the future, whose names we don’t know yet, but who are destined to change the world?
Next month I will continue with this theme, and tell you how I wrote five lines in maybe the most famous American poetry location of them all …
PS – For any of you that might be interested in being transported by the power and grace of fine conversation, I would direct you to this discussion between Merwin and Bill Moyers, from the Sirius period a few years ago. I re-watch this regularly. It’s a major touchstone for me.