Poetry Sunday: For a Coming Extinction and Place by W.S. Merwin (with update)

(Update: There is a lovely remembrance of Merwin in the NYT opinion section of March 19. Here's a link.)

We lost another great poet last week. W.S. Merwin died at his home in Hawaii on Friday. He was 91.

Merwin was not once but twice named as poet laureate of the United States. He was also a winner of the National Book Award and of two Pulitzer Prizes. 

In addition to being a poet, he was an environmental activist who cared deeply about conservation issues. His poetry often reflected those concerns. Here are two such poems.

The first is a kind of request for forgiveness from those animals, represented by the gray whale, that we have sent to The End. In the fourth stanza, he lists some of those other animals and asks that the whale add his voice to theirs and "Tell him that it is we who are important." Not a very humble way to ask for forgiveness, is it? Rather hubristic. And human.  

The second one strikes quite a different note. It speaks of the end of the world (for humans) and of how the poet would want to spend that day. He would plant a tree:

 in the earth full of the dead
 and the clouds passing

 one by one
 over its leaves

I admit I love that image of the tree that lives on when we are gone.

For a Coming Extinction

by W. S. Merwin

Gray whale
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing

I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you
Tell him that we were made
On another day
The bewilderment will diminish like an echo
Winding along your inner mountains
Unheard by us
And find its way out
Leaving behind it the future
And ours

When you will not see again
The whale calves trying the light
Consider what you will find in the black garden
And its court
The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas
The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless
And fore-ordaining as stars
Our sacrifices

Join your word to theirs
Tell him
That it is we who are important



by W. S. Merwin

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

what for
not the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time

with the sun already
going down

and the water
touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing

one by one
over its leaves


  1. The first poem - I blogged today about a captive giraffe who has become an internet sensation even as her fellow giraffes in the wild are put on threatened species lists. Yes, how will we, who were put in charge of being the Earth's stewards, be judged at the end? I shudder to think, unless we change our ways quickly. Reading the last poem made me think of the people of Hawaii who got that horrible text alert last year teling them that incoming missiles would be arriving soon. What if I had gotten that message? Would I have rushed to do something with plants? I truly don't know. It's haunting.

    1. It's hard if not impossible to imagine what one would do in such circumstances. I'm afraid planting a tree would not be what would occur to me!

  2. I salute this poet who made it to 91 years! Could he be being ironic in that first one?

  3. I SO like the first stanza of the first poem, especially:
    "Tell him
    That we who follow you invented forgiveness
    And forgive nothing."

    The whole second poem is one desolate image of everlasting hope...for that tree, not us. Thanks, Dorothy, for the samples from this amazing poet. Too bad he's gone.

    1. He was a fantastic poet and will be greatly missed, but at least he had a long, productive, and useful life.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Poetry Sunday: Don't Hesitate by Mary Oliver

Overboard by Sara Paretsky: A review

The Investigator by John Sandford: A review