Remembering W.S. Merwin, Honorary Texan

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who died at 91 last week, liked pausing by roadsides everywhere in Texas to examine plants, pocket seeds and smell the air.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who died at 91 last week, liked pausing by roadsides everywhere in Texas to examine plants, pocket seeds and smell the air.


W.S. Merwin
W.S. Merwin  Matt Valentine

You might not have guessed it.

W.S. Merwin, widely beloved, cosmopolitan, world-renowned poet, translator and lifelong pacifist, who died last week at 91 in his palm garden hermitage on the island of Maui, was also a big fan of Texas.

Forget politics for a moment. Texas loved him, and he loved coming here. My husband, Michael, and I welcomed him and his wonderful wife, Paula, many times. Consider 200 people overflowing outside a Baylor University auditorium to hear poetry. His reading had to be piped into a second campus space to accommodate the listeners.

The next day he wanted to visit the Branch Davidian disaster site where he stood solemnly, contemplating life’s mysteries, as his poems did eloquently for more than half a century.

He gave readings around the state — appreciating an enthusiastic day at Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas, joyous evenings at the Michener Center at the University of Texas at Austin, dining with old friends like longtime professor and poet David Wevill. He read at the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center in Kyle and on the Texas State University campus, where students repeatedly asked him why he was obsessed with rain (because he was a palm gardener, for one thing). He loved the Poetry at Round Top Festival founded by Austinite Jack Brannon, the resonance of James Dick’s sensational Festival Hall, and a piece of blueberry pie eaten with conservationists Robert and Margy Ayres in a Round Top cafe called Royers. Trinity University Press in San Antonio published his Unchopping a Tree in a gorgeous slim edition. He packed the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics in San Antonio. He told then-15-year-old Stephanie Saldaña, who would go on to publish brilliant nonfiction memoirs such as The Bread of Angels, never to be afraid of anything.

But what I remember most are the odder offbeat trails he and Paula wanted to take: overnighting in a Big Bend log cabin, conversing at sunrise with a javelina that stood up on its hind legs and put its front paws on his shoulders. Paula and I urged him to back off, but he said they were just getting to know one another. He insisted we drive 20 miles across gravel in a car that wasn’t made for it. I recall sleeping at the Hotel Paisano in Marfa when it was still spooky, haunting the Donald Judd outbuildings at the Chinati Foundation during a thunderstorm, scooting down to the border to visit the splendid Sabal Palm Sanctuary near Brownsville (a longtime dream of his), reveling in the green jays circling us at a birding sanctuary on the border, heading over to Gonzales to see Palmetto State Park. William liked pausing by roadsides everywhere in Texas to examine plants, pocket seeds and smell the air. He took a boat trip at the coast with my brother-in-law, Patrick Nye, to see cranes gathering. He reverently attended James Michener’s funeral in Austin in 1997. Once, prowling around the abandoned still-smoking ruins of the Hot Wells Hotel and Spa on the south side of San Antonio, after yet another unfortunate torching, he spoke to reporters. “We should preserve our treasures!” he declared. “We should never let them reach such a state of decay!” Later people would ask, “Is it possible that poet W.S. Merwin was on local TV talking about Hot Wells Spa?” They thought they were hallucinating.

In a tiny George West cafe, William entered into an animated conversation with a local rancher about land and weather and time. As we were leaving, the cashier whispered, “Your friend is talking to our mayor.” I whispered back, “Your mayor is talking to a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.” William enjoyed blending in. In downtown Dallas, a homeless man once tried to sell him a blanket. He was touched to be taken for another man of the streets. He visited the King Ranch store in Kingsville but didn’t buy anything — so much leather. A pescetarian, he skipped the barbeque joints. He loved the lonely wailing midnight trains outside the Gage Hotel in Marathon. A fluent Spanish-speaker, he delighted in our Mexican restaurants, horizons and skies, often recalling times in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, where he had once owned an ancient home. Our legendary Texas friendliness embraced him and was always returned. He said the Pecos River overlook on Highway 90 West was one of the greatest spots in our nation’s whole geography.

He wanted me to buy a house in Marfa, when I still could have afforded it, or maybe in Langtry. He scribbled down phone numbers of available shacks on the backs of envelopes. He planted a dwarf palm seed from Gonzales in our yard. The tree is now 20 feet tall.

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Naomi Shihab Nye has long been the poetry editor of the Texas Observer.


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