March 8, 2006: Reading Room
glimpse of the past
By Maurice Timothy Reidy ’97
Following his graduation from Princeton, the poet W.S. Merwin ’48 traveled to Europe, where he met a colorful group of writers and émigrés. Among them were the playwright Samuel Beckett, whom Merwin remembers for his adept ability to slice cucumbers, and the writer W. Somerset Maugham, whose handshake Merwin describes as “cold, loose, and limp.”
Summer Doorways, a memoir of Merwin’s young adulthood published by Shoemaker & Hoard in September, paints portraits of people who are long dead and places that have long since changed. The centerpiece of the book is Merwin’s first trip to Europe in 1948, but the memoir also recounts the poet’s years at Princeton and his childhood in Pennsylvania. Merwin says he wrote the book to capture these people and places before memories of them fade. “I thought, I better put them down before they’re completely gone, for what interest they are to somebody else,” Merwin says.
When Merwin arrived at Princeton in 1944, he knew he wanted to be a writer. He would submit his poetry to the writer and critic John Berryman, who was a teaching assistant at Princeton at the time. Berryman could be ruthless in his criticism, Merwin says, but he forgave him because it was clear that “he cared more about poetry than anything else.”
At Princeton Merwin was introduced to the Stuyvesants, a wealthy New York family whose ancestors included Peter Stuyvesant, the last governor of New Amsterdam, which would later become New York. Merwin worked as a tutor for the Stuyvesants’ young nephew, Peter, one summer, and in 1948 accompanied them to their home on the French Riviera. Merwin spent his days in France reading with Peter Stuyvesant and taking him swimming and on trips to nearby Nice. Merwin also visited with artists and writers who lived nearby.
Upon first arriving at the Stuyvesants’ villa on the Mediterranean, Merwin heard a song, “La Vie En Rose,” floating from a nearby café. “To us who had never known the world there without it,” Merwin writes, “‘La Vie En Rose’ ... seemed to be the sound of the place, the score that accompanied the theatrical setting and the lights across the water.”
Merwin’s memoir ends a few years before he received the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1952. He has since gone on to become one of the preeminent poets of his generation, winning numerous prizes, including the 2005 National Book Award for Migrations.
Today Merwin lives in Hawaii, where he has spent the last 30 years. His house is surrounded by hundreds of rare or endangered palm trees that he planted himself. He works in his garden in the afternoons, after answering letters from friends and admirers. He sets aside the mornings for writing. It would seem that, at age 78, Merwin has achieved all that a poet might hope for, but he still keeps at it. “It’s what I most want to do,” he said. “It always has been.”
Maurice Timothy Reidy ’97 is an associate editor at Commonweal magazine.
Why People Die By Suicide — Thomas Joiner ’87 (Harvard University Press). The author, a psychology professor at Florida State University whose father died by suicide, examines how people overcome the basic instinct of self-preservation. Joiner argues that people who kill themselves have allayed their fears of death and inured themselves to physical pain. He also looks at the role that mental disorders and a sense of feeling alone play in suicidal behavior.
The Bargaining Bride: How to Have the Wedding of Your Dreams Without Paying the Bills of Your Nightmares — Shirit Kronzon *99 and Andrew Ward (New Page Books). Brides-to-be learn how to negotiate with wedding-service providers and get the best flowers, food, and music for the dollar. The authors also suggest ways to deal with in-laws. Kronzon teaches at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Ward is a psychology professor at Swarthmore College.
The Always Present Present: Letters – Poems — Theodore and Renée Weiss (Quarterly Review of Literature and Sheep Meadow Press). A collection of love letters Princeton poet and English professor Theodore Weiss sent to his future wife, Renée, between 1939 and 1941, this volume reflects their affection against the backdrop of war and their parents’ disapproval of their relationship. Interspersed among the letters are poems the couple wrote together later in life. Weiss died in 2003.