W.S. Merwin is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, former Poet Laureate of the US, and a guy who, though honored by them, seems like he doesn't really care much for those kinds of accolades.
Coming up as a young writer, Merwin ran with poets like John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes. Like many poets in the 1950s, he made pilgrimage to Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths mental hospital. Pound told him to work in translations, and so he started working on translations. Now he's got a million (27) books of translations, in addition to his million other books of poems and prose (well over 30).
Oh yeah, and for the last 35 years Merwin has been living in Hawaii, where, according to press materials, he and his wife Paula have been "preserving and regenerating native plants and palms on a 19-acre site on the north shore of Maui." The site is called The Merwin Conservancy. It's the largest private collection of palms in the world, and one of the species that grows there was thought to be extinct. Poets are mostly known for killing trees. This guy is bringing them back from the dead.
The documentary about his life and work, Even Though the Whole World Is Burning, showing at SIFF Cinema Uptown on Sunday, meanders through the life he's lived so far, exploring the connections between Merwin's work as a preservationist and writer. It's a pretty typical bio-doc: family, friends and scholars tell vignettes and read favorite poems over shots of the poet traversing his backyard tropical forest, which he grew in a valley that was officially classified as "wasteland." Literary luminaries like Harold Bloom heap praises upon him.
The film glorifies Merwin as a giver of life, a distinction that invites an eye roll. But looking at the evidence the film presents, it's hard to call foul. He's been cultivating the earth for almost his entire adult life. And the poems? I just shuddered at the amount of Googling I'd have to do to track down all the life-giving—though at times quite despairing, apocalyptic, and melancholy—Merwin poems, but if you haven't read a stitch of him, then check out the poem "Departure's Girlfriend," "Thanks," and his early Collected Works. Though his aesthetics have changed over the years, in substance his poems have always tried to speak for any kind of life that can't speak for itself. When they succeed, which is often, the poems become a kind of life form in and of themselves, one that's locked away in books until a reader picks them up and animates them.
Though the doc lacks any real tension—it suffers a little from trying to cover the whole life (thus far) of a guy who did a whole lot—many different kinds of audiences will find something to love. Academic poets will cry at weird times, like when they find out that Merwin kept several of Plath's letters, which included drafts of poems published in Ariel, but then gave those letters to an ex-wife and were never seen again for some reason because the world is cruel and doesn't want anyone to be happy. Young poets might find his quiet but strongly independent attitude a refreshing if not more substantive model of rebellion than the one offered by the Beat poets. And others might just like to hear what one of the U.S.'s greatest poets has to say about connections between poetry and politics, and, of course, how to grow a giant tropical forest from wasteland.