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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 25, 2003

Poetry of the 'aina

• Hawai'i gets its own dose of 'reality'

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

W.S. Merwin's relationship with Hawai'i's landscape shows itself in "The Folding Cliffs," set in the Kalalau Valley on Kaua'i.

Advertiser library photo 1996

W.S. Merwin, among America's best-known and most respected poets, could live anywhere, but he chose Maui as his home more than 20 years ago. "I loved the Islands right away," said Merwin, who grew up in the eastern United States, lived in Europe for some years and first came to Hawai'i in the 1960s.

Merwin could make any cause his own, but he chooses the cause of the 'aina, the environment. A local environmental newsletter, Environment Hawai'i, will benefit this weekend from a rare Honolulu public reading by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

After his first visits to Hawai'i, Merwin found a Zen master here, Robert Aiken, with whom he wished to study, and then, in the mid-1970s, came into a little money about the time a piece of property in Upcountry Maui was available. "And everything fell into place," he said.

His choice of a home in a place where he can be outdoors a great deal, and his care for the environment, are linked in a way that surfaces in his work.

Earlier this week, Merwin answered a few questions about his writing, his relationship with Hawai'i and his activism.

Q. It is fashionable in some circles to say that there is no life of the mind here, it's not a place conducive to ideas or analytical thought or to the literary life. What's your thought on that?

A. "I think no place is conducive to ideas. We make them; they can happen anywhere. I never understand it when people say this is a good place for writing or a bad place for writing. I try to write anywhere I am."

Q. How has this landscape influenced your work?

A. "Well, it got into the work, so I suppose that's an influence. ... I wrote that big, long poem 'The Folding Cliffs' about Hawai'i, but a Hawai'i as I imagined it a long time ago. ... In the present, it's in the poems, especially in a book called, 'The Rain in the Trees.' "

Q. Let's talk about "The Folding Cliffs." It's a novel-length poem that you have subtitled, "A Narrative." It's based on the true story of a man, Ko'olau, who contracted what was then called leprosy but refused to be transported to Kalaupapa, and of the extraordinary woman, his wife Pi'ilani, who chose exile with him in Kalalau Valley on Kaua'i. What drew you to this story?

A. "When I first read that story ... I couldn't get it out of my mind. ... I just carried it around in my head for years, not thinking I could ever do anything with it, and also full of doubts about whether someone who was not Hawaiian should be writing it. ... I spent several years reading everything I could find about it. ...

"Then I finished a book called 'The Vixen' (a "memoryscape" about a remote part of France where Merwin has stayed), and the way I wrote that book was a sort of stepping stone. I realized that the only way this story could be told is as a poem. People don't realize this nowadays, but poetry has a great deal more resilience than prose. ... You can't make these great jumps in prose without it seeming very broken up and strange. I needed to go from Department of Health correspondence on the one hand, to Hawaiian chant on the other. Only a poem could do that."

Q. You recently published a translation of the legend of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, which received an award from the Academy of American Poets. What would you say is required in the art of translation, and why does it appeal to you?

A. "I don't know. The thing is, translation is like poetry. It's impossible. You can't translate anything, really, and you can't write poetry, but we do them both. I think there's no perfect way of translating anything, so there's always another way to do it, and I like that.

"I was drawn back to Gawaine because I've always been fascinated by the fact that the poetry and the whole Arthurian legend comes from Wales. It was picked up in Norman England and ... by the 12th century, everyone knew these stories. I began to wonder what these stories were like in the original, and the only way to find out was to translate a page of it, and so I did and I got hooked. ...

"It's not London Middle English, it's Welsh marshes Middle English — much more archaic, much more ancient, much rougher in some ways, and harder for us to read. ... Like the story in 'The Folding Cliffs,' there are things we know and things we don't know. It's a mixture of legend on the one hand and fact on the other, and that's there in Pi'ilani and Ko'olau, too."

Q. You have been described as an environmental activist. Environmental activism is not the most popular or practiced form of social commitment in the United States. Why is it, do you think, that people in general seem to care so little about the natural world, when most of us profess to love it so much?

A. "I think that we live in a society whose real, central myth is economics and the bottom line and caring about the economy. You don't protect the environment because it's the most profitable thing to do, you do it because it's more important than some of these other things.

"We live in a society that is fueled by a market economy, and that is rather often at odds with caring about the environment. ... Economic value is in a way the absence of value; it's saying everything is valuable only in financial terms, and financial terms have no moral attachments. They're completely free of that, so it's a sort of amoral way of looking at the world and, I think, a dangerous and very frightening one."

• • •

Hawai'i gets its own dose of 'reality'

Coming up

"North Shore Swimwear's Beauties of the Beach" (new title)

  • • Premiere: 9 p.m. Aug. 6, KFVE; reruns at 10 p.m. Saturdays, for four weeks.
  • Premise: hot bods frolic in scenic Hawai'i; interactive; public will help vote for winner, who automatically becomes a Miss Hawai'i USA contestant.

'Hawai'i Reality'

  • Premiere: 9 p.m. Monday, KFVE; reruns at midnight July 31, 2 p.m. Aug. 2.
  • Premise: Six women, six men live together in a North Shore house, "Real World" style.

'The Lei'

  • Premiere: No date yet; show is being shopped to affiliates and cable channels for an August launch.
  • Premise: A day-and-night dating game, with a third-wheel component (two guys, one gal; two gals, one guy).

Call for contestants 'Ocean Club'

  • 10 contestants sought; national search under way; supermodelcasting.com, oceantv.com.
  • Premise: Contestants live the life of the rich and famous, boarding a yacht at Cancun, sailing for six weeks.

'Maid in America'

  • No air date yet, Fox; national search under way.
  • Premise: Putting the glitz on hotel housekeepers; Hawai'i tryouts from 3 to 6 p.m. Aug. 11, Radisson Hotel Waikiki Prince Kuhio; (800) 495-1480, maidintv.com.

Just concluded 'No Shame'

  • Finished its run on KFVE July 20.
  • Premise: Outrageous stunts.

'Boarding House: North Shore'

  • Finished its six-week run on KFVE on July 27; reruns pending.
  • Premise: "Endless Summer" meets "Real World;" surfers co-exist on North Shore.