Dew Light

Dew-heavy Gulf muhly in Arkansas’s Ouachita mountains


The death of poet W.S. Merwin (September 30, 1927 – March 15, 2019) has taken another creative and compelling voice from our world.

Pulitzer Prize winner, seventeenth Poet Laureate of the United States, and author of over fifty books of verse, his changing style and changing commitments have been among the most interesting in American writing. Increasing attention to the natural world, combined with his practical transformation of a failed Hawaiian pineapple plantation into one of the greatest collection of palms known to exist, shaped both his verse and his life.

In the late 1970’s, Merwin began a nearly 40-year journey toward redevelopment of his land. As described by the Merwin Conservancy:

The palm collection, set on nineteen acres on Maui’s north shores, boasts nearly 3,000 individual palm trees, representing over 400 taxonomic species, more than 125 unique genera, and 800 different horticultural varieties.  According to experts at the National Tropical Botanical Gardens, the collection is “a living treasure house of palm DNA.”  This significant botanical and horticultural assemblage is now preserved forever through a deed of conservation easement held by the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust.

Impressive as his work with the palms surely was, his reflections on that work are equally important. As he reminds us:

One can’t live only in despair and anger without eventually destroying the thing one is angry in defense of. The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us. And you know, in a way, if you don’t pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness.

Just as “Wild Geese” became one of her most reprinted poems after Mary Oliver’s death, Merwin’s “For The Anniversary of My Death” is appearing everywhere. Appropriate as it surely is, I prefer to remember him by these words, even as I imagine him wandering among the morning palms, and happy.

Now in the blessed days of more and less
when the news about time is that each day
there is less of it I know none of that
as I walk out through the early garden
only the day and I are here with no
before or after and the dew looks up
without a number or a present age
“Dew Light” ~ W.S. Merwin


Comments always are welcome.
For more information on Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris), please click here.
For biographical details about W.S. Merwin, this Poetry Foundation article is useful.


43 thoughts on “Dew Light

  1. Ah, I hadn’t heard about the death of W.S. Merwin. His words “the dew looks up / without a number” remind me of a stanza from “It’s Going to Snow” by the French poet Francis Jammes:

    “People have baptized the stars without thinking
    That they don’t need any names, and numbers,
    Which prove that lovely comets will pass along
    Into the darkness, won’t make them pass along.”

    1. That’s a lovely and perfectly fitting verse to accompany Merwin’s, and a more graceful translation than some I found online. Is it yours? Reading the poem in its entirety, I remembered that you’ve mentioned it before: perhaps from your days at Columbia. This verse still gives me a smile:

      “It is going to snow in a few days. I remember
      This time last year. My heart, O how it bled!
      Had I been asked: “What ails thee?” I should have said:
      “Nothing. Leave me alone. It is December.”

      1. Double yes: I learned this poem in one of my French poetry classes at Columbia, and the English version is mine (and by not trying to rhyme I could make the English more natural than rhyming translations). I knew that I offered up this stanza before but it seemed to fit so well that I brought it back. Besides, comment readers may not have run into it before.

    1. I love that photograph. I’d stayed at the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge in the Ouachitas, but when I got up, eager to see the mountains, there was nearly zero-visibility fog. Eventually, I figured out what to do: when life gives you fog, get out the macro lens. So I did, and I ended up with some photos after all.

    1. I think Gulf muhly is beautiful — wet or dry. I see it used in landscapes quite a bit, but last year I spotted some along a fenceline in Brazoria county, and found some on the edge of the piney woods. The color really is delicious, and there’s no mistaking that smoky pink cloud in the fall.

      Merwin has been a favorite for a few years now. He’s not as popular and well-known as Mary Oliver, but the man can write.

    1. Indeed they do. Merwin had such a long, productive career that it’s possible to see the changes in his philosophy taking place over time in his poetry. Nothing wrong with that — asking him not to change would have been like asking the Beatles to never move beyond “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

    1. My favorite of all his work is titled “Berryman.” Merwin studied with poet John Berryman, who was teaching at Princeton when Merwin arrived there. Berryman was more than a teacher; he was mentor, critic, and more, and the richness of the relationship shines in the poem. The last two stanzas are particularly good:

      “I had hardly begun to read
      I asked how can you ever be sure
      that what you write is really
      any good at all and he said you can’t

      you can’t you can never be sure
      you die without knowing
      whether anything you wrote was any good
      if you have to be sure don’t write”

      Every time I read that, I think of Oh.

  2. I just sent a test message to see whether it would go through.

    It seems as though WordPress has somehow excluded from commenting on your blog, even though I have done so many times. It tells me that my password is invalid and I have now tried four times to reset it without success.

    David Gascoigne

    Waterloo, ON

    At its heightened moments, birdwatching can encourage a state of being close to rapture. It is an ecstasy that is said to accompany the writing of poetry; sometimes it comes when we are listening to music. Graeme Gibson

    1. I’m sorry you had trouble, David. I didn’t find anything in my moderation queue or in spam, so it looks as though you’ve managed to get through the system.

      Occasionally, WordPress will throw people into spam for no apparent reason, but I suspect it might have been Google’s elimination of Google+ that caused you trouble. Several people have complained about odd circumstances on other Blogger blogs. Blogger stripped away my avatar this week, and I had to add it again, and sign up again with my Google account.

      Here’s a link to what I found, in case it might be useful. This seems relevant: “In March 2019, Blogger will revert to only having Blogger profiles. Users that have selected a G+ profile in the past will appear as unknown authors until they next login to Blogger and supply a new display name and avatar.”

      I went ahead and deleted your test post; it did appear.

      I very much like that quotation. I suspect the common experience is related to our focus on something other than, and outside, ourselves.

  3. Thank you, Linda! I know you said you had been wanting to share this poem. It’s interesting that we were both thinking of his poetry while he was living the last of his “blessed days of more and less.”

    I watched an interview of him a while back in which he was talking about his palms, but I had forgotten about that, and I appreciate your reminder of his gardens. Do you know if the palm gardens will be opened to the public? My husband and I visited a wonderful botanical garden on Maui, but it actually didn’t feature many palms, as I remember.

    1. I knew that he had reached an advanced age, but knew nothing of his health, so the announcement of his death was a surprise: perhaps more of a surprise than it should have been.

      I wonder which interview you saw? I saved this one several years ago, and still watch it from time to time. It is possible to visit the gardens, but there are days set aside for the public, and visits have to be scheduled ahead of time. I’m suspect there might be some flexibility, particularly for people who are traveling specifically to see them. There’s more information here.

    1. I have no idea how I managed to create images with that soft color, but I certainly like them. I have some others that are a little more natural, although still fog-softened. The droplets are lovely, aren’t they?

  4. Lovely photograph and hugs. Another poet leaves us and will be missed! He leaves us with palms and poetry, what a gift!

    1. Now you’ve stirred my curiosity. I wonder if he left us any palm-centric poetry. A little exploration is in order. Whether he did or didn’t, of course, his gifts in both worlds were substantial.

  5. I’m still thinking about the poem you quoted, it doesn’t surprise me to read that he studied with Berryman, it generally takes me a while to puzzle through his poems. But the quote about the destructiveness of constant anger I liked immediately, I’ll “clip” that and add it to my notebook.
    And your picture is beautiful. I did not know what a muhly might be, and looked it up, you sure have a lot of interesting and beautiful plants on the gulf coast.

    1. There are a lot of his poems I simply set aside. They’re too opaque, or seem too academic. But his work did change over the years, and his later poems almost always have a “hook” somewhere that keeps my attention. As for the quotation about anger: he’s right. It takes a lot of energy to remain in a constant state of rage, and in the end it’s destructive.

      Gulf muhly’s a beautiful grass — so beautiful that it’s become favored even for urban landscapes. Unfortunately, people sometimes don’t treat it as it deserves. The yard crew at a local marina once cut back some gorgeous stands of pink muhly just as they were beginning to bloom, because they were told to get rid of anything that looked “messy.” The twelve-inch stalks they left were tidy, but they lacked a little something.

  6. Stunning photo, Linda! I’m not very familiar with Merwin’s work, but I really liked his words on anger. Perhaps I need to become move learned about his writings. After all, if someone fills more than 50 books with verse, that’s a truly prolific writer!

    1. Merwin was prolific. I remember one interview in which he mentioned the discipline of writing seventy-five lines each day. Do that on a regular basis, and it wouldn’t be hard to fill fifty books, although, in his case, he filled them with interesting and pleasing words, not “just words.”

      In his later works, like the poem I included above, he got rid of punctuation, which is interesting, and many of his later works read like haiku. As a matter of fact, he lived in Haiku, Hawaii. I wondered about that, and found via the Wiki that “It was named for the ancient Hawaiian land section of Haʻikū, which means “talk abruptly” or “sharp break” in the Hawaiian language.” Now I wonder if that’s related to the name of the poetic form. So many questions!

      1. You could browse from one topic to another to another all day, couldn’t you?? Great way to spend a rainy day without having to go to the library!

  7. That’s a lovely image and a lovely complement to his poem, Linda. The peace one finds in a quiet moment. Yet another poet whose writing I am only aware of after his passing. I did hear of it and am not surprised that you would dedicate a posting to him.

    1. Not all of our modern poets appeal to me, but Merwin (especially later Merwin) caught my interest from the first time I encountered him. I’ve been hanging on to these photos of dewy muhly for about three years, and finally the right time to use one came along. Spring’s often a dewy season here — if I would get myself out and about earlier, I’d get to see more of that dew light, too!

    1. I’m not surprised you appreciate Merwin, given his ties to the Buddhist tradition and his appreciation for a life grounded in its values. One odd thing I recently learned is that his home was in Haiku, Hawaii. It seems that Haiku was named for the ancient Hawaiian land section of Haʻikū, which means “talk abruptly” or “sharp break” in the Hawaiian language. I don’t think there’s any direct connection with the name for the poetic form, but a haiku poem certainly could be understood as a particular form of “abrupt talk”!

  8. I have a friend who teases me about my sighing when I see a Gulf muhly. Such a gorgeous plant, and your photo confirms the sigh-ablity of it. Thank you for this remembrance of Merwin–his writing and his palms. He would appreciate that you could, “pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us.”

    1. Gulf muhly evokes the same sort of response from me. I don’t know what it is about that plant — the combination of color and airiness is wonderful. Every time I see it, I have to stop and look. Merwin would appreciate that. So would Mary Oliver, who gave some good advice in her poem “Sometime.”

      Instructions for living a life:
      Pay attention.
      Be astonished.
      Tell about it.

  9. A beautiful poem, Linda. One that resonates with me. As the world speeds up, seemingly at the speed of life, it is all the more important to slow down. And I love the shot of dew. Magical. It’s hard to imagine that the world’s most beautiful jewelry could match it. –Curt

    1. I agree completely. The pretty flicker of sunlight on a dewdrop or raindrop is something special. It’s very much a “now you see it, now you don’t” sort of experience, but those glimpses can make up for a lot. I’ve not read enough about Merwin to know this for certain, but reading his poems, it seems to me that he learned a lot about slowing down: no doubt in part because of his connection to his palms, and the rhythms of nature.

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