W.S. Merwin to Receive 2010 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement
GAMBIER, Ohio — The Kenyon Review has selected poet W.S. Merwin, the freshly minted poet laureate of the United States, as the winner of the 2010 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement.
Merwin will accept the Kenyon Review award at a gala benefit dinner in New York City on Nov. 4 and will visit Kenyon College on Nov. 6 to deliver the keynote address at the fourth annual Kenyon Review Literary Festival.
Merwin received a Kenyon Review Fellowship in 1954 when the journal’s founding editor, John Crowe Ransom, identified him as a young poet of exceptional promise and manifest talent, said David Lynn, Kenyon Review editor and Kenyon professor of English. Merwin has often credited the fellowship with sustaining and encouraging him during the early stages of his career.
“Nearly six decades later Merwin remains exceptional: his work offers extraordinary grace, elegance, simplicity. Its deep wisdom resonates in spare, crystal-pure tones,” Lynn said. “I believe it is only just and fitting that he be honored with the 2010 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement in the same year that he is honored as Poet Laureate of the United States.”
Merwin is the nation’s 17th poet laureate. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said, “William Merwin’s poems are often profound and, at the same time, accessible to a vast audience.”
Merwin has written more than 30 books of poetry and prose, including The Carrier of Ladders, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1971, and The Shadow of Sirius, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2009. A retrospective collection, Migration: New and Selected Poems, won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2005. The New York Times has called Merwin “an undisputed master.” He has cultivated an interest in Zen Buddhism and ecology as he has cultivated endangered species of indigenous plants at his home, a former pineapple plantation in Maui, Hawaii.
The Fall 2010 issue of The Kenyon Review will include four new Merwin poems and a personal essay by him on his work developing the palm forest surrounding his home.
The Kenyon Review prize honors careers of extraordinary achievement, recognizing writers whose influence and importance have shaped the American literary landscape. Merwin joins a list of literary luminaries in receiving the award. Previous winners include, in reverse order, Louise Erdrich, Richard Ford, Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Roger Angell and Umberto Eco, Seamus Heaney, Joyce Carol Oates, and E.L. Doctorow, a 1952 Kenyon alumnus.
The literary festival is a four-day celebration of literature, featuring readings, workshops, and a book sale. The festival is preceded by a community-wide reading and discussion program built around one of the author’s works.
Join Us in The Shadow of Sirius
Join us at the Kenyon Review Blog in October for an online book discussion of W.S. Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
A Season for Young Writers
Every summer, over a hundred high-school age writers come to Gambier for KR’s Young Writers program, where they participate in an intensive two-week series of workshops designed to help them become better, more productive writers and more insightful thinkers. For more than eighteen years, Young Writers has provided a lively, supportive environment where these students can stretch their talents, discover new strengths, and challenge themselves in the company of peers who share their interests. This year, we’ve asked Young Writers Fellow Miriam Ellen Walden, a teacher at the Ramaz School in New York City, to chronicle her experience observing the first session of the Young Writers Workshop.
It is always a pleasure to return to Kenyon, but summer in Gambier is truly special. As a fellow at the Kenyon Young Writers program, I was tearing myself away from an already busy summer in New York as I prepared for my wedding, but part of me couldn’t wait to get on the plane to Ohio. I am in the homestretch of my MFA at the City College of New York, so spending two weeks writing was exactly what I needed to be doing. The evening I arrived, I made a beeline for the bookstore and bought a new notebook. Clouds piled high on the horizon and I bemusedly looked on as ninety Kenyon Review Young Writers students discovered my alma mater for the first time. When everyone was fed and safely in their dorms, the sky opened with a true Ohio summer storm. With the steady sounds of rain outside our windows, I shared the first of many evenings with the lively instructors. It was wonderful to be in the company of accomplished writers who nonetheless made themselves vulnerable as they wrote alongside their students during workshop. I immediately sensed that writing was a process in which everyone took part.
Sitting alone and writing is a generally painful act, as I experience it. However, spending several hours a day generating words in a group of people is an altogether different story. I was very fortunate to be Liz Forman’s fellow. She is a warm, supportive instructor, and she ran the class with a great sense of adventure. We had thirteen students, and immediately got down to the business of writing. Through free writes, prompts of all kinds, and genre sessions, the ink began to fill the pages of my notebook. What I wrote surprised me, and much of the accompanying terror of putting words on a page began to fade. It seems so simple: just sit and write. Don’t think too hard about it. You’ll go back and discover what you’ve done. Yet for me, letting go enough to just generate words has always been the most difficult part of this whole writing business, until this workshop.
The secret of the Kenyon Review Young Writers program is to write in a beautiful room, in a beautiful place, surrounded by others who are also writing. Although I have written in many workshops, in high school, as a Kenyon English major, through my MFA program, and on writing retreats, I have never been given such a gift as the Kenyon Review Young Writers workshop. It is a gift with two hearts: an excellent curriculum and the simple fact of time. These two weeks were, without question, the most productive of my life. I filled my notebook in longhand, remembering what ink and paper feel like. I now have close to thirty poems or beginnings of stories and ten days of free writes that, had I been home worrying over wedding seating charts and menu options, would never have made it to the page. The act of writing was a collaborative process. Our goal was to begin again and again, and then to discover the hearts of those raw beginnings. Many of my pieces began as a phrase or question written on an index card by a seventeen-year-old. We often wrote in relation to or in response to a rich collection of poems and stories from The Kenyon Review, called Readings for Writers. W. H. Auden, Annie Dillard, Daniel Mark Epstein, Abby Frucht, James Harms, Alice Hoffman, Konstantinos Kavaphes, Colleen Kinder, Flannery O’Connor, Virgil Suárez, Dylan Thomas, Patrick Tobin, Lori White and Baron Wormser all joined us in the room. As much as my own writing was benefiting from the program, it was especially wonderful to conference with students and to be a model for them. I learned that we were all taking real risks and opening ourselves up to the process.
Writing and sharing our work during workshop instantly created community, and to enrich this bond, there were also more formal readings. During the first week, we enjoyed evening readings by P. F. Kluge, Geeta Kothari, and Kazim Ali. In the second week, for four consecutive nights, everyone in the program shared a piece of writing generated during the program—from participants, to instructors, to residential advisors, to the program’s directors. Because we’d shared with our workshops every day, the expectation that pieces had to be complete and revised before showing it to anyone had disappeared. The formal reading was an opportunity to raise the stakes, yet still maintain that feeling of newness. How rare to hear over a hundred pieces in such a short time. People had written incredible work, and reading it was a celebration of all the effort we had collectively expended. Fittingly, as the last poems and stories were shared, storm clouds darkened the sky, and a cool breeze moved across Middle Path.
After the final night of readings, I dashed through heavy rain to join my colleagues at our usual haunt, The Village Inn. About forty minutes into our evening, the door opened and my jaw dropped. My fiancé Philip, who was supposedly in New York, walked across the room and dropped to one knee, in the middle of the Gambier restaurant where we’d first held hands. He’d spent thirteen hours on a Greyhound bus to surprise me and propose properly, since we’d never had one of those tell-your-children-about-this moments. I have to hand it to him; I couldn’t have written it any better myself. Liz Forman sighed and clasped her hands. Outside, the rain had stopped, and steam rose off of the pavement.
On the way home to New York, I had to empty fifteen pounds of new weight from my checked luggage into my carry-on bag. I’m a sucker for the Kenyon College Bookstore, but some small percentage of that extra weight was from my notebook. That’s the kind of weight even a bride doesn’t mind gaining.
Ain’t That America
July 4th, 2010 —
Today marks the 155th anniversary of the publication of Leaves of Grass. The 36-year-old Whitman had hoped to write a “new American Bible,” a work that you, the reader, might pore through “in the open air every season of every year of your life.” Reviewing a later edition, the New York Tribune attacked “the slop-bucket of Walt Whitman,” concluding that “the gross materialism of his verses represents art in its last degradation.” Ezra Pound, in a piece originally titled “What I Feel About Walt Whitman,” wrote, “He is America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America. He is the hollow place in the rock that echoes with his time. He does ‘chant the the crucial stage’ and he is the ‘voice triumphant.’ He is disgusting. He is an exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplishes his mission.”
In a wonderfully strange episode of Theme Time Radio Hour, Bob Dylan recited Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing”:
(To read Langston Hughes’ response to Whitman, click here. The history of poetry is the history of an extended conversation.)
But why not listen to some actual Whitman? Alas, there isn’t much: the poet who described himself as “garrulous to the very last” left us only 36 seconds of his voice, recorded on a wax cylinder. Here are the first four lines of his six-line poem, “America”:
(Does the poem make you want to run out and buy a pair of jeans? Then click here—and insert an “art in its last degradation” joke at your Levi’s-sporting leisure.)
But to imagine Whitman as a jeans-wearing, flag-waving, Pop-Tarts-eating patriot is to get him wrong in ways that extend beyond the anachronism. In Democratic Vistas, an 1871 prose work, he writes,
I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believed in (for all this glow, and these melodramatic screamings), nor is humanity itself believed in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? . . . . It is as if we were somehow being endowed with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.
The poetry conversation extends from Whitman to Allen Ginsberg, who asks, a century after the first publication of Leaves of Grass, “America when will you be angelic? / When will you take off your clothes? / When will you look at yourself through the grave?“
The Kenyon Review To Participate in the 2010 Lit Mag Adoption Program for Creative Writing Students
Following the success of the 2009 program, The Kenyon Review will again participate in the CLMP Lit Mag Adoption Program in the Fall of 2010. Information on how classes can order discounted copies is included in the language below from CLMP, the organizing institution for the initiative. Last year, KR was adopted by classes from five schools: the College of Santa Fe, Denison University, Rutgers-Newark, the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and William Patterson University. From the CLMP site:
Most poetry, short fiction, and creative non-fiction by emerging writers first finds its way into print through literary magazines, yet few student writers actively engage with the spectrum of magazines published today. By integrating literary magazines into course curricula and providing opportunities for one-on-one interaction between literary magazine publishers and creative writing students (a key component of the program), the Lit Mag Adoption Program promotes a generation of new writers that are also active readers and productive members of the larger literary community.
The Lit Mag Adoption Program for Creative Writing Students allows undergraduate and graduate creative writing professors to include literary magazines in their Fall 2010 courses. Students receive half-price, 1-year subscriptions for selected literary magazines (professors receive a free “desk-copy” subscription). Each participating class will receive at least two issues of the magazine during the semester. In addition, classes will have direct interaction with the magazine publisher/editor through a virtual (or in-person where local) “One-on-One” chat session.
KR Writers Workshop: A Participant’s Perspective
Writing is a tough business—and I’m not talking about the “business” of writing—I’m talking about the sitting-down-in-the-chair-and-writing part. Why do writers keep writing when it is so easy to let go and to give up? Perhaps we wish to communicate an idea with the world; maybe writing is a burning desire that we don’t quite understand; or we read a lot of stuff and think hey, I can do that. Or, dear reader, perhaps, as KR Associate Editor Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky said in his inspiring opening comments at this year’s Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, we writers want to find immortality. Because stories and poems outlive bodies, they can serve as time machines—transporting readers backwards and forwards through decades and geographies. Writing truly is the most powerful act of which humans are capable.
Whatever the reason writers choose to write, it’s sometimes hard to help family and friends understand why heading to Ohio in the middle of hot June to sleep in college dorms, eat cafeteria food (and a few deliciously-catered meals), and be punished with daily writing assignments is something we actually look forward to all year. Back in March I was talking with my writer-friend about our now 5-years-in-a-row trips to be roomies in the student-dorms at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop on the campus of Kenyon College. It’d been a tough economic year for both of us, and we each wondered about the expense of the workshop as well as the guilt at leaving our families for a period of time to set off for the greenery of Gambier, Ohio and its fireflies and Kokosing river.
My friend and I met at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and in the intervening years we have not only become close friends, but we’ve both explored new genres, have had success with small publications, and have each been quietly plugging away at this writing thing. Still—we called one another to perhaps get permission for the special expense from someone who understands what it is we do. It didn’t take either of us long to convince ourselves of the important investment we make in our writing lives when we choose to attend the summer writing workshops in Ohio. In order to develop new work that we each might build upon over the coming year, we sojourn here each June to write, unobstructed, for 8 days.
The beauty of the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop—and what keeps many alumni returning and numerous emerging writers coming year after year—is the expertise of the instructors, and the community that is developed with like-minded writing peers. There are no egos here in the summers; everyone shows up to write, and as promised, by the end of the week, each writer is exhausted. As a regular, I’ve traveled from California the past several summers and have taken Rebecca McClanahan’s nonfiction workshop, poetry with David Baker as well as Rosanna Warren, and fiction with Brad Kessler and Nancy Zafris. What I admire about all of these instructors is the individual time and attention they give to each writer, not just in the workshop classroom, but during individual conferences, at readings, and over coffee or cocktails. I’ve never before been given the close readings that I’ve received from instructors at the KR Writers Workshop. Line editing, career and education advice, publishing suggestions—and an incredible amount of genuine support and encouragement for this thing we all do: write.
This year’s crop of Peter Taylor Fellows, alumni, and emerging writers was one of the most talented groups I’ve encountered at Kenyon. Occasionally, at our evening participant readings, we all would sigh or gasp at a resonant moment in someone’s work—you’d hardly know the piece had been written less than 48 hours ago in response to a prompt. Three of my favorite readings this year included work by Alva Greenberg, Alexa Kontes, and Bonnie Levinson. I first met my friend, Alva Greenberg, at the KR workshops in Rebecca McClanahan’s class several years ago. Alva’s prose response to instructor Chris Tilghman’s prompt to repeat a reoccurring word or image throughout a prose piece was a wonderful meditation on the color aqua. My own workshop mate, Alexa Kontes, wowed the crowd with her tragic short fiction from Nancy Zafris’ class about a woman with glass eyes. Bonnie Levinson, a writer I met for the first time this year, offered a humorous and tender nonfiction performance about an interview she completed with Mark Rothko when she was still in high school; it was one of the highlights of the participants reading series. There were many others that were equally memorable, and this high-caliber writing encouraged everyone to take risks with their work.
An additional inspiration was the sight of well-published writers in the workshops plugging away alongside emerging writers. The fiction editor of The Kenyon Review, Geeta Kothari, an accomplished writer and editor, gave an excellent craft talk on fiction and also attended as a participant in Ron Carlson’s workshop. When I asked her why, she said, “Because he’s brilliant, and I want to learn.” This is a common response; as writers, there’s no end-all to learning how to do what we do. Daily I find that lessons learned in poetry workshops have helped me hone some aspect of my nonfiction writing; and in turn, the structural craft I’ve learned from fiction workshops has helped me to develop more integrity in my poems. Perhaps this is why a single summer with the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop is hardly ever enough—whether participants return each June, or whether participants take a break and come back every few years, the writing is enriched by the community of writers, the expertise of instructors, and that special magic to be found in the green grasses and starlit fireflies of Gambier, Ohio.
K.E. Ogden was a Kenyon Review Peter Taylor Fellow in poetry in 2007 and a poet laureate of Gambier, Ohio in 2008. Her poems, essays, and stories have been published in Louisiana Literature, Phoebe, BAP Quarterly, Avatar Review, Teaching Tolerance, Quiet Mountain and elsewhere. She is an alumni of the Teach for America program and works with the California Poets in the Schools in Los Angeles, CA. Find her on the web at eatthepaper.com.
He [Azazil] was told: Bow down! He said, “I will bow to no other.” He was asked, Even if you receive My curse? He said, “It does not matter. I have no way to an other-than-You. I am an abject lover. . . . There can be no distance for me. Nearness and distance are one. . . . A servant of pure heart will bow to no other than You.”
— Mansur al-Hallaj, The TaSin of Before-Time and Ambiguity
1. Al-Qaria (The Catastrophe)
In the beginning, I was a word in his mouth. I slept under his soft, wet tongue. I came out wet, like a human baby, but I was smokeless fire, and I burned his saliva caul away. When the magma slowed and the earth cooled down and mist rose white off the black stopped magma, he pointed and said, That was what you looked like. Only what’s black there was blaze.
I remember he took me riding in the whirlwind once. I was the only angel invited inside it. Its cockpit was a noiseless sphere, see-through. We went around inspecting the underbellies of black holes for signs of light. He said, Here, Azazil, you can steer.
I had my arms crossed over my chest. My knees touched my elbows. I was scared to touch the walls circling me.
Be me, Azazil, and will it left.
The whirlwind banked. I was, like all the angels back then, him.
But I was different from the other angels, though I did not know it yet. Closer.
Jibril asked me, eyeing my wind-mad hair, “What does that mean, ‘Be Me’? We can’t be Him. To say we and He are the same . . . that’s blasphemous.”
The others nodded to either side of him. He was their leader. And that was only right. He was, after all, one of them.
“We don’t will as Him, Azazil. He wills for us. We must have misheard.”
These were distinctions. I did not understand distinctions, in those days. I wasn’t far enough away to see him whole and look down and see me whole and think, those are two different things. Unlike Jibril, I really believed what we recited.
Say: Allah is One. . . .
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In 1953, a small group of poems by W.S. Merwin appeared in KR’s autumn issue. Impressed by this early work, KR founding editor John Crowe Ransom awarded a Kenyon Review Fellowship to Merwin a year later. Merwin has often credited this fellowship with sustaining and encouraging him during the early stages of his career. Join us in celebrating this long-standing relationship between KR and W.S. Merwin, recipient of the 2010 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement and 17th Poet Laureate of the United States.
Autumn 1953, Vol. XV, No. 4.
I believe at dark solstice in the white moon sailing new,
And in my love, and in her hand, though the green shoot
And in the twice-joining sea between us, and I believe
I lay long with the cold dead, although the word was summer,
The violent dead, and now
When the sun hangs in the low branches
Bleeding, and phoenix-like the white-feathered
Childish sibyl sings in the leaves of the dead year,
And northerly on another island
She smiles into the swirling mist, her trees
Half-sleeved in white, I believe
Resurrection stirs like the robin
Through the waters of the dead, and the buried blood,
Through the rain of two islands
To float like a lotus into the waking year
And stand wide-eyed like a lamb; I believe the dead
Mirrors of the sea shine soft with her new image always.
She is clear amber and the heaven’s face
Seen under simple waters: there below
The lights, the vessels, the shore, the drift-shells stroking
The whipped weeds of the tide-race,
Under the fish flying and the laughter of her dolphins,
First cold, final echoes, and the salt dead, she is marine
And always the child among horses
At autumn by the dove-keep,
And the woman in tears in the green
Drowned wood in no time by the lost house on the slow
River, and always she is ancient as the sea’s daughters,
As the green beginning; always the rites of her tides keen
Tender in my ears, her birds call me fair, her twining hands
Run gentle to my hands for honey, her lips bid me love
Her limbs in coral and the bursts of her dolphins
Always, the softness of her sea-changes
And the pride of her horses.
And there where the spume flies and the mews echoed and
The bowing drowned, because in her hands love and the one
Leap and the long faith is born gladly, there through the waters
Of the dead, like the robin, singing, like the floating year,
The deep world in one island,
Streaming white from every dark-folded
Valley, till the green burgeons, and the long
Ghosts dripping leave the washed gold and the mounding joy,
The fruit swaying yellow, the shimmering birches
And the wise beaches lapped with the serpents and dead
Of the forgiving waters,
There, across green the gold light hanging,
The bees in the rosemary, the flashing pigeons,
Bud and harvest together,
The world in one island, because her hands are joy,
To no trumpet, all tongues singing the full silence,
Rises now and forever to gleam new as the white sea.