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” by W.S. Merwin from The Moon Before Morning. © Copper Canyon Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It's the birthday of American writer Truman Capote (books by this author), born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans, Louisiana (1924). Capote is best known for his tart novella Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) and the nonfiction book In Cold Blood (1966), which is largely responsible for inventing the genre of true crime writing.
Today is the birthday of American poet, essayist, and translator W.S. Merwin (books by this author) (1927), best known for his spare poems about nature and the meaning of life. He once said, “I think a poem begins out of what you don’t know, and you begin not by having a good idea but by hearing something in the language.”
When he was a junior at Princeton University, he decided he would be nothing but a poet for the rest of his life, and would never get a job that didn’t have something to do with poetry. So when he graduated, he went to Europe, where he worked as a babysitter for writer Robert Graves in Majorca and wrote poems feverishly in his spare time. He said, “I wanted to be in the world, to meet people and go places and try to write, and learn from languages.” When he was 24, his first book, A Mask for Janus (1952), won the Yale Younger Poets Award, a major prize that launched his career.
During the 1960s, he was an ardent anti-war activist, and when he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Carrier of Ladders (1970), he refused the award, lambasting the Vietnam War in an open letter to the New York Review of Books. He wrote that he felt “too conscious of being an American to accept public congratulation with good grace. Or to welcome it except as an occasion for expressing openly a shame which many Americans feel, day after day, helplessly and in silence.” He asked that that the money go instead to a painter who was blinded by police in California while watching a protest.
W.S. Merwin’s books include The Lice (1967), Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (1973), The Compass Flower (1977), Finding the Islands (1982), Opening the Hand (1983), and The Rain in the Trees (1988).
In 1976, he moved to Hawaii and bought 20 acres of land by a dormant volcano. The land had previously been an ill-run pineapple plantation and Merwin and his wife set about turning it into a palm forest, hacking down dead growth with machetes and planting palms one by one. There are now more than 700 species of trees and plants, along with geckos and mynah birds. He doesn’t use a cell phone or email and still writes every morning in longhand.
Merwin moved to Hawaii to study with a Buddhist master and to live a more ecologically aware life. He says: “The connection between poetry and the natural world seems to me to be a given. I think that’s where poetry comes from, and any attempt to make a separation is unnatural and is going to be temporary.” He still plants a tree every day during the rainy season and is still a pacifist.
W.S. Merwin won his second Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for The Shadow of Sirius. When asked how he knows a poem is done, he answered, “When a poem is really finished, you can’t change anything. You can’t move words around. You can’t say, ‘In other words, you mean.’ No, that’s not it. There are no other words in which you mean it. This is it.”
Today is the birthday of Elie Wiesel (books by this author), the Romanian-American writer and Holocaust survivor most well known for his memoir Night. Wiesel was sent to Auschwitz with his family when he was 15, where his mother and sister were murdered. He and his father were then sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and his father died before the Allies liberated the camp in 1945. After he was freed, Wiesel was sent to France to live in a rehabilitation center for child refugees and went on to study literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne.
Wiesel wrote the first version of Night in Yiddish under the title “And the World Stayed Silent” while working as a journalist in Brazil. Later he met the French writer François Mauriac, who convinced him to write a shorter version of the book in French. A lot of publishers rejected Night at first; the only really successful book about the Holocaust that had come out so far was The Diary of Anne Frank, which didn’t show the horror of the camps. (Wiesel once said, “Where Anne Frank’s book ends, mine begins.”) Scribner’s rejected the book because they thought it was too much of a historical account and not enough of a work of art.
Night was published in 1958 but, despite good reviews, had bad sales until 20 years later. It was one of the first books to raise the question of the goodness of a God who could allow the Holocaust. (Wiesel lost his Jewish faith during his time in the camps.)
Night broke the silence around the Holocaust and made it easier for other survivors to tell their stories.
Wiesel’s writing comes off as stark and artistically modest; he avoids editorializing or using the Holocaust to express some other idea. Wiesel has repeatedly used the word “witness” to describe himself, and he views his work in a much more limited way than most artists. In an introduction to a new translation of Night, he wrote: “I must confess that I do not know, or no longer know, what I wanted to achieve with my words. I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer — or my life, period — would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.”
Wiesel preferred teaching to writing, and taught in the philosophy and religion departments at Boston University. He was also the chairman of the council that created the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Wiesel died in 2016 at the age of 87 and is remembered for his urgent call to pay attention to victims of oppression. He wrote: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”