Web Essays

“There Is No Time in the Garden”

The Poetry of W. S. Merwin

By John Kaag | March 11, 2019
wibblefish/Flickr

My mother cleaned and gardened with a passion I often mistook for rage. After my father left, when I was four, she washed the windows of our three-bedroom house—and the floors, walls, and ceilings—by hand, twice. The following summer, she made for the garden, assisted by her two young sons. She used a long-handled spoon to weed the beds. Even at the time, I thought this was absurd, and employed an alternative faster method, throwing mulch over the weeds instead of spooning them out by their roots. My mother was impressed until she stripped away the mulch. Then she was “so very disappointed”—like I had desecrated some sacred space.

As she crested middle age, the gardens consumed my mother. Her five-foot frame withered in the scorching temperatures of July. She often forgot to eat lunch and went hours without a drink. The days disappeared. Her thin arms would turn red and blister with the eczema she had battled since her teenage years. She didn’t seem to care. When she turned 67, she afforded herself a gardening mat to kneel on as she carefully extracted the weeds that continued to emerge every season. It was an especially hot summer that year, and one day, after five hours in the garden, she came inside for a cold shower. When she stepped out of the bathtub, she passed out. When she came to—with a detached retina, broken teeth, shattered jaw—she somehow drove herself to the hospital, and after she healed, went back to the garden.

This was, I thought, sheer madness. But then, in 2016, I read a collection of poems that helped me understand the madness, helped me understand my mother: W. S. Merwin’s Garden Time. I was, and remain, profoundly grateful. Her passion for gardening is obviously no longer fueled by rage, if it ever was. The task was always, I now think, to work in the face of inevitable destruction, to live through loss as best she could. After reading these poems, I think my mother’s behavior was at worst ironic—that what she hoped to perfect was the simple act of “husbandry,” of cultivating other living things, of tending to a fragile piece of ground. This after her own husband was so very long gone.

In the fall of last year, I decided to reach out to Merwin, an avid gardener who lives in the lush wilds of Hawaii, to try to thank him. This was harder than I anticipated. He is 91, his phone doesn’t always work and macular degeneration has taken his eyes. On some days, he is so tired that he might feel as though he is on the brink of disappearing in the expansive garden he has spent his life cultivating.

The conversation was short. I didn’t want to impose on his time. I got to say “thank you.” And he said something—over and over again—that remains with me. It has clarified, still further, the timeless appeal of my mother’s garden.

“You have to understand, John: The time of wisdom cannot be measured, and, for me, wisdom is the garden. There is no time in the garden. There is no time in the garden. There is …” He halted, coughed, and let it out, “… no time in the garden.”

The phrase cut in four directions, maybe more. I am still thinking. The garden predates and outlasts us—a primordial, everlasting region, teeming with life that usually escapes our notice. The garden grows and lies fallow with little heed to the timeline of humans and their ambitions. The garden flourishes and declines in the ever-present “now,” an ageless pivot that is always open to be explored. The garden, its fragile and ephemeral beauty, is a constant reminder that nothing lasts forever, a sign of how very little time we ourselves have left.

Merwin is arguably our greatest living poet. What comprises such a life? A National Book Award; two Pulitzer Prizes; appointments as the U.S. Poet Laureate and Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress; the Tanning Prize from the American Academy of Poets; or the $100,000 Lilly Prize. Merwin’s 70 years of writing poetry concluded with Garden Time, published in 2016. But his love for gardening suggests that life is made up of something far greater than achievement, but also far simpler: to save something precious, and to do it in no time.


Merwin was born in New York City, the world’s primary locus of consumption, a place wholly inhospitable to saving much of anything. His early life was punctuated by frequent relocations: to Princeton, to Majorca, to Paris, to London, and then back to New York. Something akin to the journey that consumes Voltaire’s Candide—an insatiable quest in search of what life has to offer. Merwin’s early poetry is defined by this pursuit, but also, already, by the sense that it might be largely futile; his “Odysseus,” in The Drunk in the Furnace (1960) is already very tired. “Always the setting forth was the same / Same sea, same dangers waiting for him / As though he had got nowhere but older.”

By 1967, and publication of The Lice, hope meant for Merwin a sense of the past. The Vietnam War had begun and destroyed the veneer of optimism and prosperity that had defined the 1950s in America. When Merwin, still in his 20s, was at Princeton or in Europe studying classical languages, death and destruction seemed to be something epic, something to be viewed at a comfortable remove, but as the war ground on, death came home. As it does in “The Hydra”:

I was young and the dead were in other
Ages
As the grass had its own language
 
Now I forget where the difference falls
 
One thing about the living sometimes a piece of us
Can stop dying for a moment
But you the dead
 
Once you go into those names you go on you never
Hesitate
You go on

When Panglossian optimism runs aground, Voltaire suggests there may be only one option: you can, in Candide’s parting words, “go cultivate your garden.” In other words, return to husbandry. That is what Merwin did.

“I go five steps in the garden,” Merwin said to me in our interview, “and I immediately lose track of time … it is a kind of joy in being alive in being in the world. I always found that in the garden. That is what it means to me.” The garden is an uncanny place, far from the world of watches, schedules, and punching the clock. But some gardens are more distant than others. Merwin’s garden is 18 acres of palm forest in Maui’s Pe‘ahi watershed. It wasn’t always palm forest. When Merwin bought the first three acres of the property in 1977, the land was zoned—or condemned—to be used in sugar and pineapple production. He and his wife, Paula, commuted this sentence, and over the next four decades, planted more than 3,000 palms, transforming the space into a conservancy.

Conserve: literally to hold together for as long as possible. It reflects a deep desire to save, to savor, to remember, but also, implicitly, to mourn in advance. Merwin opens Garden Time with “Morning,” a Janus-faced homophone:

Would I love it this way if it could last …
would I love it this way if I were somewhere else
or if I were younger for the first time
or if these very birds were not singing
or I could not hear them or see their trees
would I love it this way if I were in pain
red torment of body or gray void of grief
would I love it this way if I knew
that I would remember anything that is
here now anything anything

Merwin’s spare unpunctuated words, loosely tethered to life’s subtle rhythms, are not explicative—they don’t explain the transience of the moment or lost love or the challenge of remembrance. They are demonstrative. As a philosopher, intent on explanations and argumentation, I usually find this distinction elusive, so I asked Merwin: “Could you explain the relationship between writing poetry and gardening?”

“No, not really,” he said. “It is because they are both things that cannot be measured. I forget what time it is almost immediately in each case. This has always been true. The time of wisdom cannot be measured.”

I’ve been rebuffed like this before, by a 19th-century genius-cum-sage who planted a garden, a bean field really, on the shores of Walden Pond. I said as much to Merwin.

“Yes, Thoreau has always been one of my favorites, too,” he responded.

Thoreau was, himself, never a husband, but was obsessed with husbandry. He doesn’t explain exactly what is entailed, but rather extends an invitation: forget about the bustle of your work schedule, the odd monotony of your free time, and come join me in the garden. Let me show you. It is possible. Stop “making a living” and just live. In “The Beanfield” from Walden, Thoreau writes, “Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is [today] pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely.” The farmer tends the garden, but only to extract a harvest; the farmer, in Thoreau’s words, “knows Nature but as a robber.” Merwin and Thoreau are not robbers. “On the last day of the world,” Merwin, once wrote, “I would want to plant a tree.” The Merwin Conservancy, like the state park at Walden, will outlive its stewards and outlive us all. Husbandry is rooted in the Norse word bua, meaning “to dwell.” That is what is required in being a husband—to dwell, to make a home, in the flow of existence.

I could feel our conversation coming to an end. I was babbling on about what Merwin’s poetry meant to me, to my mother, all the while fixated on a comment that was slow to dawn on me: “The time of wisdom cannot be measured.” In ancient Greece, there were two forms of time: kairos and chronos. Chronos is usually regarded as the “time of wisdom”—stretching out in an endless staircase with no beginning or end. It is our staircase for the time being, but also the staircase of the unborn. And the dead.

Garden Time is dedicated to Merwin’s wife, Paula. She was dying as he composed the poems. She was his eyes. She would read to him, organize his unfinished poems, walk with him through the garden to visit and care for the trees they had planted together. Garden Time is about losing one’s sight, about losing one’s grip on husbandry—and about how intensely one can see and love in the impending darkness. Now that she is gone, he is properly blind and no longer a husband, at least not in the typical sense of the word.

In Paula’s absence, Merwin has caretakers. “Now I don’t know what time it is either,” he admitted, “but in order to go anywhere, I need to have someone with me, so that changes things quite a lot.” Merwin can still write, but what he writes, he can no longer see. Unfinished, misplaced poems cover his study like so many leaves in an autumn garden. In my home of New England, autumn is sorrowful and fallow. But it is—I can only imagine—slightly different in Hawaii, where Merwin has lived through the twilight of his life. In Hawaii, it is not “fall’” but more of a respite, a chance to catch one’s breath if only for the moment. In “Autumn Equinox,” Merwin writes, “This is our time our season is now / the only time and you must wake and begin / to remember and to know who you are.”

The “time of wisdom” may, in fact, be chronos—eternal and permanent. But perhaps it is also kairos, what the Greeks regarded as the “right time,” a passing instant in which something can take place or be done. It is the moment when an archer can release to pierce a target. This is a special moment. But how special must kairos be to pierce a moving target? What sort of immeasurable care must this moment involve?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus