The United States has a new Poet Laureate and his name is W.S. Merwin, the seventeenth person conferred this title by the Library of Congress. Previously he served in a related capacity as a Special Bicentennial Consultant, 1999-2000. A Pulitzer Prize winning poet, you may remember Merwin as one of the commentators in the recent PBS documentary, The Buddha.
My major assocaition for Merwin, however, is not with poetry but with a rather disgusting episode with a well-known “teacher” in the 1970’s.
Some may be familiar with the story involving Merwin, his girlfriend, poet Dana Naone, and that wild and crazy guru, Chogyam Trungpa; for those who are not, it took place in 1975 at the Naropa Institute, a Tibetan Buddhist university in Boulder, Colorado where Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, John Cage and Diane di Prima ran a poetry department. Here’s is the gist of the incident, as reported in the NY Times in 1995:
Naropa was presided over by a Tibetan guru, Chogyam Trungpa, a tireless drunk and womanizer. At a Halloween party while Ginsberg was away, Trungpa ordered everyone to undress. Merwin and Naone refused. Trungpa’s bodyguards tried to batter down the door to their room. “I was not going to go peacefully,” Merwin recalls. “I started hitting people with beer bottles. It was a very violent scene.” Trungpa’s bodyguards stripped them, and the two figures cowered together before the guru like a chastened Adam and Eve.
Another account, from Barry Miles’ Recalling Chögyam Trungpa, says that Trungpa and his group surrounded Merwin and Naone, removed their clothing, and the two “stood naked, holding each other, Dana sobbing.”
Apparently, Trungpa was miffed over what he perceived as an attitude of elitism on the part of Merwin and Naone, which I suppose if you are demented, and drunk, as Trungpa was by all accounts, justifies assaulting and abusing others. Poets Robert Bly and Kenneth Rexroth were outraged by the incident, with Rexroth calling Trungpa “an obscene fraud.”
Anyway, back to this Poet Laureate business: I can’t that that I have been enamored with some of appointees in recent years, but it’s largely ceremonial so who really cares? Merwin is a good choice and a good poet, but then I’m a sucker for anyone who doesn’t use punctuation. Past Poet Laureates include Robert Penn Warren, Louise Bogan, Conrad Aiken, William Carlos Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Louise Glück.
After his disastrous encounter with Trungpa, Merwin moved to Hawaii to study with the respected, and not so wild and crazy, Zen teacher Robert Aitken. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Merwin has spent the past 35 years in Hawaii practicing Buddhism and writing poetry, among other things I’m sure. Earlier this year he returned to his alma mater, Princeton University, where in an interview with the Princeton Packet, he described how he became interested in Buddhism:
My father’s faith made me uneasy, but I loved the King James Bible and its language rang in my head – Addison’s hymns, too. The older I got, the harder I tried to go along with Christianity, but I couldn’t. But I couldn’t let it alone, either, because it had awakened within me that dimension of existence — spirituality, a word I dislike — that embraces the unknown and recognizes that our roots are in the unknown.
I was very impatient and untrusting of doctrine and dogma. I had read Spinoza, and Spinoza led me on to reading mystics, Christian mystics, the Gnostics. I got to reading the Tao and other Eastern scriptures. One day I was reading the Diamond Sutra (a key Mahayana Buddhist text) and I came to the passage where the Buddha asks Subhuti whether the Buddha has any teachings to teach, and Subhuti answers, ‘No, because enlightenment comes not from teachings, but from what’s spontaneous and part of our inner nature,’ and the Buddha responds, ‘Thus there no Buddhas, there are no teachings.’ And it seemed that I’d found what I was looking for.