W.S. Merwin this year won his second Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He has had an extraordinarily distinguished poetic career. In 1952, his first book of poetry was selected for the prestigious Yale Younger Poets series. He subsequently wrote much more poetry and translations and engaged in some political protests. He won his first Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1971. Through his influence and his longevity, he has played an enormous role in shaping the Yale Younger Poets series and late-twentieth-century American poetry.
Merwin read his poetry at the Folger Library on October 15, 1997. As an economist and a skeptic, I didn’t buy one of his books before the reading. Instead, I borrowed one from my local public library. I took this library book with me to Merwin’s reading so I could read some of Merwin’s poems on my metro ride there.
I enjoyed Merwin’s reading at the Folger. I decided that I liked his poetry. Remembering the thrill of discovering as a boy Ernest Hemingway’s signature in my local public library’s copy of The Sun Also Rises, I brought my library book up to Merwin to sign. When I presented my library book, he looked at me suspiciously and severely. He signed the book, and wrote on the bottom of the title page:
a dark shadow will follow anyone who steals this book from the library where it belongs
Yesterday, I checked my public library. Merwin’s poetry book is still there! In the nearly twelve years since I borrowed that book, it has been borrowed by about 1.2 persons per year, or a total of 14 borrowers. None of them stole the book from the library. Perhaps that’s just because most persons in most circumstances don’t steal. Maybe Merwin’s book curse scared away potential thieves. Or perhaps Merwin’s book wasn’t stolen because few persons are interested in it. I credit the book’s enduring presence in the library to the power of Merwin’s words.