The current Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress, William Stanley Merwin, has been a major figure among American poets since W.H. Auden selected his book A Mask for Janus for the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1952; Merwin has twice received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, first in 1971 for The Carrier of Ladders and again in 2009 for The Shadow of Sirius. In 1962 he was the poetry editor of The Nation.
We spoke over the phone in late February, and after we’d made some small talk about the landscapes of Appalachia and Pennsylvania, Merwin’s voice took on the serious, expansive tone of the critic and journalist who reported on nonviolent resistance for this magazine several times in the early ’60s, covering the third Aldermaston march in Britain (see “Letter From Aldermaston,” May 7, 1960) and the trial of the crew of the
We spoke over the phone in late February, and after we’d made some small talk about the landscapes of Appalachia and Pennsylvania, Merwin’s voice took on the serious, expansive tone of the critic and journalist who reported on nonviolent resistance for this magazine several times in the early ’60s, covering the third Aldermaston march in Britain (see “Letter From Aldermaston,” May 7, 1960) and the trial of the crew of theEveryman (see “Act of Conscience,” December 29, 1962).
Merwin: Jordan, I remember that countryside you’re talking about [from Ohio through West Virginia and Maryland to Washington, DC]. I went through there in the late 1960s, because I wanted to write a long poem about Coxey’s Army, which was a protest march of unemployed workers that started in Massillon and ended in Washington in 1894. Coxey’s Army fascinated me, and it also fascinated David Wagoner, who actually wrote something about it. I never did, but I retraced the route and looked up everything I could, and there were fascinating things in western Pennsylvania, which is my father’s part of the world. There was a utopian community, Harmony, in western Pennsylvania. Coxey’s Army went south and across into Maryland and then into Washington, where things fizzled out. The march was better organized than the oratory; nobody listened, and so the march didn’t accomplish anything. But it was the first of that kind of protest in America. Its predecessor would have been the Chartists in England in the nineteenth century, who really were Luddites, people who didn’t want to be turned into mass producers. They wanted to do things one-on-one, to keep the old artisan world. There was a certain wisdom behind what they wanted, which was a world that other people had decided had to go because it wasn’t profitable enough. We know what replaced it—just look at the outskirts of Newark.
You wrote about the third march at Aldermaston, in 1960.
Well, that was different. Compared with the second march in 1959, the third march was vast. And the marvelous thing about that march, which was much better organized than Coxey’s, was that from Hammersmith on the outskirts of London into Trafalgar Square, for the last hour of arrival, it was done in complete silence.
Yes. By the time we got to Trafalgar Square the entire crowd was in tears. It nearly split the Labour Party, and it nearly accomplished what we wanted to do, to prevent nuclear weapons. Britain did drop its testing of nuclear weapons within a very short time. It’s hard to say that it was the march that brought that about, but it certainly had some influence; you had the feeling that this was a lot of pressure with a lot of feeling behind it, so it wasn’t going to go away. Ted Hughes didn’t want to be in the march but he certainly wanted to watch it, and he and Sylvia were both there when we came into Trafalgar Square.