On Monday, the Harry Ransom Center hosted a reading by W.S. Merwin, one of the greatest American poets of our time. In addition to being a phenomenal poet, Merwin is also one of the kindest men you will ever meet. There is an anecdote about Merwin that I found to be quite poignant after my experience at the Ransom Center on the evening of his reading.
As told by Heather McHugh, another leading poet in American letters, there was an occasion years ago at a fancy restaurant in which a number of famous poets were meeting for dinner (including both Merwin and McHugh). After the group had been seated and had ordered, one of their fellow poets arrived a bit late and underdressed. The restaurant would not allow the man inside because he did not meet the dress code. Mr. Merwin graciously addressed his fellow poets, insisting that he was not pressuring them into any decision one way or another, but that he simply refused to eat at a restaurant that refused his friend service. So he stood up and walked out.
The Ransom Center purports to be in the service of art and artists, and I found it particularly unsettling that on the eve of Mr. Merwin’s reading, it played the part of the stuffy restaurant with a strict dress code. This semester, the Department of English, along with the Michener Center for Writers, are hosting two of the most important poets in the world today as visiting faculty: Mary Ruefle, author of about a dozen books of poems, the most recent of which won the William Carlos Williams Award; and Tomaz Salamun, arguably the most important European poet alive. I stood in the lobby of the Ransom Center and watched through the glass as both of these poets were denied entrance into the building because of capacity restrictions. I understand that an unprecedented number of people showed up for Merwin’s reading, and for that we should all be grateful. I also understand that the Ransom Center simply isn’t built to house the number of people who wanted a chance to see Merwin in person. But it seemed very strange that these two poets, who deserve every ounce of respect and honor that Merwin received, would not even be allowed into the building. If the Ransom Center is serious about supporting artists, extraordinary people like Ruefle and Salamun should not only be allowed into the building, but also given priority access to Merwin, be it with reserved seats or otherwise. I find it unfortunate that the Ransom Center’s only priority is given to its donors, as grateful as we are to them.
And as disturbing as the sight was for me, so much so that in the spirit of Merwin I walked out of the event myself, I can only imagine how appalled Merwin would be to know how his friends were treated on the night of his honor.