The Compass Flower

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

With the publication of this, his ninth separate volume of poetry since 1952, W. S. Merwin is close to becoming a man of letters: He has reached the watershed age of fifty; he has a considerable (and deserved) reputation as a translator of some dozen volumes; he has published miscellaneous prose and poetry in a wide variety of places; he has received awards and fellowships; he is a favorite author of The New Yorker; and most indicative perhaps, his poetry has begun to be collected (The First Four Books of Poems, 1975).

That Merwin himself recognizes the dangers of becoming institutionalized is perhaps indicated by the title of his present volume. The compass flower is a plant whose leaves, it is alleged, tend to align themselves so as to indicate the cardinal points of the compass. To reinforce this idea of directions, the volume itself is divided into four sections; each section is self-contained, but it would probably be a mistake to attempt to read the poems within any one section as any sort of official sequence. The title does not seem to be intended to refer to physical direction, but whether it is meant to imply new directions for the poet or simply the possibility of a variety of directions is not clear. It should be said at the outset that though there are a number of good things in this collection, there is not a great deal that is really new.

The poems of the first section spring from the experience of the lonely countryside, while the second presents common city scenes. The third section is more mixed, combining some poems of the countryside with a group of love poems. The final section ranges more widely, presenting poems drawn from life and travel in foreign lands.

But no matter what the subject or source, all the poems of the book are private. The outside world rarely intrudes, and there is an air of distance and remoteness. As one slight example, there is not a single place-name—real or imagined—in the whole book except in the poem “St. Vincent’s.” Again, there are few persons (and no names) mentioned except in the love poems and in some of the city and travel poems. These are only externals, of course, but they do indicate a quality that runs through Merwin’s work; most of the poems, though not internally vague or fuzzy, seem rather to float suspended in air.

If one common image of a modern poet is that of a man raging passionately against any or all of the evils which beset humankind and can be seen daily catalogued in the newspaper, in the manner of a Ginsberg or a Ferlinghetti, then Merwin is an uncommon modern poet in at least two respects: a deliberate avoidance of passion (though not necessarily intensity) and an almost inhuman unconcern with the outside world. Merwin is not of the school which mistakes emotion ripped raw from the soul for poetry. He does not deal with the big, the eventful, or the publicly important; he seeks rather what revelations and insights he can muster in the small, the private, and the isolated. Like Housman, he seems to have set himself limits beyond which he will not go, and he returns again and again to meditations on the varying combinations of his favorite images of mountain, stone, cloud, rain, the coming on of night, and certain slants of light. As a result, the dominant tone of this poetry is low-key, understated; there is a deliberate and conscious restraint and neutrality which inevitably brings with it a coldness. Merwin is not a master of a variety of poetic styles or subjects; he has chosen to speak mainly in a single voice, which often becomes a monotone. Emotion never overcomes syntax; images rarely surprise or startle, though they often creep insidiously into the reader’s consciousness by their polish and fitness.

In the polishing and fitting of simple word and image, Merwin reminds one not only of Housman but perhaps also of some of the more cultivated minor Latin poets. Merwin can describe apparently simple objects and scenes in apparently simple language and yet achieve a fixity and a definition not allowed to the more florid or stunning. When he describes a “bell rope moving like a breath” (“The Heart”), or “the dew brushed from the pine needles onto my fingers” (“The Wine”), or “the green wooden doors thrown away” on a mountainside (“The Arrival”), one has that feeling that comes with all good poetry, that the word is here exactly right, that it could be said no other way at that moment, that the word is inevitable. It is a deliberate part of Merwin’s poetic strategy that his poems are unplaced and floating, that his language is unadorned, that he strives for restraint and understatement. This allows him to see what he wishes more clearly; the inessentials are stripped away. The result is a sense of timelessness and hopeful permanence which Merwin clearly seeks.

But Merwin can do more than simply write a precise line or a restrained line. He can use those simple-appearing words and images to expand the thought and resonance of a passage, as in a poem on death (“The Snow”) in which he describes “the cataract forming on the green wheated hill/ ice on sundial and steps and calendar.” The leap from the physical to the conceptual at the word calendar is done so smoothly and so...

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The Compass Flower Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Book World. July 17, 1977, p. K4.

Hudson Review. XXX, Summer, 1977, p. 282.

Kliatt Paperback Book Guide. XI, Summer, 1977, p. 15.

Times Literary Supplement. July 29, 1977, p. 936.