W. S. Merwin Essay - Critical Essays

W. S. Merwin Poetry: American Poets Analysis

The achievement of W. S. Merwin is both impressive and distinctive. His body of work encompasses a wide range of literary genres and includes poetry, plays, translations, and prose. His development as a poet has spanned great literary distances, from the early formalism of A Mask for Janus to the spare, simple language and openness of the verse form he refined in The Lice. His poetry has often displayed a prosaic, almost conversational quality, as in “Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field,” from Opening the Hand.

Although Merwin himself has carefully avoided making in-depth comments or pronouncements about his poetry and has not engaged in the often fussy critical debate that has shadowed his career, his work continues to show evidence that the exploration of the power and enigmatic nature of language is one of his great concerns. His many remarkable translations have perhaps been a stimulating influence on his own innovations of poetic form. In moving away from the rather mannered style of his early verse with its reliance on myth, rhyme, and punctuation to a poetry of silence and absence, Merwin, according to Sandra McPherson, began “researching the erasures of the universe.”

Beginning with his first book of poetry, A Mask for Janus, Merwin has explored how language structures and creates experience. He has also been devoted to myth, or mythmaking, as a way of making sense of experience. While experimenting with language and myth, he has examined the possibilities of developing poetic forms suited to expressing what language can reveal about the mind and existence. In his search, Merwin has had rich resources to draw from, such as the other languages of his many translations and his firm grounding in earlier poetic traditions. His background led him first to master orthodox forms and later to move beyond them.

His devotion to poetry and his life as a wandering poet have given him a folk hero’s aura. Being of the generation that began writing in the 1940’s and 1950’s, he had his poetic roots in more classically influenced, technically controlled verse forms. His disaffection with the formal poetic styles of his predecessors was shared by other poets of his generation such as James Wright and Robert Bly. What he had to say required new ways of communicating, new vessels that would journey toward new realms of perception. By immersing himself in the literature of other cultures, both as a student of languages and as a translator, Merwin has been able to bring a sense of the archetypal source of all poetic expression to his work. His ability to look at a tree and describe the space between its leaves may be unique among contemporary poets. Merwin has referred to his poems as houses that he makes out of virtually anything and everything he can find. These houses made of words are places where the reader can enter and experience “the echo of everything that has ever/ been spoken.”

A Mask for Janus

Published in 1952, A Mask for Janus used myth and traditional prosodic forms to explore such themes as the birth-death cycle and the isolated self. In “Meng Tzu’s Song,” the speaker meditates on concerns of identity and solitude:

How can I know, now fortyYears have shuffled my shoulders,Whether my mind is steadyOr quakes as the wind stirs?

At first reading, this poem has the flavor of a translation. Ed Folsom, writing in W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry (1987), notes that while the verse in A Mask for Janus was seen by some critics as an example of traditional craftsmanship, it was also stiff at times, wordy, and overwrought. In recalling and using the structures and tonalities of a more formal poetry, however, Merwin was able to develop his mastery of those elements and earn his release from them.

The Dancing Bears

Merwin continued his use of myth and the narrative form in The Dancing Bears. In “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” Merwin uses the myth of Psyche and Cupid to explore the problem of identity. Through language that is often elegant and precisely shaped into neat thirteen-line stanzas, he offers clues to the enigma of inner and outer reality. In what may be read as a clarifying statement, Merwin reveals his belief that “all metaphor . . . is magic,” and “all magic is but metaphor.” Here, he employs his magic to explore the hidden realms of being.

The Drunk in the Furnace

The preoccupation with myth and a formal, poetic style followed in his next two works, Green with Beasts and The Drunk in the Furnace. However, there is also a strange new energy working as Merwin begins moving away from Greco-Roman myths and toward the creation of his own.

In “The Portland Going Out” (from The Drunk in the Furnace), the apparent randomness of the disaster that strikes a passing ship recalls to the poet the mystery of life and death and thus of existence itself. The Portland had passed close by the poet’s ship on its way out of the harbor to an ill-fated rendezvous with a storm, where it put “all of disaster between us: a gulf/ Beyond reckoning.” This glimpse into the abyss works ironically as a reaffirmation of life.

There are several other poems in this collection that revolve around images of the sea. Alice N. Benston, writing in Poets in Progress (1962), calls the sea the “perfect symbol for Merwin.” The duality inherent in the sea as both life-giver and symbol of nature’s indifference to humanity provides Merwin with a metaphor for the unknown.

The poems in The Drunk in the Furnace take some other new and significant directions. For example, several examine the poet’s youth and the family members who helped shape his early experiences. These poems are not reverential but sober, almost bitter reflections on his memories of “faded rooms,” his grandfather left alone to die in a nursing home, and his grandmother’s failure to see her worst sins as she reminisces about her life. The sarcastic tone of “Grandfather in the Old Men’s Home” seems directed at the society in which Merwin was brought up—a society that he would later reject.

The family poems in The Drunk in the Furnace and others such as “Home for Thanksgiving” and “A Letter from Gussie” in The Moving Target allowed Merwin to explore his past further before turning away to begin a new journey. It is as if these poems generate and voice his realization and declaration that he will no longer be bound by the expectations of the culture into which he was born. Nor will he recognize any longer the restraints of the poetic forms that served as his early models.

The Lice

The new style toward which Merwin was moving in The Moving Target emerges more fully realized in The Lice. Here he abandons narrative, adopts open forms, and eliminates punctuation:

The nights disappear like bruises but nothing is healedThe dead go away like bruisesThe blood vanishes into the poisoned farmlandsPain the horizonRemains

With The Lice, in effect, Merwin leaves the shore, lifts off the launching pad, and enters a new realm where the poem becomes the vessel for voyages toward “nameless stars.” While numerous critics have pointed to the overall negativism and pessimism of The Lice, hope is undeniably evident in the very act of poetic discovery, as Merwin sheds his skin and emerges as something born not only “to survive,” but indeed “to live.”

In The Lice lie keys to an understanding of the work that will follow. The stark, even dumbfounding silences in a poem such as “December Among the Vanished”—in which “the old snow gets up and moves taking its/ Birds with it”—attract Merwin away from a world that seems to be in the process of self-destruction and toward a new, strange sensibility. A new spareness, a new simplicity and immediacy inform these poems. Gone are the earlier elaborate, formal structures. According to Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson in their introduction to W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry, Merwin had begun to lose, at this stage, his faith in language and for a time was not even sure he could write words to articulate experience. In an interview with Edward Hirsch in 1987, Merwin explained how he came to distrust language, believing that experience cannot be articulated.


(The entire section is 3652 words.)