Merwin, W(illiam) S(tanley) (Vol. 1)
Merwin, W(illiam) S(tanley) 1927–
A major American poet, currently residing in France, Merwin writes uniquely seductive poetry, as well as short prose pieces. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)
W. S. Merwin has in his best work tried to envision what the … sense of empty fatality, of a continuous, all-eroding wash of impersonal reality, would mean. Quietly, very quietly, without argument, he has taken it up as the condition of existence. In his poems we close in on panic so gently and unexpectedly, out of an almost dazed calm, that we hardly realize we are there and have been there all the time.
M. L. Rosenthal, in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (© 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1960, p. 261.
What [Merwin] has lacked up to now, and still lacks, is intensity, some vital ingress into the event of the poem which would cause him to lose his way among the intricacies of what is so easy for him to say concerning almost anything on earth and suffer a little at the hands of his subjects: in a word, earn them emotionally….
It seems to me … that Merwin has never given enough of himself to his subjects: of the self that somehow lies beyond the writing self. He has always seemed so sure, so utterly sure of what he knew and could tell about them that the strokes out of Heaven, or out of the subjects themselves, have never quite managed to hit him between the eyes….
After a prodigal beginning Merwin may now seem to be stalled. But it is my impression that he is gathering force. The title poem [in The Drunk in the Furnace] and "One-Eye" avail themselves of an odd kind of roughed-up, clunking diction and meter that I found quite attractive, and which involved me in their poems more than in any of Mr. Merwin's others that I have read. With tools like these and with the discoveries about himself that this book shows him intent on making, Merwin should soar like a phoenix out of the neat ashes of his early work.
James Dickey, "W. S. Merwin" (1961), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 142-43.
I remember being stunned by the extraordinary purity of diction and imagery in W. S. Merwin's 1963 collection, The Moving Target. I also remember being frustrated by its obscureness, by the fact that the images in the poems remained separate, that often there was no clue to the point of reference and, therefore, no way of making the poem cohere. In The Lice, the language is still stunningly pure, the images have a sharpness of line and color which brings to mind extra-poetic things (landscapes, and the arts of painting and music), and Mr. Merwin has, for the most part, removed the obstacles to understanding. Sometimes the referent is provided by the title, but there is also a greater openness in the overall approach, possibly because Mr. Merwin now has a firmer grip on his new style, new since The Drunk in the Furnace.
Lisel Mueller, in Shenandoah, Spring, 1968, p. 68.
If there is any book today that has perfectly captured the peculiar spiritual agony of our time, the agony of a generation which knows itself to be the last, and has transformed that agony into great art, it is W. S. Merwin's The Lice. To read these poems is an act of self-purification. Every poem in the book pronounces a judgment against modern men—the gravest sentence the poetic imagination can conceive for man's withered and wasted conscience: our sweep of history adds up to one thing only, a moral vacuity that is absolute and irrevocable. This book is a testament of betrayals; we have betrayed all beings that had power to save us: the forest, the animals, the gods, the dead, the spirit in us, the words. Now, in our last moments alive, they return to haunt us.
Merwin powerfully dramatizes states of disorientation, spiritual vertigo. The speaker in the poems is lost in time, lost to himself. He exists in stark disrelation. The sensibility of the persona is desperately trying to catch up with experiences—of self and the world—that have long since passed him by. The possibility of an inner life of spirit continues, as before, but we are helpless to embrace it….
These poems speak to our sensibility from the corridors of sleep, and there are moments in the reading of them, or just after reading them, when we feel the odd wide-awakeness—the superalertness—that we experience when a deep sleep is suddenly interrupted by a very disturbing dream and we spring upright in bed with an absurd sense of relief, in the certainty that all of our questions have been answered, even the ones we never knew enough to ask. This poetry, at its best—and at our best as readers—is able to meet us and engage our wills as never before in the thresholds between waking and sleeping, past and future, self and anti-self, men and gods, the living and the dead….
The most remarkable poems in this book are the ones in which the speaker confronts a strange alien being—a god, an animal, a dead spirit. The persona is the last man: he embodies what is left of the spirit of natural life-giving beauty in man. He has long since written off the question of survival, of saving anything for the future, as hopeless….
Merwin, in this book, is a soul-surgeon performing radical operations on modern man's failing spirit. The patient is on the critical list and the prognosis is very poor. In the bleakest poems, the patient has already died. The poet performs a spiritual autopsy: the anatomical findings reveal that the corpse had died many times over before being declared officially dead….
[One of the difficulties encountered] in learning to read these poems is the peculiar distancing of the voice. It is as though the voice filters up to the reader like echoes from a very deep well, and yet it strikes his ear with a raw energy—a sustained inner urgency—that is rare even in poetry of the direct and explicit type…. The poems must be read very slowly, since most of their uncanny power is hidden in overtones that must be listened for in silences between lines, and still stranger silences within lines.
Laurence Lieberman, in Yale Review (© 1968 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1968, pp. 597-601.
Merwin's poetic line, his characteristic poetic line (a continuum through all the variations of individual poems) is elegiac, but taut: no punctuation, because punctuation is simply not needed; the syntax itself usually indicates breath intervals, while the intervals indicate emphasis. The result is at once easier and more subtle than tricks with typography. White space is used, and used well, to frame words where they should be framed—but the instrument is still (as it should be) the voice….
Stanley Cooperman, in Prairie Schooner (© 1968 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1968, p. 270.
Reading through [Merwin's] books consecutively, I noticed that while certain themes recurred, Merwin's methods varied enormously. He was not a man to repeat himself. From the beginning, his work has been a poetry of flux or of process. Recognizing the immanence of death, he has realized that the only thing that endures is change itself, and his poems are an examination of that paradox. In the first two books, A Mask for Janus and The Dancing Bears …, Merwin approached this theme indirectly, through the European literary heritage, consciously trying to express himself in the traditional forms, the roundel, the sestina, and the ballad. At this point he did not attempt the poem of explicit personal experience….
[The] next two books, Green with Beasts … and The Drunk in the Furnace …, represent an effort to come to terms with the reality of natural history and of personal biography….
Green with Beasts celebrates both animals and saints, and attempts to identify the meaning of natural history and culture. But such identity is always tenuous and can hardly even be named. There is nothing permanent about a culture, a religion or a species. What survives is an attitude of mind….
Merwin's experience of natural history seems to have induced an attitude of non-attachment to things and a faith in the process of life itself….
Compared to Merwin's other books, [The Drunk in the Furnace] is full of people, relatives real and imaginary, but most of them are reduced to mere shells, maddened old creatures who exist to no purpose…. The nihilism of this book, the cruelty that binds relatives to one another, and the insanity of the clutching landscape, obliterates human possibility…. With this fourth book Merwin came full circle, returning to that dead stability from which he had fled in the imaginary landscapes of the earlier books….
"Rooted in death"—the paradoxical phrase seems to summarize the whole of Merwin's work, emerging most clearly in his stories. Merwin is not well known for his fiction, and he does not write ordinary realistic stories. His characters are placed in a dreamlike landscape where places and dates are never named, and therefore the stories have a strange flavor, something like Poe's tales, or Kafka's, with however less fictional point to them. They are mostly stories of quest, of pilgrimages over alien terrains in search of unattainable goals. They contain little personal drama or conflict between characters: what concerns Merwin is individual evolution, the effect of experience on a single person….
Yet nihilism was contradicted by the pulse of life itself, and therefore Merwin concentrated on the process of living, on the quality of life rather than its end. In The Moving Target he tries to record the inner effect of experience and to give it [a] kind of concreteness…. The theme of movement is emphasized in this book, and there are many poems dealing with departure. This movement is always forward, as if Merwin were saying that at least the future is unknown, and we can take solace in that….
Merwin's sixth book, The Lice …, is complementary, but the emphasis is less on process and more the nature of existence itself. The title, deriving from a remark by Heraclitus concerning the durability of lice, emphasizes the point. The poems present life; they do not explain it….
[What] he was aiming for more and more, as he moved away from the kind of anecdotal verse he had written in The Drunk in the Furnace, was a poetry almost indistinguishable from life….
I … asked [Merwin] whether there was any one poet, regardless of his time, who meant more than any other to him, and his answer was François Villon. And I realized that Merwin was also a troubadour whose work was a celebration of movement and change. His strength comes from his independence, which in turn makes him attentive to facts, since he can never take them for granted. Richard Howard and James Dickey have likened Merwin to a phoenix, whose later poems rose from "the neat ashes of his early work." The image is apt, but I think of him more as a cardinal, whose bright plumage flashes through the wintry landscape, a brilliant presence in a brambly bush or treetop.
Frank MacShane, "A Portrait of W. S. Merwin," in Shenandoah, Winter, 1970, pp. 3-14.
[Merwin] is, in the best sense of the word, a philosophical poet, whose poetry achieves a rare wedding of image and idea, and sustains the combination. The lingering note of death projects an ineluctable sadness over almost every poem, further underscored by a deep sense of irony. Merwin is particularly skillful at extending an idea—risking a run-on syntax that is sometimes daringly prosaic.
Fred Moramarco, in Western Humanities Review, Spring, 1970, p. 206.
Merwin has more good poems in [The Carrier of Ladders] than most poets manage to accumulate in two or three books. Some of them are good in the same way poems in The Lice are good; they are spare and elliptical, yet very tough, even vicious in their imagery. Often, as in The Lice, there is a man alone in a landscape, strangely both a part of and yet isolated from the things around him. All the characteristic objects of The Lice are here: night, stars, knives, hills and mountains, water, tongues, sky, pieces of things, eyes, animals, the horizon, hands…. This is excellent poetry, I think. It has that same combination of music, intelligence, and metaphor which makes many of the poems in The Lice so good.
But there are poems in The Carrier of Ladders that are different from those in The Lice or in any of Merwin's previous books, and it is these I find most interesting. Poems like "Envoy from D'Aubigné," "The Mountain," "The Lark," "Animula," or "Still Afternoon Light" are even more elusive and tangential than poems in The Lice, and also more disembodied, more ethereal…. The strange beauty of the poems lies in the fact that these landscapes have an extremely subtle and fragile topography; hence Merwin has had to make his language and his line divisions even more delicate and responsive than they previously have been…. These are some of the most unacademic poems I have ever read, in the sense that they could never be discussed in a university classroom, since they have no "meaning" in any usual sense. They seem to me to be perfectly transparent, but in a way that we are so unused to that they appear opaque, like the "still afternoon light" Merwin writes about in the poem of that title….
I think of what Samuel Beckett said about Finnegans Wake: we are too decadent to read this. That is, we are so used to a language that is flattened out and hollowed out, that is slavishly descriptive, that when we encounter a language as delicately modulated and as finely sensual as this, it is like trying to read braille with boxing gloves on….
In contrast to his poems, Merwin's prose pieces [in The Miner's Pale Children] want to "mean" something, they want to be mysterious or significant. They aren't generated by experience or pain, as the poems are, but by clever ideas. I can't read most of these pieces; when everything depends upon the idea, two or three sentences are enough to get it. Sometimes the first sentence alone is enough: "Once when I looked at myself there was nothing." Such paradoxes are too easy. Most of these pieces are like conceptual art; since they depend entirely upon an idea, the function of the language is simply to convey information about an already completed work, like the photographs that earth-works artists hang in galleries. They are well-done (like the photographs), but the words seem thin and brittle, since the substance behind them is so entirely cerebral. At their worst, they become simply exercises, records of their own completion.
John Vernon (of the State University of New York at Binghamton), in Western Humanities Review, Spring, 1971, pp. 187-89.
W. S. Merwin, one of the few impeccable verse craftsmen of our time, would have had far wider fame in another period, perhaps in another country, the late eighteenth-century period of Schiller, Goethe, Hölderlin, of incipient romanticism chastened by a yearning (in itself romantic) for pure classical—Greek rather than Romano-Hellenistic, for what the Greek in itself was like had just been discovered—generality, simplicity, distance, coldly representative power, sense of the type: in a word, coldness. (Leave it aside that in their politics the Greeks were hot, sweaty, unscrupulous, emotional, as they are today. The art matters and it doesn't sweat.) Most famous poets today are interested in either the individual or the sense of communal life. Merwin, at one remove, is interested in the fable or myth as representing, or rather making clear, recurrent human traps and temptations. He does not appear on the stage of his own poems, or prose fables, but directs from the wings. One has no idea from his writings what he is like as a person: nor is this probably a question that poetically at all interests him….
I wish Merwin were read more: young people nowadays are not madly interested in this sort of thing, which suggests that there was a very remote past, and that it is relevant.
G. S. Fraser, in Partisan Review, Winter, 1971–72, pp. 475-76.