W. S. Merwin Essay - Merwin, W. S. (Vol. 8)

Merwin, W. S. (Vol. 8)

Merwin, W. S. 1927–

Merwin is an American poet, playwright, short story writer, and translator. He has written poetry eliciting much praise from critics, but relatively little attention from the reading public. He is a cerebral, often difficult poet, writing as one critic, Gunderson, has said, "at the margin of intelligibility." Nevertheless, Merwin is one of America's greatest living poets. He is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

In [W. S. Merwin: The First Four Books of Poems],… there are no lapses of taste, no humor qualifying the often tedious certainty of the poems. The risks these poems take are technical, not personal. They leave you impressed with Merwin's skills but frustrated by his remoteness. The best, or perhaps the most thrilling, poems are those that reveal not only the talents of the poet, but the poet as well. It is that intimacy of the poet with his work that makes Merwin's later writing so interesting and it is missing in much of this early poetry. In the poems published since 1960, when the last book in this collection appeared, artifice serves to reveal the poet's voice, rather than disguise it.

But it would be wrongheaded to deny the significance of this collection. The four books represent almost a decade in the output of one of America's greatest living poets. All but the last volume, The Drunk in the Furnace, have been out of print for some time and until now there has been no convenient way of measuring the notable changes that took place in Merwin's writing after 1960 when he abandoned the poetic conventions and traditions that mark the first phase of his career for the openness of his more recent poetry.

His first book, A Mask for Janus, includes one of Merwin's greatest poems, "Dictum: For A Masque of Deluge." The poem is written in a language of "shocked speech" that avoids the mannered literary diction of much of these poems and sounds at times like a poem by Frank O'Hara. It is also an announcement of the purpose of Merwin's work: "to seek/An affirmation … and to find only/Cities of cloud already crumbling." This tension between what he calls in another poem the "immortal season" of stillness and the crumbling mortal world is crucial to Merwin's early work. But this poem stands as an exception among many others in these first four books that describe a sensibility that the later poems simply demonstrate. The second book, The Dancing Bears, published in 1954, provides more examples of Merwin's repertoire of demanding literary forms, the most prominent being "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," written in 39 stanzas of 13 lines each. But more successful is a short poem entitled "You, Genoese Mariner" in which the poet speaks of "A grammar of return" through which, as in the example provided by Columbus, mistaken notions can lead to imaginative discovery.

The solitary, disembodied "I" that has become Merwin's true voice in his later work rarely speaks in these early poems. In Green with Beasts (1956) and The Drunk in the Furnace (1960) he seems to be testing out different voices in an attempt to discover his own. In both of these books he uses the dramatic monologue frequently but not very successfully…. The attitude the language takes towards itself is so authoritarian that the credibility of the poems is threatened. The two best poems in Green with Beasts work because they avoid authoritarian postures….

In Wordsworth's terms, [in The Drunk in the Furnace] he is beginning to write in the "language really used by men."

But it was not until the work that followed these books that Merwin's new style and power took shape…. He describes himself in The Lice (1967) as "I who have always believed too much in words," but what he repudiates in his mature work is not words but the formal poetic expertise of his first books. His new poems are shorter, more fragmented. The structures have loosened and opened. The language is intense and intimate, not ornate. Merwin's mastery of words is still a crucial factor in the success of his work, but his greatness is in allowing his skill to serve him rather than itself.

Merwin's translations have played a conspicuous role in the changes that have taken place in his work. His extensive involvement with the languages of many cultures and ages introduced a new spirit of artlessness, of fidelity to what he has called "the spoken idiom" rather than "the written convention." The title of his last book, Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (1973), is itself a clue to the tentative, modest claims his new work makes. He speaks of the need to "empty out," to simplify. This emptying out has completely transformed his work: the wisdom now comes out of Merwin, rather than down from him.

Terence Winch, "A Master Poet's Early Art—and Artifice," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), August 31, 1975, p. 3.

W. S. Merwin has gotten along well for several volumes now without punctuation, putting the burden of sense on the verse and the stanza structure—and the burden of understanding on the reader. This quirk he carries along in The Compass Flower. The verse is still elegant, the vocabulary plain, and the punctuation absent. This new book is somewhat more concrete; here and there a face emerges, a scene can be identified, the poet detected as a living man. A father appears, a lover, an especial fig tree, once (in "The Windows") a fully-fleshed child, observing the world upside down from between his knees. Merwin has traveled and translated in many countries, Eastern as well as Western, and his allusions are not easy to trace. The most ambitious poem here, "Kore," is clearly a reworking of the Demeter-Persephone story (though nothing like Tennyson's version!) with hints of Psyche and Eros added, and each of the twenty-four stanzas given a letter of the Greek alphabet as side-note. Perhaps it is overweighted; it never quite floats. But the book in general is vintage Merwin and no doubt many of its pieces will reappear when he collects his poems. As he concludes: "before and after/in house after house that was mine to see/the same fire the perpetual bird." (p. 84)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1977 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), January 15, 1977.

W. S. Merwin is a poet drawn to see the still essence in this changing, moving world, "the same fire the perpetual bird." This new collection of his poems [The Compass Flower], is, in many ways, more open and clearer than many of his books, speaking of hospitals and ferry ports, the particulars of nature, whether the "Saxophone and subway" of the city or the quiet intensity of mountain, apple and snowflake in the countryside. But he remains no describer or annotator, rather a seeker and sayer touching the still life at the center of the chaos of change where "we are bottles smashing in paper bags."

He does speak of change, sees it and recognizes it: "the whole country has changed/means of travel accelerated/signs almost totally replaced traffic rerouted every/love altered…." But out of this change he writes a poetry that does not depend upon the verb, but rather upon the moving accumulation of nouns. He used verbs, of course, but always quietly, almost silently, and more often he transforms even the verbs he uses into nouns, transforming time into an artistic semblance of timelessness, of eternity. The spring, the rebirth in the very fact of death, which he celebrates in this book, is an unchanging, continually present spring, effective in its incarnation into time but pure and free of time's corroding power; he finds it in love (as in the beautiful and strong love poem, "Kore," which is the still point upon which the compass needle of this book quivers) and in the astonishing beauty that hovers in the world like a sturdy and powerful dream or unfailing glimpse into the real.

The Compass Flower is an important book by a fine poet, his best, to my mind, since the appearance of The Lice ten years ago. (p. 15)

R.H.W. Dillard, in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1977 by Hollins College), February, 1977.

Poetic prose? Prose poems? Whichever or neither, the prize-winning poet again [in Houses and Travelers] shares 70 or 80 of his hypnotically cadenced secrets: doubts, visions, dreams, puzzles, riddles, recollections—in one-to-ten-page fables, incantations, balancing acts, and a handful of pieces that actually resemble conventional stories. Often starting with a wake-up-and-pay-attention line ("The bottom of the lake is standing on its side" … "Every railroad station exists in a dream"), Merwin commands the simplest language in the simplest structures to take on the toughest questions: are we really here? do we really see what we think we see? why do we want what we want? In time-honored fabulistic tradition, animals, objects, and abstractions think and feel. The garden and the desert appraise each other, the carpenter and the woodpecker share memories of wood, the worm and the scorpion converse, as do two "goodbye-shirts" that meet at the laundry. The one ant in an hourglass "thought he was a grain of sand. He did not know he was alone." "Everything has its story" and "Some things try to steal the stories of others." A man thinks he has stolen all of the world's laughter, but there's someone else who keeps giving it away. Most of these metaphorical maneuvers require and deserve a stop-and-think, then-think-again reader—only a few register as ponderous blather or hollow wordplay—but their difficulty makes the more accessible, real-people tales especially entrancing. "Remorse," "The Element," "Brothers," "The Invalid," and fragments of seeming autobiography—these connect in the most openly dramatic and emotional ways, while planting as many reverberating images as the more obviously metaphysical pieces. Welcome Houses and Travellers, then, for its own seductive sake, and also for its promise of future Merwin stories that will do all that these do—and more. (pp. 594-95)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1977 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), June 1, 1977.

[No] matter how subtle the directions or how keen our own imaginations, ["The Horse," from Merwin's "The Compass Flower"] remains finally less a cognition than a portent. It is vague.

It moves in the direction of expressive silence. I would not link Merwin with the minimalist-conceptualist agitations that seem so conspicuous now in the visual arts, because I think our poets are influenced less by formal considerations than by the substance of other literatures—surrealism, Spanish-American and Oriental writing, etc. But the effect is the same, this movement toward expressive but still vague silence, the written poem that is a guide to an unwritten one.

Does this come from distrust of the medium, distrust of objective reality, distrust of consciousness? Merwin might say it isn't a question of trust at all. But for my part I cannot see why at this moment in time, this of them all, we should be abandoning one of the few good and beautiful things that prior civilizations have striven to create—language. Our condition now needs more explicitness, not less. Must we leave everything to television? Merwin is a terrific poet. In every phase of his writing, and there have been many, he has made poems that affect me deeply, including some in his new book. But I wish he would tell me if he really and truly thinks this is the way American poetry should go, and if so, why. (pp. 15, 37)

Hayden Carruth, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 19, 1977.

W. S. Merwin, one of America's most distinguished poets and translators, seems … to be evolving his own mythology. This new book of prose, Houses and Travellers, along with its 1971 predecessor The Miner's Pale Children, consists of a series of imaginative inventions which can be read as the "system" underscoring Merwin's poems. In one of the pieces in this collection, a priest tells stories which "begin to take on the momentous intangibility of legends; episodes echoed from an unknown sacred text; parables." Merwin's stories are like those of the priest.

"Echoes" is a good word to describe the feel of Merwin's stories. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes of the poetic image: "It is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of an image, the distant past resounds with echoes, and it is hard to know at what depth these echoes will reverberate and die away." In Merwin's work, "the distant past" is not the past of history, but the past of the soul. What is "half-remembered, half-invented" in these fictions is not book learning, but what Bachelard calls the "Forces … in poems that do not pass through the circuits of knowledge."

There is no one tone to the work in this book. Some of the stories are poetic, some Gothic, or whimsical, or fantastic. Some are even straightforward and conventional. One of the longer stories, called "Poverty," is a striking, frightening tale that could have been written by Kafka. But certain characteristics do emerge out of the accumulation of stories. The landscape of most of this work is some "other" world that exists side by side with the "real" world and resembles it in many ways. It is not so much that this other world is strange because the intelligence perceiving it sees it as strange; it is, rather, we who are strangers here, in this world of spirtual dimensions and new realities.

Resonating through these tales is a sense that the narrator is after a special kind of unnamable wisdom, an ability "to recognize the sound of the element in which you were living, passing through you" ("The Element") or to become one of the "hearers of the note at which everything explodes into light" ("The Chart")….

[A] principle of light seems to illuminate Merwin's stories—a principle which is neither disconnected from human particulars nor darkened by the blindness of the ego.

The stories in this book are not always convincing. Merwin's attraction to personifications—there are, for example, pigeons, hinges, and locks that talk—can be difficult to accept. And his characteristic disembodied narrator, so comfortable in a world of "resemblances, association, traces, clues, the components of recognitions" ("Path"), can become monotonous. When the rhythm is broken by a piece like "Vanity," a tale that is closer to the conventional short story than anything else in the book, it seems a welcome change….

The last quarter of this book is, for the most part, a series of biographical remembrances of the past, of childhood—as though to suggest that knowledge of the fantastic, of the opening up of consciousness, is rooted in the ordinary. If you can remember your personal history, you are on the path to remembering the secret, marvelous past of the human soul.

Terence Winch, "Merwin the Magician," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September, 1977, p. E3.