W. S. Merwin published his first volume of poetry, A Mask for Janus, in 1952. Since then, he has released more than twenty highly regarded poetry collections. Also the author of several books of prose, he is considered a brilliant translator of poetry as well. Over the years, Merwin has been awarded numerous honors, including the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry for Migration: New and Selected Poems. Always one to experiment with language, Merwin shows himself in this collection at every turn of his career as a poet. Poems from fifteen volumes are included in Migration as well as eight new poems.
Merwin’s first collection, A Mask for Janus, is represented with merely one poem. The poem is “Dictum: For a Masque of Deluge,” and the opening lines, “There will be the cough before the silence, then/ Expectation; and the hush of portent/ Must be welcomed by a diffident music/ Lisping and dividing its renewals,” are an appropriate introduction to Migration. The words “expectation,” “renewal,” and “migration” are all strong expressions of Merwin’s poetic style. Over the years, he has refused to stand in place, to become complacent with his craft. Diversity of approach always has been at the forefront of Merwin’s poetic style.
Although he was born in New York City, he grew up in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. His father was a Presbyterian minister. Merwin has stated that his parents believed in discipline and had little regard for humor. He was a child when he wrote his first poems; these earliest attempts at verse were written to impress his very sober father. During his years at Princeton University, Merwin became intrigued by the poetry of Ezra Pound. Through his introduction to Pound’s work, he became interested in translation. He left the United States in 1949 in order to immerse himself in what European cultures had to offer. Merwin became an expert translator of Spanish, Latin, French, and Portuguese. During the early 1950’s, he worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as a translator. His ability to mold foreign-language poetry into English helped immensely with his own growth as a poet.
In 1952, Merwin was selected by judge W. H. Auden as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for A Mask for Janus. Although Merwin undeniably showed early promise as a poet, his 1950’s collections were criticized by such noted poets as Robert Bly, James Dickey, and Thom Gunn for various failings, including wordiness, flat language, and an absence of intensity. Merwin bore the brunt of criticism for the formality of the verse he wrote during the early years of his career. By 1960, he was showing a willingness to experiment, to take chances, to migrate in a new poetic direction. After such changes began creeping into his work, he wrote the majority of the poems found in the current collection.
While he has evolved as a poet stylistically, he has remained steadfast in his examination of the human condition. In one of Merwin’s more important poems of the 1950’s, “Leviathan,” he takes his inspiration from Old English poetry. While the poem takes a look at the contemporary human condition, Merwin employs techniques that were widely used hundreds of years earlier. The poem was included in the 1956 collection Green with Beasts, Merwin’s third published volume, and it includes a number of gripping dramatic monologues. The leviathan of the poem is a whale. Because of its size, the whale is “Frightening to foolhardiest/ Mariners.” Merwin describes the impact of such a creature on the world around it. For the poet, humanity takes over the role of the leviathan. At one time it was a whale that wrecked havoc on the world, but now it is humans who have taken the place of the giant beast. As the whales were feared, so now are humans. This fear isolates humankind, sets it apart from all the other creatures. The poet makes the point that humans are boxed in by their dominance, forced into empty existence in the vast darkness that surrounds them. In addition to “Leviathan,” fourteen...
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