Since the publication of Merwin’s first collection of poetry in 1952, readers have tried to place his work within a familiar tradition. At first he was called a modernist and a mythmaker in the tradition of W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Graves. Later, with the publication of THE LICE in 1967, readers were puzzled by his shift to an exploration of the limitations of language, and they placed him in the postmodernist tradition of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens.
In many of the poems in the current collection, Merwin continues to examine the limitations of language--the inadequacy of that which is “put on a piece of paper” to capture eternal reality, the loss of a language which once named evanescent experiences that no longer exist, the desire for words to name phenomena that seem to evade the grasp of speech.
Language, however, is not the only subject of these poems, although, as in the case of much postmodernist poetry, it certainly is the central focus. Merwin is also concerned here with the means by which concrete images evoke the delicacy of human relationships, with history as being made up of memories of mystical moments, and especially with the tragic loss of the natural world as man continues to lay waste the resources of natural beauty that once surrounded him. In “Witness,” the shortest poem in the collection, Merwin combines his concerns with nature, language, and the past by lamenting that he wants to tell what the forests were like, but that he will have to speak a “forgotten language.”
Tightly woven, mystically metaphoric, stripped of the guides provided by punctuation, and purposely spare and lean, these poems are examples of Merwin’s bearing witness to experiences that constantly recede into the past or that tantalizingly evade our linguistic grasp.