Merwin, W(illiam) S(tanley) (Vol. 3)
Merwin, W(illiam) S(tanley) 1927–
Merwin is a major American poet and writer of short prose pieces. His translations into English of poems in several languages have also been widely acclaimed. Merwin is the magician of silence and possibility; his uniquely seductive poems are among the finest and most awesome in our language. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)
W. S. Merwin [is] a poet who seems to have arrived on the contemporary scene out of another world. It is not yet a clearly defined location, and the atmosphere of it can be windy as well as airy. But Love is there a passion instead of a slogan, and verse shows an elemental confidence in itself, transcending jobs, awards, fellowships, history and the other conditions of its making.
F. W. Dupee, "The Muse as House Guest," in Partisan Review, Summer, 1958, p. 460 (and reprinted in his The King of the Cats, and Other Remarks on Writers and Writings, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965).
However colloquial and domestic, [a Merwin] poem always has mythic scope, less subjective, more, not social, but anthropological than Robert Lowell, but like him in Melville's tradition of overturned Puritanism. Merwin shares a literal resemblance to Melville in his intense feeling for the specific, under the storm of language. Little contemporary poetry is as dramatic as his full of different people in different relationships to each other, not a common habit of serious American poetry, which tends to be elegiac and subjective even when this is denied, as by Frost or T. S. Eliot. Merwin, like the older poet of the Partisan Review set, Delmore Schwartz, or the post-war French poet Claude Vigée, both disciples of André Gide, may not consider himself such, but his concern is the same—the integrity of the acutely conscious conscience. The difference is he works in an architecture of interpersonal tension—a cast of characters, like Thomas Hardy or Browning. Each of Merwin's books has been a step from that academic fashion of imitation baroque, which he handled with great skill, toward ever-greater modesty and immediacy of utterance.
Kenneth Rexroth, "Poetry in the Sixties" (1965; originally published in Saturday Review), in his With Eye and Ear (copyright 1970 by Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press), Herder, 1970, pp. 69-77.
Coleridge once remarked that "in every living thing, the conditions of its existence are to be sought for in that which is below it; the grounds of its intelligibility in that which is above it." W. S. Merwin is earnestly concerned with the conditions of creative existence, with the silences before sound, the darkness before light, the unwritten words crouching inside the pencil, and he is accordingly, and quite properly, willing to sacrifice a fair bit of intelligibility…. Trusting in his own Muse (the "Nameless One O Invisible / Untouchable Free"), and that the gift of grace will come "out of chaos … and be given," he is sustained by his own practised and negative capability, which never does, but through it all things are done….
Merwin's is a long attempt to weigh the words of reason without any scales, which is an exercise similar to picking oneself up by one's bootstraps. Sincere to a fault, his sincerity, like Wordsworth's, can be wearisome. Indeed, and inevitably, his insistence on the negatives of whatever state he is describing becomes something of a fetish. He does try to vary the tune by performing various intricate "Exercises" in delimitation, particularly in the poem of that title, in order to reach the point at the origin of creative activity where "everything is continuous again." But, ironically, the forms which these exercises take develop their own rhythms, which eventually contradict the kinds of freedoms of feeling which the poems exist to express, by pre-empting the defining predilections of the creative mind—limiting, rather than supplying. Or rather, supplying a determined design.
J. E. Chamberlin, "Poetry Chronicle," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Summer, 1973, pp. 391-93.
Merwin would found the church of the poem … from imperishable materials, words of ash. It is to be a poetry of no signatures, no possessorship, a stamp of impersonality on the timbers of every line and stanza. Once complete, the poem is set free from the hand of its maker, its word-carpenter, to be owned by no one, by no place, by no time; thus, like the free nomad-spirit that breathed luminous, unconditional life into the art, the works will be indestructible, and inexhaustible in their power to nourish free spirits of countless readers who partake of their bounty.
Merwin's aspiration is to become an empty nobody, an impersonal expertly trained thing—a tool, an instrument, a pure vehicle for the "one truth," the vision that suddenly fills the fertile, incubating emptiness: the state in which the spirit has completely freed itself from comforts, needs, habits, freed from a human personality, freed from the body's claims, freed from the demands of other beings, freed from the brand-marks of colleagues, family, country…. [It] is the state of uttermost self-purification, disaffiliation, dispossession that Merwin has cultivated with unwavering tenacity in his last four volumes of original poetry, and throughout his prodigious career as this country's foremost living translator of verse from other languages. It is a condition of maximum plasticity and availability, a priming and predisposing of the receptive ear to become a psychic medium for the poetry of foreign tongues, as well as for deep images springing from the subconscious mind, or from the racial preconscious: images germinating in the visionary dream-life which have the authority and unshakable finality about them of last basic necessities; images which are as indispensable to survival in worlds of the spirit stretching to its outer limits, on the verge of breaking into new uncharted territory, as the barest physical necessities—a little water, roots, scant body covering—are crucial to survival in the desert.
To be always obsessed with doing, making, crafting—as is this inexhaustibly prolific writer—is to be perennially haunted by the ghosts of the "not done," to be possessed by the demons of the one failure, the one forgetting, the one loss amidst a horde of gains: it is an esthetic of tirelessness, forbidding rest or ease of spirit, much less gaiety, exuberance, or comic ebullience.
Behind all our words and acts, behind each very signing of names, lurk absences, vacancies, emptinesses. Active, not passive, voids. Dynamic silences. Alert negative spaces. This mysterious sector of our mental life, usually hidden from us, is vivified with astonishing poignancy in a dozen-odd impressive short poems of a strikingly new species in Merwin's proliferating canon. They are stark, direct in delivery, coolly remote and stingingly intimate at once, like draggers of hot ice: raw, naked, brutally overexposed—in the sense of a photo with too much glare drowning the outlines of things, but so hypnotic in their quiet chanting we cannot look away, or even a little to the side to shield our eyes, and we can't keep our gloveless perishable hands off of them….
[This] remarkable artistry … is no idle exercise or mere exhibition of verbal legerdemain—the poems make an unmistakable impact on the conscience of our unique American generation. In the peculiar way they make moral designs upon us, I have never read anything like them. They would shock readers into illumination of the slow, irreversible dyings of the true spirit within us, within animals, within things: the slow retreat of the mysterious inner beauty of each thing and being which is its life, its identity, its sole reality; the slow withdrawal from us of the spirit because of our neglect, our innocent blindness to all the inner secret life that we fail to recognize, and which enacts its slow judgment upon us by simply turning away forever, turning its back on us….
In the consistent moral vision that informs [the] poems [in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment], a prophecy builds: Merwin foresees the total desertion, or secession, of the spirit from our inner life space; not that the spirit will cease to exist on the planet we'll soon have depopulated of every animal species but our own—the spirit will simply take up its residence in exclusively nonmortal dwellings, and quite happily flourish without our feeble collaboration…. In these poems of the most bitter moral and political indignation since the antiwar poems of The Lice, Merwin translates the international politics of grasping into a personal, spiritual condition which can be satisfied by nothing short of the dream of total acquisitiveness: a vast illimitable gluttony that seeks to swallow everything alive, that would empty the sea of all forms of life in one or two great gulps; and the swindle is all a disguised projection of our human identity onto the extrahuman world….
I find Merwin's new voice most attractive when the quality of intellectual rage, the impulse to scathing moral judgment, is transmuted into a drama of the lone spirit battling with itself, the full intensity of judgment turned inward which, for all its censuring of failures to measure up to standards set by its highest aspirations, is tempered by a compassionate acceptance. In "Division," an austere myth resonating with overtones from American Indian folklore, a dominant saving quality of whimsy, caprice, archness invests the vision with a fortification of human warmth that is, I feel, the most welcome new emotional undertone in a handful of the best new poems in this book—a quality of tempering mercy and self-forgiveness, a willingness to fail….
What abides … is the refreshing quality of quiet ardor, a gentle self-mockery, with all mere human negativity purged out of the judgment, that assures me that [certain of his poems] could utterly charm the shrewd ears of children, whose infallible capacity to detect some varieties of fraudulence has never been adequately explained or acknowledged. I can only hope that this emergent quality of gaiety and buoyancy, which approaches ecstatic generosity of spirit in the beautiful new poem which ends the book, "Gift," consummate in its serenity and happiness of earned spiritual independence, is the forerunner to the next major rebirth in the work of this poet of many radical self-restylings, this prince of alchemists….
Still another remarkable new development in many poems of this volume is the power with which ordinary inanimate objects—a wharf, a house, a room, a hammer and nail, a door hauled on someone's shoulders, a burning plank of wood—are endowed with supernatural presence, or haunted being…. The objects are pictured—or silhouetted, rather, so few the details selected—with hallucinatory clarity and maximum suggestiveness, at once. I'm reminded of the drawings of Matisse, in which a single curved line of subtly varied sharpness and intensity suggests intricately not only the shape and position of the model's neck, arch of back, buttock, calf, and a possible gesture, or swerve, of movement; but hints enigmatically the exact mass and density and texture of the missing precincts of flesh—flank, loin, shoulder….
As the draftsman the eye, so does the impresario-poet command the reader's ear. To a degree surpassing every other poet of my acquaintance, writing in English or whatever language, W. S. Merwin has developed with increasing mastery in his last four volumes of verse a Matisse-like notation, a fantastic linguistic shorthand, in which the few irreducible lines and images chosen (or has he mastered, rather, the power of perfect submission, passivity, in allowing the inevitable lines and images to choose him, the translator's genius?) guide the reader's ear by unerringly exact bridges across the very hinges—invisible overlaps and interlockings—between the words to the silences behind, or surrounding, the spoken utterances. This wizardry is accomplished by chains of sound and echoes, the echoes of echoes, the tones and overtones—all matings that tie or bind sound to silence, tongue to its dumbness, voice to its muteness; and always, in Merwin's art at its best, that which is given, or revealed nakedly, releases by invisible art those quantities which are withheld, buried, concealed, but contained in the silence, and therefore, inescapably picked up by the reader's ear, and poignantly heard, leading the reader into the heart of a vision of quietly gathering intensity, balanced halfway between sound and silence. Or rather, not vision—the scores of eyes and eye-images in this book are always closing, or going blind—but audition, an integrated totality of incantatory chantings, the insistently felt and intensely heard presences of sound building cumulatively in the silences…. Wallace Stevens anticipated me by exactly fifty years in the search for an alternate word, beyond vision, to take account of an utterly new music in the poetic art of our American language: a harmonium.
Laurence Lieberman, "New Poetry: The Church of Ash," in The Yale Review (© 1973 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1973, pp. 602-13.
W. S. Merwin's abstract landscapes of the soul distill the spiritual essence of myth. His poems have been called prophetic, totemic, visionary; it seems pointless to muster more adjectives. As the great poets inevitably do, Merwin has revivified words which describe timeless realities—night, ship, fire, blood, bread—and in lean hard verse he evokes precise, but unfathomable, mysteries.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Summer, 1973), p. cx.
The hard edge of W. S. Merwin's scrupulous negativity is the fiercest poetic discipline around. Readers can hardly fail to assimilate into their ears the violence of vacancy—the exacerbating vacuum—produced by shorn parings of our excesses he leaves behind him, littered on the path following his poems. In the ten years since the publication of The Moving Target, the first of four volumes developing his radical new esthetics, Merwin's artistry has steadily deepened in the anger of an uncompromising honesty that pares away falsities, layer by layer, always leaving him in a condition of final exposure, vulnerability, nakedness. As in his style of writing, so in his style of spiritualizing—an utter divesting of defenses, the risk of more and more perfect defenselessness. He would denude himself of all possessions, all conceivable forms or modes of ownership, even stripping away the charter to his name, his face, since to own anything is to be enchained, shackled, to be owned in turn….
[Merwin's] poetry derives from a way of looking at things which is essentially animistic. Animism projects onto objects separate from oneself the power of acting independently according to laws of their nature which are their attributes. Thus an animistic view of a pencil is that it contains within its wood and lead all the words or drawings which it is capable of unreeling from its existence, independently of any person who may happen to write or draw with it….
His animistic approach can be applied to nature, to objects (such as doors), and even to abstractions such as Habits….
One wonders whether this isn't a trick, itself a habit which has taken Merwin over, of seeing things reversed, the person who acts and looks as acted upon and looked at. A lot of Merwin's poems are like variations on the theme of what Ruskin termed "the pathetic fallacy," the projection upon nature of our human passions. The repetitiousness of this attitude makes them a bit monotonous: more, I think, than the form, which has little variation.
However when all this is said, these poems [Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment] communicate a sense of someone watching and waiting, surrounding himself with silence, so that he can see minute particles, listen to infinitesimal sounds, with a passivity of attention, a refusal to disturb with his own observing consciousness the object observed. It is as though things write their own poems through Merwin. At their best they are poems of total attention and as such they protest against our world of total distraction. He gives the reader the feeling that the things we see in nature can be withdrawn from our eyes and restored to their integral separateness; and that, in doing this, rituals and sacraments which have been lost, and a sense of the sacredness of living, are restored. He gives things the invisibility of covering darkness and then watches light recreate them for us.
This is the poetry of the newness of every moment of creation. And though one may find the machinery of a reversed way of looking at things a bit tiresome at times, there are marvelous trouvailles. Merwin has the capacity to make us see things which we feel we are aware of at the edge of consciousness.
Stephen Spender, "Can Poetry Be Reviewed?," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), September 20, 1973, pp. 8-14.