Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2428
Merwin, W(illiam) S(tanley) 1927–
A Pulitzer Prize-winning, major American poet and writer of short prose pieces, Merwin currently lives in France. He is the author of The Carrier of Ladders and The Miner's Pale Children. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)
What is fascinating about Merwin's use of myth is that he goes well beyond the retelling of old fables (old wine in new bottles) and, as an artist, seems to take myth as a creed. Thus the element of romantic self-consciousness is part of his poetry. For when the subject is the myth itself, we are at the beginning of beginnings, at creation. And when we are dealing with a creation which is continuous, that is, when the nature of the act is stressed rather than the specific accomplishment, we are more concerned with the creator, who must either be God or the artist. Merwin's emphasis on this aspect of modern myth-making is certainly in the tradition established by the Romantics.
It is a fertile tradition. For with the emphasis on creation, the artist and art are given a pivotal position in all experience. This leads inevitably to the self-consciousness of the artist, so apparent in Romanticism, and has become a fundamental condition of contemporary art. But Merwin is "contemporary" rather than "romantic," in so far as this self-consciousness is rarely expressed in terms of the personal plight of the individual artist seen as sufferer and hero….
Fundamentally, Merwin views reality as an inchoate mass of possibilities, of a chaos fraught with alternatives and populated by shadows that have substance—a reality which is grasped through belief and through the pronouncement of that belief….
Not unlike others who are involved in a doctrine of personal creation, Merwin is automatically involved in the problem of solipsism, of being embroiled in a universe self-defined and isolated. Without outside reference, the self becomes undefined, multiple, or utterly lost. But Merwin's poetry gains much of its excitement for us (especially those who feel that the arts have been led in circles on the illusion-reality, search-for-self track) from his awareness of this problem, his terror of it, and his attempt to break out of it. In several poems Merwin has captured the haunted feeling, the abhorrence, of one who struggles to learn the world and finds only himself….
The world … constantly holds … polar possibilities, and if the demonic most frequently breaks forth in Merwin's poems, it is, one would think, because evil rather than good is always the aspect of experience that seems to require explanation and ordering. Perhaps evil is the wrong word to use. It is, rather, that the mystery of the truth that each act may engender its destruction and that destruction accompanies creation, which seems to be Merwin's point. The mystery is an essential part of experience. Expression of it is necessary, for even if this does not reduce the mystery, the recognition makes it less terrifying….
The sea is a perfect symbol for Merwin. Even the bestiary is heavily dependent on sea imagery, and it is hardly surprising to find that a good number of his poems are sea poems. Traditionally a symbol of creativity and fecundity, and continually beguiling in its restless state of change, the sea serves to describe the double-edged reality Merwin wants to capture. The sea, as a life-providing element, has always bewitched men in its duplicity, for its treachery is as great as its good, and is as unexpected as it is unknowable.
Alice N. Benston, "Myth in the Poetry of W. S. Merwin," in Poets in Progress, edited by Edward Hungerford, Northwestern University Press, 1962.
W. S. Merwin's subject is the human condition in those aspects that can be called universal. His dramatic change of style in the 1960's, from close metrical structures to open form, should not obscure the fact that he has always been preoccupied with cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. He describes archetypal voyages, journeys, storms, floods, and returns of the prodigal son. When he deals with animals, he gives them an emblematic character reminiscent of the Middle Ages….
The Dancing Bears … reveals the poet's fine control of rhythm and syntax and stirs the reader with verbal surprises, imaginative phrases that are found, on examination, to be amazingly exact….
Merwin's third book, Green with Beasts (1956), represents the climax of the myth-reading phase of his development. Most of the book is committed to the exploration of primal, archetypal, Biblical themes….
The Drunk in the Furnace is not without symbols and mythical personages (Odysseus, for instance), but the diction is more colloquial and less rhetorical, and the syntax is simpler….
At about the time of the publication of The Drunk in the Furnace, Merwin seems to have experienced a crisis not only in subject matter but in style as well, for the poems of the 1960's are astonishingly different from those of the 1950's. There is a point in the career of a poet when he is no longer excited by his own manner; he must change for the sake of his survival as a poet, for the sake of his sense of the truth of things. This seems to have happened to Merwin. At any rate, the style of The Moving Target (1963) could not have been predicted on the basis of the four earlier books.
The new book is more colloquial, less mandarin in diction than the preceding ones. In some ways the idiom is antipoetic: there is a deliberate roughening of the line in order to avoid the smoothness, neatness, and sonority of the past. Merwin imitates the awkward phrasing, distorted syntax, and irregular rhythms of the inarticulate: it is a little like the painter Dubuffet imitating the scrawls of children. Merwin abandons traditional metrics grounded in iambic measure for the "open field" versification advocated by Charles Olson. His imagery is fresh, bright, and colorful, like that of such "subjective image" poets as James Wright and Robert Bly. It often depends on the surprise of "happy accidents." The whole effect is somehow tentative, casual: few of the poems are "said" once and for all.
But the themes of The Moving Target are not new; they are merely disguised. Merwin's old preoccupation with the anabasis motif, with the classic voyage and the lonely journey on a dangerous road, persists, as does the theme of the return, of the prodigal son come home. One also finds a prophecy of doom for contemporary civilization, as in A Mask for Janus: hints of death and resurrection. The difference is that Merwin now seems unwilling to show that he is working with myths; he pretends to be interested in the commonplace realities of the 1960's.
Stephen Stepanchev, "W. S. Merwin," in his American Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 107-23.
The relation of poetic language to poetic substance is of dismaying interest in W. S. Merwin's new book, [The Lice]. I began reading it with the antagonism I have generally felt for Merwin—a facile poet so persuaded of the virtue of his personality that he has often been willing to let a poem go by half-defined. My first experience of the book reinforced that opinion: if accident is fashionable, I should expect to find Merwin embracing accident, and I did….
William Dickey, in Hudson Review, Winter, 1967–68, pp. 695-96.
Merwin's seventh book of poems [The Carrier of Ladders] is of course his best—of course, because he has made his career what the word means: a course, a passage out, with just those overtones of self-overcoming which bring this book, so rewardingly, into the home-stretch….
[The] real goal of these poems, what they are developing toward [is] a quality of life which used to be called visionary, and which must be characterized by its negatives, by what it is not, for what it is cannot be spoken.
A phenomenology of darkness, then, of loss, absence and removal, will govern the imagery here…. And a prosody of pauses, of halts and silences which will let the language thicken to unwonted suspensions, emjambments which reveal, chiefly, weight to the ear hasty for conclusins as they show disparity to the eye seeking recurrence….
[Prose] is the proper medium for removals, separations, "the blandishments of decay," and with remarkable ease [in The Miner's Pale Children] Merwin parades his mastery of half a dozen tonalities—fussy aridities and rich mythologizing, emblems, tales, memories, riddles…. The imaginative largess of this book of prose is astonishing. Clearly, the negative offers Merwin a mode of getting on with his undoing which is as prodigal as all our pieties about "creativity," about "affirmation"…. King Lear was wrong—everything comes of nothing, or out of nothing. And by the agency of prose it goes on, leaving behind only history—which Merwin calls the form of despair reserved for the living—and darkness ahead….
I have not attached the usual tags of praise and blame to these enterprises [The Carrier of Ladders and The Miner's Pale Children] which are so complementary, so instinct with one another's energies. Merwin long ago reached what I should call his majority as a poet, and when a man travels this far—or craves so to travel: "if only we could set out now, just as we are, and leave ourselves"—it is impertinent to assign grades, to hand out marks. The interesting thing is not to say that Merwin is a wonderful poet, or a wonderful prose writer, for "how many things," as he says, "come to one name/hoping to be fed!" One reaches for definitions and touches darkness. Pertinent, I hope, is the application to Merwin of what he says of his man "In a Dark Square": "that though no one is listening, he repeats aloud to the darkness that he will continue to put all his faith in himself."
Richard Howard, "A Poetry of Darkness," in Nation, December 14, 1970, pp. 634-35.
Mr. Merwin does by cadence what other poets do by image and figure, the further difference being that cadence is the last part of words to go and the best part to start from….
In these poems [in The Carrier of Ladders] the diction is as tenuous as it can well be. The words do not call attention to themselves as words, they have hardly more than the modest aim of connectives, establishing rhythmic sequences on which later efforts depend. The poet is looking for ways, means, stirrings, directions ("oh long way to go"), guidance, consequence ("I do not think it goes all the way"), ultimately "the way home." I was reminded of Theodore Roethke's poems of beginning, his idiom of rudiments, as if words had to begin all over again, yielding up every position ostensibly reached. But Mr. Merwin's version is more urbane than anything I recall in Roethke.
What distinguishes Mr. Merwin's poems in this collection is the assumption that the mind may be imprudent to rely upon objects of perception…. Objects are endorsed only when they are felt as participating in the life of feeling: "how many things come to one name / hoping to be fed." As objects, independent of feeling, they are hardly recognized.
Just as words live so long as the cadence lasts and not a moment longer, so objects survive in our arbitrary sense of them. In these poems the body survives as footprints in snow, speech as the echo of speech, but the relation between man and nature is insecure, perhaps doomed. Many of the poems are soundtracks of loss and lapse: even on the page, with the finality of print, they look as if they have recently been divorced….
We are to suppose a speaker of these poems, long accustomed to recitations of the beautiful, who is on the brink of discovering that beauty has nothing to do with truth. Those old books of voyages were "sure tellings," but there is nothing now to tell. Mr. Merwin's new poems issue from severance. They are not messages, swiftly delivered from poet to reader, but tokens of fracture; the only hope is to begin again with a recovered ABC of feeling.
I find these poems extremely moving. Of Mr. Merwin's earlier work I have sometimes wondered why poems so richly endowed should not have passion as well. One poem led to another, and there was no wish on my part to give them up, but few of them stayed in the mind or cast a shadow beyond the page. I admired Mr. Merwin's manner, not least his good manners, but I wished he would commit an outrage occasionally…. The new book retains something of this impression: no single poems leap from it, but the book as a whole has an air of nobility which cannot be refuted.
I now think it vulgar to demand "passion" from such a poet as Mr. Merwin, if we mean something hieratic or Yeatsian. Mr. Merwin plays a different instrument, his fingering is different.
Denis Donoghue, "Waiting for the End," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), May 6, 1971, pp. 27-31.
Little contemporary poetry is as dramatic as [Merwin's] full of different people in different relationships to each other, not a common habit of serious American poetry. 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, in his American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1971 Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press, New York), Herder, 1971, p. 176.
W. S. Merwin is a distinguished and difficult poet who writes distinguished and beautiful prose. Although The Miner's Pale Children … consists of almost ninety prose pieces on everything from stones and spiders to bandages, eggs, and love, the work as a whole has a curious and pervasive unity. It is the kind of unity that can be achieved only by a strongly creative personality viewing the world in its own way. Merwin views the world as living—shoes contain memories and a stone put in its proper place eases man's tensions; tight-rope walkers meditate on their craft until the excitement and danger of their performance is lost in the vitality of their equipment; gardens suffer, literally suffer, the ravages of war. In Merwin's view of the world, everything lives; and his talent is such that in his prose, everything comes alive.
Prairie Schooner (© 1972 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Winter, 1971–72, p. 370.
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