W. S. Merwin Merwin, W(illiam) S(tanley) (Vol. 5) - Essay

Merwin, W(illiam) S(tanley) (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Merwin, W(illiam) S(tanley) 1927–

Merwin, an American who has lived most of his life abroad, is a major poet, a translator from French, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, Yiddish, and other languages, and the author of the short prose pieces collected in The Miner's Pale Children and one play, Favor Island. At the heart of Merwin's poetic sensibility is what Karl Malkoff has called "the sense of an allegorical universe [and] the appeal to central symbols and mythic patterns" to shore up against the "nothingness that at all times threatens." Merwin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 1970 collection, The Carrier of Ladders. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

"Among all dictions," Merwin seeks "that ceremony whereby you ['love,' or the imagination, or poetry] may be named / perpetual out of the anonymity / of death." It is in the rhetoric of completion that Merwin utters his longing for the partial, since

                        Mention, though
         It be the scholiast of memory,
         Makes yet its presences from emptiness….

The paradox is a true one, and explains why The Dancing Bears of 1954 takes its title from Flaubert's bitter remark that "human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we pound out tunes fit to make bears dance, when what we want is to win over the stars." The figure of art as a cosmic failure, a grotesque second-best instead of a sympathetic magic—that is the ironical sign, affording a tremendous field to his talents for assimilation and apprenticeship, under which Merwin inscribes his elegance and his eloquence (did not even his first book [A Mask for Janus] borrow for its epigraph an assertion from John Wheelright "habit is evil, all habit, even speech…"?). The aspiration to commanding utterance ("the dicta for the only poem") is from the start renounced, decried, and the dandy's posture of supreme defiance, cast up to the indifferent stars, justifies the made music (as opposed to the miraculous natural harmonies) of these further poems; furthermore, there is a gaudy acknowledgment that in the decrepitude of "the only poem," that Orphic spell which might hold the world in thrall, plurality with all its chances and changes must make do, and "in defeat find such re-creation" as the world's disguises afford:

        I walk multifarious among
        My baubles and horses; unless I go in a mask
        How shall I know myself among my faces?

In the poet's repertory, then, there are to be found again among the titles "songs," "runes," a "colloquy" and three of the long, ode-like Provençal love-poems called "canso"—all thus labelled to reinforce the wrought (rather than the given) aspect of Merwin's enterprise:

              …As though a man could make
      A mirror out of his own divinity,
      Wherein he might believe himself, and be.      (p. 361)

Perhaps the single decisive poem in this book…, the one that best accounts, in terms of the poet's identification of his own role, for the discipline which keeps these bears dancing, the suffered discrepancy between the music of the spheres and of the side-show, is the address to Columbus, "You, Genoese Mariner." Here, in a single sentence, characteristically tormented into an ironic salute that is 31 lines long, the poet apostrophizes the resolute explorer…, hails him as himself (the identification is made abruptly by no more than an anacoluthon, the dash which separates "you … who fancied / earth too circumscribed / to imagine … the unfingered world" from "I whose face has become / suddenly a frame / for astonishment"), thereby associating the Columbus who voyaged West for "gilt and spice" with his own disaster as a lover, as a poet, and closing on both "mistaken sailors" staring in sad wonderment at the world's "unknown dimension." The shared delusion was to believe that a Westerly direction, a held course

                   Must by its own token
                   Continuing, contain
                   A grammar of return…

The line I have set in roman defines Merwin's entire project so far, for all the devices and designs of this courtly despot tend toward a cyclical theory of existence, the notion—so comforting to a poet who has the imagination of recurrence—that one can move onward only by preparing to move back: yet the vision fails, the changeless and diagrammatic universe ("an utter prey to mirrors") of the Genoese mariner as of the American jongleur dissolves in the forfeits of a lifetime, in fact of time itself. Ruefully, Merwin takes leave of his fantasy of perfection:

               I, after so long,
               Who have been wrong as you.

The navigational error discredits, for Merwin if not for us, his grammar of return (that magnificent phrase for a poetics of immutability); but … the mistake, like Christopher Columbus', was a creative one: the result in both cases was the discovery of America. (pp. 363-64)

[When] two years later in 1956, Merwin's Green with Beasts was published, that quarrel with the methods and measures of immutability (which had hitherto found expression … only in an exasperation of surface, a hypertrophy of the verse paragraph often eschewing rhyme for, instead, an archaizing involution of syntax) had utterly transmuted the poetry. His discontent with an orbific music which might charm into an imaginative unity all the disparates of experience now led Merwin into an expression so sharply disjunct from his initial achievements that we must look hard to see what bearing those earlier charged counsels of perfection could have on these long looping lines, these distended paragraphs of slackened expatiation unstarred by an incandescence of vocabulary or syntax, any rich and strange transformation of the very bones of speech.

It is another harmony these poems assert (one which fastens to the Eliot of the Quartets and later verse plays), just as it seems a different poet altogether from the celebrant of the Final Festival who now addresses himself to the world as a suffered presence, an endured pressure rather than an encompassed plaything; how different is evident not only in the gravamen but in the very grammar of the lines, no longer a "grammar of return" but of realization:

  And I moved away because you must live
  Forward, which is away from whatever
  It was that you had, though you think when you have it
  That it will stay with you forever

The titles, as before, indicate the nature of the material, and that the material has altered: of the 39 new poems (set up on the page in long blocks of language, without the shapely stanzas and refrains which had given the work in the past its demurely marshalled aspect) only one, the "Mariner's Carol," makes the old generic commitment; the rest come to grips with their action without the mediation of a regular form: "Burning the Cat" or "The Eyes of the Drowned Watch Keels Going Over." The poems tend, then, to be ruminations or arguments, affording what Miss Moore calls "a gallantry of observation" rather than the exuberance of design—they are not prose, but they have some of the virtues of prose, for they are able to accommodate the ordinary sights and sounds of life without transforming them into myth, without impairing their specific quality as events. (pp. 364-65)

The notion of somehow becoming a vehicle for vision, rather than a manipulator of it, is what informs or even commands these poems, imparting an air of submission to the lines ungirt on the page, a certain droning resonance which, for the poet of so many rimes and sestinas, is a tremendous risk, but one knowingly taken. The critical poem in this third series, I think—critical in the sense that it defines the crisis of the poet's project, and also in the sense that it offers a conscious reflection on what Merwin has undertaken—is "Learning a Dead Language"; the "dead language" is of course unspecified, for it is not Latin or Greek but poetry itself, with its "grammar of return" and its "governing order," that is at issue. (p. 366)

In 1963, Merwin published his fifth book, The Moving Target, whose very title suggests, and whose contents enforce … a paroxysmal shift in the order of discourse lest the poet "not contain but be his own process of reversion." (pp. 371-72)

Merwin now invites the participation of silence as he once warded it off with all the words in his armory. There are six or seven generating nouns here, around which experience gathers in figures of force like filings in a magnetic field; once we perceive the web constituted by lock and key, knife and mirror, clock and stone, as well as the basic movements of opening and closing, we can track Merwin like a moving target, indeed—like the dangerous quarry he has become in his flight from the menagerie of mannerliness; if we read this book through not as a set of discrete poems but rather as a sequence of sentences in the full meaning of the word—not only a judgment and a "musical idea," but a discernment by the senses—as a notation of the central man who has cut away almost all the connective tissue of rationalization that made, once, his circulatory system so easy to trace, then there is no obscurity here, though the outrage, the brilliant abruptness is certainly stunning…. The whole burden of Merwin's discovery that "I'm not the fire" is the shift from a posture of mastery to one of submission or of resistance to submission ("to just sit down and let the horizon ride over me"); the corollary is that if I am not the fire, I am what the fire feeds on, and consequently there is a certain grandeur about the victimization:

          This must be what I wanted to be doing
          Walking at night between the two deserts,

It is a grammar of departure, now, that Merwin employs, without any of the comforting associations that had kept the world familiar; here things, natural objects, are seen or somehow acknowledged with such clarity that for the moment nothing else exists except the space around them. (p. 374)

In 1967, four years after The Moving Target, Merwin brought out his sixth book, The Lice…. [These] are all poems of a visionary reality, hallucinatory in their clarity of outline, their distinctness of detail…. The poems are entirely unpunctuated, and the virtuosity of their accessibility is great, for the continuities are extended beyond those of the last book, the voice sustained for longer units of expression; but (in keeping with Merwin's habit of articulating each of his modes in pairs of books) the work, whether wisps of a couple of lines and a single image, or deliberations of several pages and almost novelistic detail, are of the same inner coherence, the same outer necessity as those in The Moving Target ("May I bow to Necessity," he prays in "Wish," in the new book, "not / to her hirelings"). All the poems appear to be written from one and the same place where the poet has holed up, observant but withdrawn, compassionate but hopeless, isolated yet the more concerned, at least in quantity of reference, by the events of a public world…. It is as though the poet had decided, or determined, his own fate, which is one of dispossession and the aigre wisdom to be derived from it: "Now all my teachers are dead except silence / I am trying to read what the five poplars are writing / on the void."… Merwin is free ("I know I'm free / this is how I live / up here") to attend to his visionary task, his responsibility to others…. [There is] a detachment from the glamor of language as the canonical order had wielded it, from the glare of reality as the discursive impulse had submitted to it, and even from the gleam of vision as the latest web of fragmentary correspondences had invoked it…. [There] is a chill, almost a silence that lines his speech, and a difference about his notation of the world which I take as the final achievement of his vast mutations; it is the welcoming of his destitution among men in this book (as in the last it was the encompassing of his death in a private history) that sounds the special note of The Lice…. [Perhaps] what I have called coolness and detachment is merely the effect of a poetry which has altogether committed itself to that encounter with identity we call, at our best, reality; for no poetry, where it is good, transcends anything or is about anything: it is itself, discovering its own purpose and naming its own meaning…. (pp. 378-80)

Richard Howard, "W. S. Merwin," in his Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Howard; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1969, pp. 349-81.

W. S. Merwin's Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment has a symptomatic title. Mostly his poems are the stuff poems are made of, but the makings stir: regrets, glimmers, nostalgias, religious adumbrations, in a bleak, somber, emptied yet resonant world, the pieces somnambulistically (druggedly?) adrift. He has a fine ear, and his verse includes and goes beyond short-line free verse; accents focus perceivings, yet his lines move long, away from heavy beats into syntactical repeatings and shifts. "A Door" ("What is dying") is a good example of the different motions unified. Excitement, fear, and a wide blankness of dissolvings. The poem concerns the lack of entry into one's secret self, death, eternity, silence, armies and lightings failing, yet opening into "the endless home." Is it of fear, gazing on the wastes of time and potentiality? Is it in favor of death as escape from the burden of consciousness? Does it offer hope of drifting into some blessed state? All three or none—how can one tell? If its themes are taken seriously, it raises religious questions the poetry does not face. How relate drifting emotion and insight to mysticism, salvation, good and evil? As poetry it is beautiful, but defective compared to Henry King or Henry Vaughan, who can be as strange and dark as Merwin and show a greater grasp of human experience and more comprehensible formings. Merwin is highly intelligent when he wishes to be, but it is not intelligence he cultivates. (pp. 397-98)

Paul Ramsey, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Spring, 1974.

A running theme through all of W. S. Merwin's books is sight: vision: knowing: re-learning: discovering. Sometimes poems on these topics are too vaporous, they talk too much smoke, their lips are lost in fog, their words rise into clouds and disappear from the lens of consciousness…. If we retain anything it is retained under some tarpaulin in the basement, some storage spot that hasn't been touched since youth, a place upon which we do not focus yet which our minds nudge while turning over in their sleep.

Seemingly we have changed, we have become less, we have compromised and slowed, we have found in our acquisition of information and knowledge that life was more mysterious while we were innocent of all this mentalizing. Eyes are key symbols for Merwin—they are instrumental in keeping secret all that spoils life: either eyes betray us by seeing how burdened with varnish we have become, how common and removed from the electricity of spirited life, how remote we are from what we used to be, or else eyes are the talismans that bring us the crystal freshness of stepping into life almost for the first time amazed, in awe, loving with the full sting of love.

What returns us to that pristine state? What comes closest to levitating our consciousness to where it battles nothing but only flows with constant purity and affirmity—security and soundness—and unquestioned joy? What offers a wholesomeness inaccessible to adults? Perhaps the elements as only a child can know them; plus a mystification of reason. Not irrationality, but a left-handed throw of the dice, a despecifying that removes the packaging from around our Understanding. This is why, I believe, there is such a heavy reliance upon words such as "light", "stone", "sun", "tongue", "sleep", "wings", "silence", "shadow", "summer", "wind", "trees", "clouds", "mountains", "water", "fire", "animals", and "dark".

He shys away from making things definite. Premium is placed upon indistinctness, presumably to permit more possibilities, vagueness being a virtue almost in itself, something that suspends the unpleasant evidence of the ego's intervention in social commerce. Contingency, after all, is property of no one thing. Monolithic thoughts become sand moving across a desert. What was self-evident becomes conditional, relative—we come closer to dream, closer to literally extracting sunbeams from cucumbers.

On the other hand, [the poems in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment] are an ontological argument for the spirit living in all substance. They virtually convince us that they are the first scratchings upon our tabula rasa. So, escapism or not, they quietly work upon our being, teasing lost parts of our mind out of hiding.

Certainly there is an artlessness at play. Merwin is such an advanced stylist that he can make his poems appear, or so it seems, at the snap of his fingers, iron filings converging into words at the whisk of a magnet, a touch of fire under a sheet of paper slowly drawing words from the white grain. They come with such ease, they have certainty, there is little question that they belong, that they are the correct and only words possible. They seem no more deliberated upon and labored over than leaves floating down a creek. This pleases me, but I can't help wondering why Merwin has this concern to have his poems exist, as it were, so distinctly separate from the self. Can it be that he feels they carry more authority being "untainted by human ego"? That in sounding more from the "mind of God" they will be more readily accepted as truth? Pound insisted that "the purpose of writing is to reveal the subject". This Merwin does often with a single stroke, but in stepping out of his poems he makes it more difficult to "square with reality", something else that Pound insisted on. Then, too, Pound, in his later years, repudiated everything he said or wrote, which brings us back to Merwin's poems. What Merwin frequently does is seize upon a situation or a state in being that is regulated by the mind, then go directly to it, illustrating its dilemma by use of imagistic analogies—little stories with stones and silence and light playing the component parts of our mind's functioning. This is indeed advanced poetry. But because of its abstract pursuit, when Merwin does reveal his subject with a single stroke it characteristically takes on the guise of mystification and will appear recondite. In other words, Merwin doesn't so much square with tangible journalistic reality as he does with subjective reality as interpreted by the mind. It is his psychology that is translated into imagination—but more. Life and death are in the same hammock, for Merwin, with joy and sadness. Individual situations are ever being seen in complete context, all tenses applied, destiny working its way simultaneously through all channels of the mind, beginning begetting end, cause begetting effect, reason embodied in result.

Merwin starts with the result, then gives us the process, or at least something of the blueprint from which the result is derived. His poems activate the leit motif behind formal sight and comprehension. We know what they are saying, they confirm our suspicions. Through Merwin's effort we amend our own version of reality. The knowledge is there, all it takes is the guidance of his poems to make such knowledge salient. (pp. 176-78)

Douglas Blazek, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), June, 1974.

W. S. Merwin writes about nameless, unseeable, untouchable, bodiless feelings that have no thrill of flesh, about spent echoes, lost light, the most rarefied, highflown absences. He is a spider at the spinet, playing sonatas for the deaf. Not human, a wall, a wind, a wolf, a water current reading the braille of the riverbottom. Hawksighted, he sees empty spaces birds have left in the blue….

"Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment" [is a collection of] poems caught out of the side of the eye, heard past the edge of hearing, just brushing the spirit's fingertips. Most are beyond meaning, but not meaningless….

When I began reading Merwin his poems were butterflies that vanished from the net. Now I follow even his thinnest hints to their point of disappearance, and read them happily. Despite the often missing wingbolts, no aids are needed. (p. 20)

Donald Newlove, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1974), July 4, 1974.

W. S. Merwin's … book (Asian Figures) is a serially-structured compendium of proverbs, aphorisms, and riddles from Japan, China, Korea, and other oriental countries, all "translated" by the poet from English translations into clean, hard, and often vulgar American-type language. Merwin's Figures are at once epigrammatic and lyric; the providential truth behind each aphorism is nicely undercut, and, at times, short-circuited by the use of odd juxtapositions and uncertain rhythms, so that the ultimate meaning of each, though familiar, is also elusive…. (p. 296)

As with any good aphorism, a little of this goes a long way…. [This] densely monotonous, white-on-white bible of thousands of proverbial figurations is the product of an intriguing concept, one that fascinates the reader even as it reduces him to a kind of IBM computer of home truths. (p. 297)

Gerrit Henry, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1974.

From the beginning, Merwin has demonstrated a concern with reticence, with not speaking; A Mask For Janus, published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets (1952), consisted of ballads in archaic diction, songs, and mythic parables. Auden, who was then editor of the Series, noted in his introduction "The historical experience which is latent" in Merwin's poems: "By translating these feelings into mythical terms, the poet is able to avoid what a direct treatment could scarcely have avoided, the use of names and events which will probably turn out not to have been the really significant ones." What Auden meant was that these poems had been composed in a language devoid of immediate social content, abstract and imprecise. Their ornate, peculiar diction, an absence of all qualities distinguishing the modern, a derivative, self-conscious voice: this was the result of Merwin's decision to "avoid what a direct treatment could scarcely have avoided," and it has plagued his writing ever since.

Even so, an intelligence comparable to that of Wallace Stevens, though lacking Stevens' enviable grace, was at work…. Rhetorical and stylized, Merwin's earliest poems conformed to the procedures of the English poetic tradition, even borrowing inversions ("The frame that was my devotion/ And my blessing was"), words ("in priestly winter bide"), and characters (huntsmen, lords, and kings); while almost no traces of this lyrical, delicate style remain in Merwin's later collections, there are undeniable resemblances between what he was writing then and a mode that owes less to some identifiable period than to the language of English literature. (pp. 72-3)

Idiosyncratic in his themes, concerned less with a private self than with ill-defined motifs that wavered between the pastoral and metaphysics, Merwin [in his middle period] had mastered the techniques of writing and then amplified their truths. It was not until the publication of The Drunk in the Furnace, though, that his own temperament became visible, his Being-in-the-world; voyages at sea, motifs of loss, and the phenomenon of surviving death, witnessing that moment of collective disaster when "our cries were swallowed up and all hands lost," had become obsessive concerns. In several poems, such as "Bell Buoy", "Sea Monster", "Cape Dread", and "Sailor Ashore", the sea mirrors and exemplifies our own alien condition; its meanings are interpreted as allegorical; a ship leaving port "has put/ All of disaster between us: a gulf/ Beyond reckoning. It begins where we are." And the closing lines of "The Bones" recall Kafka's parable of "Infinite Hope, but not for us"…. Merwin's tacit longing is to live among whatever he names, entering the world again in some other, elemental form. His is the chore of "giving/ Shapes" to things, altering their appearance, transmuting them, just as our presence in the natural world enacts a sea-change on what surrounds us.

In opposition to this eternal, devastating sea, imposing in its immense and silent depths, is urban life; this other solitude, arriving in pool halls, wretched hotels, and old men's homes, evades "the real dark" of existence, concealed in a vast, incomprehensible universe. (p. 75)

The Moving Target … announced Merwin's departure from the disciplined versification and controlled narrative style of his earlier collections. Sprawling, unrhymed lines, idiomatic speech and the notation of trivial thoughts, irrational similes ("I bring myself back from the streets that open like long/ Silent laughs"): there was in these unusual poems an oratorical "I" whose abrasive complaints echoed Eliot's dramatic monologues…. Or the speaker's was a disembodied voice, addressing some unknown Other, or talking out loud; irrational comparisons, partial syllepses ("Night, I am/ As old as pain and I have/ No other story."), and puns proliferated, while the repeated use of animism ("the horizon/ Climbs down from its tree") imbued the poems with a Surrealist confusion…. [An] absence of distinction between words and things … lies behind The Moving Target, where Merwin's belief is in the similitude, even synonymity, of image and object.

His departure from the discursive revelation of objects becomes more noticeable in the closing poems; interruptions of thought, intrusions of unconscious mind are more pronounced, until in "The Crossroads of the World etc." all punctuation has been omitted, except a question mark that ends the poem. After that, there is none in this volume, or in the two that have succeeded it. Line breaks appear to be random, the words themselves are arbitrary, verging on hysteria…. (pp. 76-7)

Merwin in his later poetry … still resists the real significance of what he practises; the disruption of language is no more than a device in The Lice (1967) and The Carrier of Ladders (1970). Monotonous, interminable, self-imitative, each poem exudes unbearable exhaustion; none supports a close analysis. (p. 78)

The Miner's Pale Children exploited a genre that extends from Baudelaire through Rimbaud and Mallarmé to Francis Ponge in France, that shares affinities with Lichtenberg and imitates Kafka: the prose poem. These pieces, less fiction than parable, explore an odd region where events are unexplained, where animals talk among themselves, where hope has been "a calm lake in early spring, white because the sky above it was the color of milk." Like the fables of Donald Barthelme, or Beckett's stories and texts for nothing, Merwin's episodic, elusive stories exist in a dimension of the mysterious, spoken through some unidentified voice. The language is dense and detailed, but about nothing, or, to be more specific, about the problem of nothingness…. [In] these prose pieces, the lessons … could be: to write is to determine the world's actual properties. (p. 80)

James Atlas, "Diminishing Returns: The Writings of W. S. Merwin" (copyright © 1974 by James Atlas), in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw, Dufour, 1974, pp. 69-81.