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Merwin, W(illiam) S(tanley) 1927–
One of America's greatest living poets, Merwin is also a playwright, short story writer, and translator. He has written poetry that has received much praise from critics, but relatively little attention from the reading public. He is a cerebral, often difficult poet, drawing his poetic imagery from the mythic past. He is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
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I always find difficulty in adequately explaining my faint misgivings on reading the work of W. S. Merwin. For, though he doesn't have the range of Nemerov, he has an exceptional control over the resources of language and movement, an understanding of the relation between which enables him to perform, for instance, the audacities of documentary language in "Cape Dread" and "The Portland Going Out" in [The Drunk in the Furnace]. And each poem, moreover, has a beautiful self-sufficiency: part is linked to part firmly and cleanly.
Why, then, do his poems not interest more? In a sense, it may be that a poem by Merwin is too self-sufficient. It has reference only to the subject, which is not usually placed in a world larger than itself…. Merwin lacks that absorption in his subject matter which paradoxically ends by making a poem look outward, to the rest of the world. As it is, his poetry tells us something about a thing or an event with great accuracy, but is curiously barren of individual emotions or ideas. There is a sameness to it—both to a single poem and to the whole book—an evenness of texture, and a lack of any real contrast. (pp. 588-89)
Thom Gunn, in The Yale Review (© 1961 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1961.
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Gifted with prophetic powers, Merwin has been aware, for longer than most, that our nation is headed on a course of environmental and economic self-destruction; and on a more metaphysical level, he has been more sensitive than most other poets to humanity's singular inability to perceive reality as intensely as they might, and thus to use time as effectively as they could. He has been preoccupied with both the public and private consequences of this lessening of time, and he renders the effects of its ineluctable passage poetically in his images. We are "The Last People." (pp. 226-27)
On a more positive note, Merwin can also effect a transcendence of time in his poetry: Certain poetic images or passages impart a sense of timelessness or suspension of time. He attempts to capture the absolute moment of time—a real time or stopped time—in his poetry. This "transcendence" of time is as important to an understanding of the poetry as are the images of end. (p. 227)
Merwin feels intensely his own blindness to the meaning of time, the significance of the present. He is painfully aware of his inability to seize the moment. In his poetry written during the sixties and in the poetry of The Lice, Merwin captures in frozen hysteria the horror of the constant running on and out of time—or the horror of the loss of the perfect moment…. (p. 229)
In Merwin's work, time participates in the syntactical order of the poem. The passage of time is rendered by shifts in verb tenses. The poem's temporal duration is expanded and thus poetic time is "created" by strategically placed line breaks. By these technical means he encourages an awareness of the plight of man caught in the flux of time and an awareness of the power of the poem to achieve the effect of timelessness, thereby conquering the flux of time.
One symbol the poet employs to create timelessness in the poem is the symbol of starlight, which moves simultaneously through immeasurable time and immeasurable space to reach us. In … "Under Black Leaves" Merwin effects a timelessness in and through the star symbol which temporally merges past and present and which physically combines movement through space and movement through time. This effect is furthered by frequent shifts in temporal frames of reference which ultimately create a sense of transcendence of time and thus force a recognition of absolute time…. (pp. 232-33)
The poem transcends time and space by fusing time with space and enters a new area of experience, sound. Through this fusion the poem reaches into the eternal; it achieves a timelessness or transcendence of time. Merwin's concept of the transmission of sound is purely poetic, since sound is not transmitted in outer space. The concept does, however, place his poetry squarely in the realm of myth rather than science where he seems to feel the important new discoveries are to be experienced.
Merwin's poems dealing with time are permeated by an eerie sense of unreality. He can envision time as sheer, ineluctable movement forward. His horror of losing time derives from a strong sense of his own inability to use time effectively: his realization of the proper use and meaning of the present comes only when it has past. For Merwin a voyager's arriving too late at a deserted port to tell the departed population the meaning of human life is an image of the tragic ineffectiveness of those who live in time and who try to do some good for humanity. (p. 235)
More and more in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, however, Merwin appears to be exercising his skill at catching and fixing real time in the poem, and at effecting timelessness through symbols of transcendence of time. He seems to be leaving behind his old haunting awareness of time. (p. 236)
Cheri Colby Davis, "Time and Timelessness in the Poetry of W. S. Merwin," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright 1975, by Jerome Mazzaro), Winter, 1975, pp. 224-36.
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As W. S. Merwin's work illustrates, the poet today wins his audience by involving it in his seemingly personal activity—or, as Merwin writes in "An Encampment at Morning," "I come that way in a breath cloud / learning my steps / … we are words on a journey / not the inscriptions of settled people." (p. 88)
The presence of the Merwin persona haunts all the poems of The Compass Flower. "I love voices not heard," "I consider life after life as treasures," "I have been younger in October," "I have watched your smile in your sleep"—whether or not the poem opens with the activity of the poet-persona, that activity, that recognition, is the heart of the poem. Meditative in both language and structure, Merwin's poems circle, angle, fuse: they do not aim for the normal chronological progression of story, of language caught in time. Merwin's language is caught in ontological necessity; it searches for repetition, pun, sound play, in its role of creating the semblance of matrix that the poem of process demands. The poem "Trees" illustrates some of the qualities that a Merwin poem often has.
I am looking at trees
they may be one of the things I will miss
most from the earth
though many of the ones that I have seen
already I cannot remember
and though I seldom embrace the ones I see
and have never been able to speak
I listen to them tenderly
their names have never touched them
they have stood round my sleep
and when it was forbidden to climb them
they have carried me in their branches
The random association from the poet's initial act, looking at trees, to the meditative, open process of re-creating a tree (the inevitable comparison with the Joyce Kilmer poem suggests the changes in poetry during the past fifty years—most noticeable, the complete lack of any moral, or of any physical description of the tree) takes the reader from the simple act of observing through the poignant discovery of the lack of individuation of the tree ("their names have never touched them") to the poet's stretch back into memory. The poem in its seemingly aimless structure thus links Merwin's suggestion of mortality in line 2 with his return to childhood in line 12: we have the complete human experience, yet unobtrusively.
Structurally, Merwin also works to create a deceptively artless mode for his poems. By using no punctuation or capitalization, he suggests that the poem is a thought, a stream-of-consciousness presentation whose chief structural device is a line pattern that helps to simultaneously create and control rhythm. Wonderfully readable, Merwin's poems contrive a spoken rhythm that lulls the reader into thinking that they are without contrivance. That the entire collection works in just this way, and that many of the poems are very effective—as is the sequence poem "Kore"—belies the easiness that some qualities of Merwin's work suggest. (pp. 88-90)
Linda W. Wagner, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1977 by The Ontario Review), Fall-Winter, 1977–78.
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Collectively, [the verses of The First Four Books of Poems] echo and reaffirm a prolific anthology of tongues, testifying, of course, to Merwin as translator, one of the most authentic practitioners we have today. Imitations, in the best sense, accomplished exercises in an abundance of forms, their sources are variably the Biblical tales, Classical myth, love songs from the Age of Chivalry, Renaissance retellings; they comprise carols, roundels, odes, ballads, sestinas and they contrive golden equivalents of emblematic models: the masque, the Zodiac, The Dance of Death. Had Merwin never written any verse of his own save this, he would compel the ear of anyone decently educated to the liberal euphonies of the accumulated tradition. Were you to redistribute these poems, unsigned, among collections of translated material or of English Poetry Down the Ages, any but the most erudite reader would heedlessly accept them as renderings of Theocritus, Catullus, Ronsard or, on a venture, as having been written by an anonymous Elizabethan, by George Herbert, by Thomas Campion, by Thomas Lovell Beddoes—or by Tennyson.
Critics are fond of pinpointing the moment at which a poet "finds his own voice." He finds it when he writes a successful poem: one that being heard gives pleasure, even if the immediate tune recalls that of a predecessor…. Merwin's great composite themes of seagoing and wreck, of the beast under the waters of consciousness announced by "Leviathan" in Green With Beasts (an essay in accentual verse that surpasses, to my ear, Pound's "The Seafarer"), were not suddenly … torn from the void; they had already surfaced, occasional, played down but palpable, in the earlier context. At the outset … "Anabasis" I and II, had introduced the maritime journey, and in line given to Proteus (in The Dancing Bears), attribution allowed for, "Odysseus" … is recognizably prefigured….
One thing is certain. Before embarking on the narratives published in 1956 and after, Merwin was in secure formal command: shape and duration, melody, vocal inflection, were under superb control. No stanzaic model was alien to him; no line length was beyond his dexterity. Liberated from rhyme, if need be, having structured many of his poems into unrhymed units of 6 lines each—or 7, 9, 11, even 13 and 17—he was now prepared to launch into those lengthy, undivided blank-verse monologues, rhythmic without falter, solemn yet "conversational," which initiate Green with Beasts like organ voluntaries…. All these but "Leviathan" conjure the scenic ambience (and hints of Christian revelation) of a T. S. Eliot wasteland: dusty plains, olive trees, slack tents, "garden terraces / Vague through the afternoon, remembering rain; / But in the night green with beasts", and in "White Goat, White Ram" threads of Eliotic diction show conspicuously in the weave…. This is a rare instance, however, of almost completely opaque language; the general atmosphere of these poems is achieved visually and the effect is in every case slowly hair-raising. (p. 4)
Vernon Young, "Same Sea, Same Dangers: W. S. Merwin," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1978 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Vernon Young), January/February, 1978, pp. 4-5.
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[Merwin's poetry] is not Whitmanesque, but, like Whitman, Merwin has been obsessed with the meaning of America. His poetry, especially The Lice and the American sequence in The Carrier of Ladders, often implicitly and sometimes explicitly responds to Whitman; his twentieth century sparsity and soberness—his doubts about the value of America—answer, temper, Whitman's nineteenth century expansiveness and exuberance—his enthusiasm over the American creation. In The Lice Merwin is interested in "what America is," and in The Carrier of Ladders he engages in a poetic search—a descent in time—to discover also what America was, to face and assume the guilt of the destructive American expansion across the continent, to invoke the vanished native and face the implications of his absence. (p. 57)
The Whitmanian self [is] a model of expanding America…. (p. 58)
With no regrets, Whitman/America goes about "Clearing the ground for broad humanity, the true America," and "These virgin lands" (the wilderness She) gladly give way "To the new culminating man" (the American He)…. [The] still-uncreated West would always be, to the future-oriented Whitman, the "better" part of the American creation, for his concern was always with process, never with the finished product; hope was in the still unformed chaos, not in the already formed creation…. [He] claims that the natural never will really be lost, but instead will simply become part of the conquering white race: "To be in them absorb'd, assimilated."
In his American sequence in The Carrier of Ladders, Merwin offers a stark response to Whitman's claims of wilderness assimilation. In his ironically entitled poem, "The Free," he portrays the Indian dispossessed of his land…. The vast absurdity of claiming that we can "absorb" a race or a wilderness while we systematically exterminate them is one of Merwin's concerns in his American sequence; we play tricks with language that come back to destroy us…. In Whitman's system, the Indian was not killed, he was absorbed. Merwin answers such euphemistic claims, simply and beyond anger, "No." We have destroyed, not absorbed; killed, not evolved.
Merwin's answer to Whitman is begun in The Lice, an antisong of the self. Here, instead of the Whitmanian self expanding and absorbing everything, naming it in an ecstasy of union, we find a self stripped of meaning, unable to expand, in a landscape that refuses to unite with the self, refuses to be assimilated, in a place alien and unnameable…. [This] self becomes voiceless, as the things he would use his voice to describe disappear; a barren landscape is all that remains, and the poet's stripped, barren words reflect it. Instead of expanding his senses, like Whitman, and intensifying his touch, sight, hearing, so that he could contain the multitudes around him, Merwin's senses, as in "Some Last Questions," crumble and fade, become useless…. All that is left is silence…. The self is dying, its head returning to "ash" in the withering flames of the twentieth century. (pp. 58-60)
Merwin wanders rootless in this land, searching for a new landscape that might reflect the self and be rendered in his language…. Unlike Whitman, whose song defined and named himself, whose expanding country reflected his expanding self, Merwin's self seems distantly apart from what he finds to name and from his words themselves: "my words are the garment of what I shall never be …"…. (p. 60)
Merwin faces a void and seeks a new language to describe it, but the void he encounters is not the "Western blank" that Whitman joyously entered into, not a hopeful place for future imposition of form, but instead it is the final void, the place where man can no longer impose any form…. (p. 61)
"The Last One" views America's westering creation as both a genesis and an apocalypse: a beginning followed by a quick end. The poem is filled with imagery of Genesis, but it describes an anti-creation, and of the books in the Bible, Revelation is "the last one." Here again we have the American Adam (and Eve) who blithely decide to begin to cut into the virgin wilderness; Whitman's grand ideals of a new race are reduced to an empty "why not?"… Suddenly the whole American westering process, as it does in Whitman, comes to a halt at the Pacific Ocean…. In Merwin's vision the final tree, unlike Whitman's last, dying redwood, sings no praise to the axe-bearing men who chop it down…. The men come in the morning and cut the last tree down, but when "They took it away its shadow stayed on the water." Bothered by this turn of events, man tries all of his ingenious ways to rid himself of the shadow: shining a light on it, covering it up, exploding it, and sending smoke up between the shadow and the sun. But all of this is to no avail; the shadow remains, and then it begins growing…. [The] shadow (a dark, all-devouring blob) grows on and on, like some anti-Whitmanian force (reversing Whitman's American expansion into and absorption of nature), which now expands into and absorbs (or obliterates) man…. (pp. 61-3)
This poem, says Harvey Gross, "dramatizes nature's revenge against men…."… But it is not nature gaining her revenge so much as nature's shadow—a hollow, dark force of non-nature, of obliterated nature, a dark, non-palpable reminder of what used to be. It is the lack of nature that creeps back over the continent, obliterating man. It is the exhaustion of natural resources that causes the machines to cease functioning and leads man back to a primitive state, forced once again to use sticks and his hands, because there is no energy left for his machines. As so often in The Lice, Merwin here personifies emptiness or nothing; the Nothing of destroyed nature is what will kill man, finally; Americans think they have conquered the wilderness, only to find that No-Wilderness will conquer them. This poem demonstrates the anti-creation of America; the movement here is from west to east as the poem of America is erased, the creation of America wiped out, and nothing is left, finally, but barren, empty, lifeless land. The virgin She was destroyed, and now her destroyer, the American He, is likewise demolished. Nothing remains. There is no sense of hope further West in the Far East (no "Passage to India" as there was for the later Whitman); the only (faint) hope is in the few chastened men who escape with their shadows, left to gnaw the crust of the earth in some remote corner of the ruined country.
Later in The Lice, Merwin looks at America's continued attempts to expand westward by going to Viet Nam. In "Asians Dying," the same process of de-creation is described as Americans destroy another wilderness further West in the Far East…. Even if Americans seek to complete Columbus' original goal to voyage to the Far East, suggests Merwin, they will only lay it to waste, too. The frontier, for Merwin, seems to be the meeting point not of "savagery and civilization" (as [Frederick Jackson] Turner defined it), but of pure nature and ash, the great walker. (pp. 63-4)
Throughout The Lice, Merwin's soul tries to fly, to transcend, to surge ahead like a Whitmanian soul, but the future is dead now; we are preparing "For a Coming Extinction,"… and so Whitman's spirit is gone—"The tall spirit who lodged here has / Left already"—and the spirit of the new poet is wingless; it cannot fly or transcend; there is no future to soar into, nothing to expand into and name…. (pp. 64-5)
The self in these poems is infested with lice, with diseased things it cannot find and kill and so must carry with it. Whitman's self sought to contain all, to embody past, present, and future; Merwin's self seeks to contain nothing, to empty itself of a dead past …, a shattered present, and a dead and destructive future…. Memory is no virtue for Merwin, for he seeks to break off from a meaningless past…. Not to repossess the past, then, is to be in total darkness, but at least free; the need here—and it is opposite the need of Whitman—is to empty the self, to find a new void within, and then to listen and learn from the silence of a de-created history: "Now all my teachers are dead except silence."… (pp. 65-6)
[With Merwin's anti-song, the] American self/poem/country has ended its expansion and has entered its inevitable diminishment. The signs are on the pages themselves: Whitman's poems expand and flow, filling the void of the blank page with seemingly endless sentences; Merwin's poems, in stark contrast, are fragments, remnants: short, quiet markings that leave most of the page unfilled; the gaping void is creeping back in, threatening the very existence of speech. It is not a creative void that Merwin faces, not something he expands into and absorbs; rather, it is a destructive void which opens its dark abyss, ready to swallow the poet and all of life with him. It is the anti-creation of America, and the American poet—in contrast to his earlier, arrogant stance—retreats in quiet terror. "Song of Myself" ends confidently, sure of the self, looking outward toward ever-expanding journeys even in death: "If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles…. / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you." The Lice ends in a muted echo of these last words, with the Merwin-self divided, unsure, tentative: "Where else am I walking even now / Looking for me."… (p. 66)
Merwin, then, speaks from the void, from past all frontiers in a place where there is nothing but a no-land of no-hope. When Merwin arrives at the Pacific, there are no Whitman-like journeys on to the Far East for meditative knowledge. And in "Inscription Facing Western Sea," Merwin experiences a vision that relates to Whitman's "Facing West from California's Shores," one of the few poems in which Whitman expresses despair at what the great American creation, now reaching its continental fulfillment, was becoming…. [In this poem], Merwin places himself at the Pacific shore, where the "Lord of each wave comes in" and the American expansion is "finished ten thousand miles." Seeking (like Whitman) the meaning of the completed creation, the poet sees in the waves only "riderless horses no messages"; no hope is carried over from the Far East. So the expanding American lays empty claim to the land and leaves…. And the wars and destruction that brought America to the West coast simply continue on…. (pp. 66-7)
This poem is in The Carrier of Ladders, the book in which Merwin attempts an imaginative descent to the American past, to the native; such descents form a vital and familiar pattern for twentieth century American poets. For Whitman, the American direction was West and to the future; for twentieth century American poets, the direction has become, more and more, down—through the various layers of what America is and has been—and to the past. It is not an easy process for Merwin, because generally he seeks, as we have noted, to strip himself of memory, even though he knows he would not exist if it weren't for the past…. But the past is deceptive; it consists of fragments, half-remembered details, imagined (fictional) events. So the past is false, and true wisdom can only be found in the present, where the future loss of detail has not yet occurred…. (p. 67)
In "The Lake," Merwin approaches his descent, which finally occurs in the American sequence of poems ("The Approaches" through "The Removal")…. [The] poet is on the surface layer of a continental palimpsest, on the flood of America that has covered (or perhaps obliterated) the native cultures; he looks far down, under, to the past…. (pp. 67-8)
In "The Approaches," the poet sets out on his imaginative journey to the past, and is deceived in his first glimpse of the Indian, but wanders aimlessly on, hoping to find signs of the past…. (p. 68)
[Moving] westward in his imagination, Merwin looks at "The Trail into Kansas"; he tries to merge with the westering settlers to get a glimpse of the virgin land, but "The early wagons left no sign." He does find a "line pressed in the grass we were here" (wagon wheel ruts tracing the American journey), and he begins to sense what it was like to enter the new land…. As they journey, they sense they are watched, but their movement is inexorable, and they have no fear; the natives are no threat now…. With no affection for the land or the natives they displace, [these settlers] dig in…. [The] natives will helplessly disappear as the white Americans approach. Merwin, in his merger with the frontier settler, then, senses the Indian watching, but still cannot find him, see him…. (pp. 69-70)
[In "Western Country," the] Indian has appeared, but only to disappear; Merwin finds no regeneration in his descent to the past; the Indian rises only to vanish, quickly, again. Merwin's chilled, exhausted voice rises in anger as he watches the dispossession…. In "The Removal," dedicated "to the endless tribe," Merwin sees the natives as "The Homeless"; they are "the echoes [that] move in files [one step ahead of the "long files" of the white settlers] / their faces have been lost / … tongues from lost languages."… And the American destroys not just the native, but the native's mother, the land itself; they ravage the wilderness She that had supported the Indian…. Toward the end of this sequence … Merwin's voice has merged with the Indian;… like [Gary] Snyder, he speaks ("we") from the Indian's perspective. But unlike Snyder's native perspective, Merwin's voice comes to us faintly, from a distant, irretrievable past, not from an angry present. (p. 70)
John Wesley Powell, the one-armed explorer, becomes the emblem for Merwin of the white man's movement into the wilderness. Powell, a geologist and geographer, led the Geologic Survey (1881–94) that mapped out the West, imposed American lines upon the wilderness…. All America, suggests Merwin, was a one-armed explorer…. Like the lines on Powell's many maps, the hand he kept on the eastern side of the frontier was familiar, known, lined, visible. But no white man knew the western side of the frontier; like an invisible hand, it was unlined, unmapped, unknown, unseen…. He touched the wilderness only to have it disappear, to have it become known at the very touch, to be fused to the American creation. The "virgin half," the half Powell could never really touch, could be sensed only with the missing hand, the hand of the imagination. So Merwin, in this sequence, tries to touch the virgin land, lost now in time and space, with the "missing hand" of his imagination, for no actual, real descent is possible. (pp. 71-2)
Only in "Huckleberry Woman" does Merwin finally fully merge, descend and touch the She with invisible hands. She (a native woman) emerges from the land itself (she cannot emerge from a sense of history, for he, like most Americans, was not taught the Indians' history), and the ground she emerges from is America before it was owned, before the white man imposed property upon it…. [The] poet is united with her for a moment, but is in pain at the realization of the vast loss she represents, the pain of the immeasurable and bloody distance between her past and the poet's present…. But at least, for a moment, they are united…. And at this point Merwin crosses the frontier; his attempted mergers with American explorers and settlers cease, and he assumes the perspective of the native, becomes "we" with them, but it is a fading perspective; he is grasping for the Indian as he slips from him and disappears, inexorably. Thus the sequence ends with another Indian woman, a widow, captured by the whites; she is stripped of her land and her compatriots; she is mingled in marriage with the white man so that "everywhere I leave / one white footprint." (pp. 72-3)
Merwin's descent ends here; the vacant rooms of the natives' death are vacant rooms in himself, too, as the Indian disappears from his imagination and he returns to the present. Unlike Gary Snyder in Turtle Island, Merwin does not return to the present replenished with the native ways: he returns only with an affirmation of American destructiveness, of man's stupidity and inhumanity, and of an irreplaceable emptiness lying beneath this continent. Having re-taken the Whitmanesque American journey, having relived the creation of the country via the medium of poetry, Merwin finds the American creation to be not a creation at all, but a destruction, an imposed obliteration that he believes will be repaid in kind. The emptiness he finds in himself is the emptiness he finds at the heart of American history; it is the same emptiness that his poems embody, as his words struggle to fill space, short epitaphs scratched on the encroaching void. (p. 73)
L. Edwin Folsom, "Approaches and Removals: W. S. Merwin's Encounter with Whitman's America," in Shenandoah (copyright 1978 by Washington and Lee University; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Spring, 1978, pp. 57-73.
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