W. S. Merwin Merwin, W(illiam) S(tanley) (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Thom Gunn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Cheri Colby Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Linda W. Wagner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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L. Edwin Folsom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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,...

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