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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 1971 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
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[The Miner's Pale Children: A Book of Prose and The Carrier of Ladders: A Book of Poems] invoke by their subtitles the false distinction between prose and poetry: the real distinction is between prose and verse, since both are books of poems, with distinct resemblances and a few differences…. The prose pieces come with their dramatic title, The Miner's Pale Children, to preclude our criticism: if we ask why they are not more robust, they answer by a single eloquent finger pointing to sunless caverns where they were born: peaked and huge-eyed, like wizened English workhouse children, they stand in speechless reproach in the schoolyard, rebuking by their mere subterranean etiolation the boisterous ruddiness of the terrestrial.
The trouble with the analogy is that nobody tells us why the father of these pieces hasn't let them play in the sunshine more. There is maybe even a complacency in their fragility, as if to say that they are more sensitive than those huge galumphing children with their tans. I do not know for sure whether one has the right to reproach a poet for his subject, but Merwin has been maintaining his starved and mute stance so long that one has a relentless social-worker urge to ask him to eat something, anything, to cure his anemia.
And then, relenting in face of a single poem, singly perceived, and not part of the litany of hunger, one grants Merwin his talent for the desolate and the dismembered. He is a voice singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells with the toneless cry of The Waste Land. He often seems a lesser Eliot, taking one of Eliot's tonalities to its logical conclusion, a hollow man finding his hollow divinities…. (pp. 233-34)
There are tenuous allegories of wish and incomprehension [in the prose pieces]: a "June couple" imagine the "little place beside the water" that they would like to own, each confecting a private vision (his has tan imitation-brick shingles, with a screen porch, while hers is "a low stone building, one big dormer in its thatch roof"), and while each says raptly in separate chorus "Mine," the separation yawns invisibly between them, and the piece ends.
There are parental neglects and reparations…. Other stories, more dreamlike, with the attendant disadvantages, revolve around incomprehensible journeys, uninhabited ports, fragmented bodies, chilling rites of passage, inexplicable ordeals, and surreal tasks (like "unchopping a tree"—a minute set of directions on how to put a chopped-up tree back together again).
There are also painstaking and self-flagellating dissections of memory, grief, fear, and personality…. (p. 234)
Merwin's abstraction cloaks the human cause of these poems, but desolation and abandonment shading into terror are more common than any other feeling. On the other hand, one feels that these poems were written not so much from sentiments requiring expression as from obsessive counters demanding manipulation. These counters are a set of words, found here and in Merwin's earlier volumes, that act for him as a set of talismans: endlessly he pushes them around into different spatial arrangements, festoons them with different decorations, but they are almost always there, central, demanding, repetitive, exacting.
The Merwin dictionary has nouns of ill-omen (pain, grief, fear, pallor, extinction), obsessive objects (gloves, hands, clocks, watches, bandages, shrouds, eyes), exhausted adjectives (hollow, empty, faint, deaf, blind, blank, frozen, lost, broken, hungry, dead), and constellations of negation (speechless, colorless, nameless, windless, unlighted, unseen, unmoved, unborn). Is it ill-will in a reader to want to force-feed these pale children till they, when cut, will bleed? Even Merwin would seem to want a change: he prays,
Send me out into another life
Lord because this one is growing faint
I do not think it goes all the way.
There are poems when a new life may seem to be beginning, and some of these are very beautiful, especially "Snowfall."… (p. 235)
In his elusive pallors, Merwin sometimes comes near a flawless balance of cadence and meaning. Some of his poems of deprivation and winter share a place in "the prehistory of the mind" with the February poems of Wallace Stevens, but they lack Stevens' obdurate persistence in the natural—his squirrels, his forsythia, his scrawny bird cry. On the other hand, Merwin has not subscribed to the falser poetic consolations of Eliot: he inhabits a dimmer world than either Eliot or Stevens, but there is a faint cast of sentimentality over his poems that persuades the reader that he could, by taking thought, add a cubit to his stature and raise sturdier offspring. (p. 236)
Helen Vendler, "W. S. Merwin: 'The Miner's Pale Children'" (originally published in The New York Times Book Review, October 18, 1970), in her Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (copyright © 1980 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; excerpted by permission of the author and the publishers), Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 233-36.
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A thematic preoccupation with memory dominates much of Merwin's poetry. Understanding Merwin's attitude toward memory and its function in the poem enhances one's understanding of his view of modern man.
Yet, if Merwin is fascinated by memory, that faculty of mind which recalls the past, his view of it is largely negative, with some exceptions. Through a careful reading of two poems concerned with Odysseus and his pathetic inability to retain the past in his memory, the reader can come to a better understanding of the reasons why Merwin's poetic career has been a running, agonized struggle with memory. In "Odysseus" and "Memory" … Merwin creates an Odysseus who experiences all the vacuity and futility encountered by modern man. In his travel-weariness, his inability to hold the past in memory or to cope with anything but the immediate present and above all, his lack of a real destination, Odysseus becomes a veritable symbol of alienated modern man…. "Odysseus" presents the view that human life and thought are cyclical, but that man is static amid the movement of life around him. (pp. 25-6)
Since life is sheer rote and monotony,… memory does not function at all: it can retain no clear image of the past, only what is visually present has real existence. Given this premise, Odysseus's apparent mindlessness follows logically; and we understand his inability to grasp the meaning of his existence or to distinguish different people and places, his inability to take a moral reading of his own course, or to remember his wife whom he has not seen in twenty years. (p. 26)
[In the end,] Odysseus moves on despite his inability to remember why; but he will reach home, though even after he gets there he still will not know why or how.
In later poems Merwin frequently returns to this theme of the human condition as an unknowing condition. He writes of man's ignorance—his inability to retain the past in his mind or even to live peaceably with the past—in poems which follow those of The Drunk in the Furnace.
"Memory" a prose poem published in The Miner's Pale Children, resumes the Odysseus theme…. The implications of the Odysseus story are worked out differently here than in "Odysseus." Homer's facts and imagery are more apparent in this more allusive piece; for example, the phrase "unravelling patience" in "Odysseus" becomes "See, the sailor emerges at last from the loom" in "Memory." And the guide Athene and the old milky-eyed dogs are referred to here whereas they are not in "Odysseus."
First through an associative debate and then through a literary reworking of the Odysseus theme, this prose poem probes the human uses of memory and their effectiveness. The prose poem begins abruptly. The "it" of the first sentence refers, of course, to "Memory," the title and subject of discussion here. In the first paragraph, the poet debates whether or not having a good memory is a virtue; though he stresses the evils of memory more than its virtues.
His theme from the start is that our belief that having a good memory is a virtue is possibly erroneous. Our respect for skill in remembering may simply be "our predilection for those deceits that have hoodwinked us in particular."… (pp. 27-9)
At the beginning of the second paragraph [of "Memory"] Merwin takes a firm stand on the issue: having a good memory, he says, can be "a source of terrible arrogance."… Memory is a "blind-folded" deity, and her blindness makes her capricious and unreliable…. Because memory has helped us live well and reasonably in the past, we begin to believe that it is the source of all intelligence and good sense. Most important and most dangerous, "It persuades us that nothing of the past remains except what we remember."… In the next step in the downward descent of over-dependence on memory it persuades "us that the present too would be meaningless without it,"… and this is the ultimate evil. The present is sufficient unto itself and does not need the bolstering of memory to give it validity and meaning. (p. 29)
The purpose of the first three paragraphs of "Memory" is to explode our myths and preconceptions about memory. The more subjective tone of the last sentence of the second paragraph is retained in the third paragraph where the pronoun "we" occurs with more frequency than before and where the poet is concluding the philosophical debate.
The elliptical reasoning of the third paragraph tells us that we are utterly bound to our necessities made virtues, our self-deceits. In our overdependence on memory we are slaves to our own private pasts. Here Merwin's easy conversational style … and his jumps in logic make his ideas more persuasive. Our world is really one of fragmentation and hopeless forgetfulness, he implies. Our "virtues" are not virtues at all, but are merely the inevitable result of our submission to fate. They are necessities seen through rose-colored glasses. The final question … dramatically and decisively ends his argument: it is obvious that memory is just a habit and not a virtue at all.
In the last two paragraphs of "Memory" Merwin relates the story of Odysseus's homecoming in a manner which is more allusive than direct. As in "Odysseus," the subject, the central character of the fable, is not named directly, but is simply referred to as "He" in the second sentence and as "the sailor" in the first…. It is as if Merwin were working hard to throw the reader off his trail here. The initial image metaphorically equates Odysseus's travels with weavings on the loom of destiny: they are preordained by the Fates.
The memory motif resumes in the second sentence of the paragraph…. Odysseus is sure that his guide Athene is "a personification of wisdom itself."… He is proud, convinced that he is wise and strong because his guide is. He is also convinced that he has brought his journey to a successful conclusion partly under his own initiative, but under divine guidance as well. However, the point of "Memory" is that we erroneously equate wisdom with memory the way Odysseus did. While in reality Odysseus had only his own mind and intelligence and memory as his guide through his wandering, he believed his guide was Athene, goddess of wisdom. Just as memory is a false deity, so here Athene is false to Odysseus because she falsely promotes his belief in his own memory. (pp. 29-30)
The final sentence in the paragraph … further contributes to the impression, now amounting to a certainty, that Odysseus does not really see this clear and present Ithaca at all. He is supremely confident of the power of his mind to control and understand present experience by marshalling past experience and noting the reasonable similarity between past and present. What is lacking here is Odysseus's own presence as well as his own emotional reaction to the place. Here, as in "Odysseus," we receive no deep impression of his identity, although he is the central focus and dominating consciousness of the prose poem.
Behind the lines of this final sentence one hears a smug, complacent man assuring himself that this is how he remembers it, half-fearful underneath that it is not….
In "Memory"'s last paragraph Odysseus' calm, purposeful rationality is overwhelmed by his untempered intuitive reaction to the place; he becomes aware of his horror of "His own presence in the place," "The standing on the needle," "The present."…
Merwin ingeniously imparts this radical shift in consciousness in a long panicky sentence … which is a string of nouns, prepositional phrases and a relative clause: altogether this sentence communicates the bewilderment Odysseus feels. He is overcome by the sheer immediacy of this for the first time truly present place. It is an immediacy which has hitherto been effaced by his more pressing concern for mere self-preservation…. It is ironic that this self-realization occurs on the third day, traditionally the day of resurrections. (p. 31)
The long clause beginning "That same oppression …" … most clearly expresses the horror he feels and has felt before in Ithaca; and the last phrase in the prose poem "The blankness …" … evokes again his sense of le néant now that the "story" of his wanderings is over.
In "Memory" Merwin suggests that Odysseus—and indeed every human being—tries to come to a sense of his own identity by piecing together the past and finding a continuity in his own actions, his means of approaching situations. This is the constant temptation, but rationalizing and idealizing memory is always deceptive. The problem is that memory is deceiving; a person can convince himself that the facts of the past were other than they were or he can change his memories to suit the demands of his identity. He can remember only the best parts of his past in order to be able to pride himself on it. Or, on the other hand, a person may remember only what is unimportant and forget what is worth remembering. Both memory and Athene are unreliable guides.
Finally, a subjective, overwhelming sense of the present invades Odysseus' hitherto rational, objective consciousness, and this sense of the present represses idealized memory, a fabricated imaginative construct.
For Merwin the only type of memory which is valid is the type which emerges spontaneously and involuntarily as a result of present impressions and one's own sense of presence at a particular time, in a particular place. This type of memory comes into action when Odysseus experiences a sense of alienation, a "sense of being utterly lost," on the third day in Ithaca and he becomes aware again of the oppression he has always known here and yet can never remember when he is not here. Although for the most part Merwin, the mature poet, is uneasy with memory and distrusts it when it does not emanate from the present, but is an idealized rehearsal of a present which is past and thus lives now only in the imagination, the intuitive, involuntary type of memory described above has validity for him because it springs from and participates in the present. It makes the present a means of holding onto experience, of gaining and growing from it. (pp. 31-2)
Cheri Colby Davis, "Merwin's Odysseus," in Concerning Poetry (copyright © 1975, Western Washington University), Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring, 1975, pp. 25-33.
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The journey implied in [the titles of Merwin's Houses and Travellers and The Compass Flower], the journey of life, if you will, occurs time and time again. But it is always full of surprises. In one story a pebble stops for the night, looks up, and then "deep in the stone the first moon rises." In another a reaper discovers a young woman "lying on the ground like a sheaf of wheat, radiant and silent."
Like medieval writers Merwin sees the journey primarily in moral terms. Encounters take on moral values depending upon whether they help or hinder the traveller. People become types rather than individuals; things become symbolic. But while medieval people saw heaven as the end of their journey, we have no such consolation. Our goals remain elusive, mysterious. Thus Merwin's narratives border on allegories to which the key has been lost. One feels more meaning in them than can be expressed.
They have the deceptive simplicity of fairy tales. (pp. 96-7)
Other stories present mythical interpretations of nature, which our lives in civilization have made us unqualified to interpret. First is one of Merwin's favorite adjectives, for his journeys go backward to the beginnings of the world as well as forward to the end of time. But in the present many things have become separated from their true functions, their true meanings, which Merwin attempts to re-establish. The last sentence of "Nothing Began As It Is" might serve as a motto for the book: "The locks say that it is possible for a thing to be separated from its story and never find it again in this world." This world implies another, the other world. We cannot know it now, but Merwin's stories attempt to give us hints and glimpses, reminding us that here we are only sojourners.
His poems perform the same function. Their titles speak of the journey from this world to the next, whatever it might be…. Seasons go by like signposts; autumn pervades the book, perhaps because Merwin himself is now middle-aged. As he moves toward symbolic winter in "The Drive Home," the poet finds a strange joy in the process…. (pp. 97-8)
[In this poem] Merwin uses line and stanza breaks to emphasize important words and give us a sense of the speaker's timing, but with different spacing the poem could be included in his short stories. And many other poems, such as "The Helmsmen," "The Horse," and "Robin," have similar narrative structures.
The poems which attempt to deal directly with industrial civilization ("The Counting Houses," "Line," and "St. Vincent's") must be counted among his least successful efforts, primarily, I think, because his best work strips our lives of unessential things, the junk of civilization. His weak work attempts to treat the junk instead of paring it away. (p. 98)
[His] strength lies elsewhere, in the natural world, which seems at times like a pastoral Never-Never Land. Many of his nature poems have the clarity of a Chinese painting….
And his love poems, in which the book abounds, are among his finest achievements. The lovers move naturally in a natural world. As they embrace in "Summer Doorway" each looks past the other: he sees the candle flames in the house behind her; she sees birds flying home beyond him. At times, in fact, the lover and nature become so close that it is almost impossible to tell them apart. "Kore," a beautiful sequence, refers both to Persephone (nature) and the woman who shares the poet's life. The poems work both ways, the you preserving a delicately-balanced ambiguity.
You were shaking and an air
full of leaves
flowed out of the dark
falls of your hair
down over the rapids
of your knees
until I touched you
and you grew quiet
and raised to me
your hands and your eyes
and showed me
twice my face burning in amber
These are poems of a joyful middle-age, mature love poems, poems of a joyful journey through life to whatever lies beyond it. No American poet since Whitman has been so in love with the invisible world. And no American poet since Whitman has expressed his love of it so well. (p. 99)
Victor Contoski, "The Mysterious Journey," in Moons and Lion Tailes (copyright © 1978 by The Permanent Press), Vol. II, No. 4, 1978, pp. 96-9.
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The poetry of W. S. Merwin comprises things both old and new. Since his first volume A Mask for Janus won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1952, he has in his own way looked forward and backward, developing a distinctive voice as he has mastered a diversity of influence. There have been the years of apprenticeship to Robert Graves on one hand, and on the other the residual but potent influence of the medieval literature in which he has translated extensively. (p. 159)
The occasional medieval posture and the attention to traditional forms in the early years gave way quite abruptly to the dynamics of free association and the psychological dimensions of surrealism. The poetry of the last ten years, however, has explored and broadened the connections between these two seemingly divergent strains. The Drunk in the Furnace (1960) actually begins the transition, and it shows the difficulty in achieving a balance. Merwin speaks here in a strained and roughed-up dramatic colloquy, both consorting with the contrasting elaborate stanzaic forms. A good deal of the volume seems in retrospect to be the expression of an imaginative psyche that growls about the chains which he insists on gilding. The Lice (1967) witnesses an imaginative liberation which in a way ransoms its freedom with the gold of that same inheritance. (pp. 159-60)
Merwin has turned slowly from the estrangement and condensed bitter eloquence of The Lice. In The Compass Flower he draws upon his personal experience, realizing the possibility of emotional fulfillment in a love relation whose crown and focus is the sequence of love poems "Kore." His new priority shows everywhere in a celebration of life lived along the fibre of the sensual being. In this regard, the "Flower" in the title is a symbol of the perfected body of love. The "Compass" is a figure of journeys. Life and art interpenetrate. The book marks a milestone in his attitude and a turning point in his poetic. In the first of its four parts, we see the poet Merwin in transition. The new experience is approached through the processes of the new poetic. There is, likewise, a self-conscious reorientation of earlier techniques. (p. 160)
In "Guardians" Merwin constructs a symbolic tableau that is almost Spenserian in complexity. He is representing that problematical relation between the poet's impulse to formulate meanings and his insulation from experience…. The difficulty of launching the poetic imagination into experience is the guide; she "who is Fear of the Journey" is the Muse companionable. The antitheses of "Fear" and "Journey" are more finely honed in the image of her hands of "cloud and glass"—protection and exposure, the aura and the transparence which she as tutelar spirit is to inspire. What the poem promises, perched atop this ladder of contraries, is a carefully and consciously defined space in which Merwin's poetic expertise and the facts of his experience can respect each other. Several lyrics may be examined as examples of the precept. Where he succeeds, technique is more than mere mechanism. The poetic embodies a compelling and unique sensibility. (pp. 161-62)
In "November", the cloud and glass take the forms of two antithetical temporal schemes—nature's recurrent cycle and evolution's linear process…. The commitment to the data of sense experience has a logical adjunct in a kind of proto-scientific humility and lack of preconception in the face of elementary facts. There is an openness in the whole dialectical structure that includes the pastoral poet's scheme of renascent nature and the scientific outlook. The dichotomy is clear; the last lines respond to that with an utter gratuity. And the rude realistic streak clears the poem of any charge of verbal self-hypnosis. The poem's paradox is built into the poetic of cloud and glass: Merwin succeeds in expressing a sensibility that subsumes longing and reality, prescience and presence, imagination and experience.
The coherent strength of this new poetic is shown in a significant correlative. The idea of the journey of the poetic imagination into experience implies a quest motif. This pursuit seems to me to generate and unify two cycles of poems—the second and third sections of the volume compose one sequence of two parts. The series of lyric moments is a consistent drama of consciousness, addressing the recurrent concerns of sensory presence and emotional and imaginative fulfillment in it. The hero is the poetic imagination, standing behind the glass shield that is his visionary lens. His task is to focus and transfigure all at once. There is a fresh beginning, a struggle and crisis, and an exaltation in the long love poem "Kore." Drawing in Part II on his years of residence in New York, the poet plays protagonist in the arena of urban experience. The new poetic is put on the line. (pp. 163-64)
The speaker's stance "in many windows" reflects the position of estrangement in "Estuary." When the poet steps back, the urban experience is unregenerate, and the stone giant becomes a pebble under the poet's tongue. When he is both antagonist and protagonist, the problem of the poetic isolato cannot revert to polemics—as it may among the younger poetic athletes. The poetic of cloud and glass underlies the tension between the giant's incandescent outline and the facts of experience. It may be seen in this way as a kind of metaphysical conceit that encloses rich psychological content.
The dilemma is not resolved in the second part of the book. The major symbols and motifs—stone, wasteland, journey, animation as regeneration—are transposed onto a new plane in Part III. The natural setting here is salted with the desire of a lover in a physical relationship, and he uses the symbols and images of Part II to recall and resolve the disaffection of the urban experience. The self is drawn out to the objective world through a relation of reciprocal subjects. While the separate poems work as dramatic moments of consciousness in the lyric mode, they induce and arrive at the substance and shape of a vision. (p. 166)
There is for Merwin at this point in his career an internal and essential relation between the regenerative processes of love and poetry. The long love poem "Kore" is built on this equation. The cycle of short lyrics is arranged under the headings of the letters of the Greek alphabet; the sum of the parts is a serial form of the poetic grammar; and the whole is the perfection of desire. It reflects the two-fold theme in the title…. It is as well an appropriate place to conclude the discussion of the poetic of cloud and glass. There are two lyrics whose juxtaposition evinces our major points about the tension between longing and fact. Here the cloud and glass take the form of prophecy and attainment…. The Sibyl, who foretold the future by deciphering the inscriptions on her leaves, is drawn here as the foil of the love poet. She represents emotion on the installment plan, the investment of desire into an imagined future where longing compounds interest in illusions about what love is or should be. The juxtaposition of the two lyrics comprises the tensions we have seen throughout. The lover's heart doubts when the message of the senses is erased: the hero-poet turns that into a gold lamp on the experience at hand. The absent woman is not the gilded object of imagination: she is an anima to inspire the mode of imaginative relation to "the days of cities". The hint of a restoration suggests the regenerative role she plays in the natural world of Part III. Her "eyes of arrival" bring us full circle…. A version of traditional symbolism is preserved to encode his access to real experience, not to record his insulation from it. The Compass Flower marks an end and a beginning in the adventure of this distinctive American poet. (pp. 167-68)
Vincent B. Sherry, Jr., "W. S. Merwin," in Contemporary Literature (© 1980 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 21, No. 1. Winter, 1980, pp. 159-68.
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To what extent Merwin has been influenced, directly or indirectly, by Rousseau or Novalis or Shelley, I will not hazard a guess. It is difficult, however, to read his two most recent collections, The Compass Flower and Feathers from the Hill, without thinking of those earlier writers. For one thing, the poems in the books are full of nature—lots of wind and rain, rocks and trees, sky and breaking waves—and urban life, when it is treated, is regarded as a pretty sorry affair. For another, the tone of the poems is intensely private: even poems which express a longing to escape the self are obsessively introspective. Finally, the poems aspire to artlessness: they are "free," and free with a vengeance. Characteristic of the poems in The Compass Flower is "Apples."… The units of syntax here tend to coincide with the linear units of the poem, but otherwise there is no discernible principle of form: no meter, no rhyme, no regular stanzaic pattern. Neither is there punctuation or customary use of majuscules, and the grammar (the dangling modifier which opens the poem is not untypical of Merwin) is elliptical. Nothing … would appear to be weighing on or binding down the poet.
Yet composition cannot proceed wholly by accident. Every poet must employ some method of presenting his material—even if that method consists of nothing more than a Dadaist pulling of words from a hat. And however free-flowing "Apples" may appear, the poem is governed by a simple structural device: the assertion and elaboration of bizarre metaphors. The keys are, successively, a jagged string of broken bird song, a shingle beach, the ruins of a glass mountain. No less versatile are the hands: they are empty as waves, stir the shingle beach and the remnants of the glass mountain, and then melt all the keys save the one that unlocks the door which opens onto a morning the color of apples. The theory behind such a procedure is, I suppose, that the emphasis and re-emphasis supplied by the startling locutions will arrest, hold, and direct the reader's attention through the poem—just as in a poem in a traditional measure the meter, rhyme, and stanza pattern might direct the reader's attention. (pp. 484-85)
Merwin's metaphors are certainly unusual, and if they are not invariably clear …, they do give pleasure. It's fun to see disparate things conjoined, even if one is unsure what the conjunction signifies. But metaphor can be overused, and when it is, several problems may result. First, if a poet continually piles one peculiar figure of speech on top of another, the reader, however great his capacity for rich and exotic language, may eventually feel he's had rather enough chocolates for now, thank you. Second, a poet ever intent on metonymical acrobatics is doomed to take spills here and there…. Finally, there is the following danger: if a poet constructs his poems exclusively, as Merwin so often does, by means of a single rhetorical device, that device may cease to function as a means to an end—that end being the exploration of a subject—and become an end in itself.
It is this final problem that is the most serious and the most relevant to Merwin's work, for frequently Merwin's poems seem simply pursuits of figurative extravagance. There are just too many poems like "Apples" in The Compass Flower…. Refreshing as some of Merwin's oddities are, their presentation seems ultimately mechanical and suggests that the poet, for all his apparent freedom, is in fact composing by rote and that his poems are less explorations of experience than workings out of a verbal mannerism.
Not all the poems in The Compass Flower are determined by a relentless production of metaphor, but many of the ones that are not are mechanical in other ways…. Consider, for instance, "June Rain."… We are given in the first six words of the poem a syntactical formula (rain + modification) which is repeated and varied throughout the poem. Toward the end of the poem, the formula appears four times consecutively, and then the poem closes by means of a simple inversion of the formula (modification + rain). The poem is rhetorically skillful, but it is extremely slight. Though some of the lines … contain fine description, others … suggest the maudlin vagueness of bad pop songs. Nor is there any economy in the handling of the material of the poem. The poet could have easily deleted certain lines without damaging the effect of the poem, or conversely, he could have drizzled on for ten or fifteen lines more. He could also, for that matter, have entitled the piece "March Snow," and with emendations here and there, come up with essentially the same result. The subject of the poem doesn't matter; the poem exists for the working out of the formula, for the rhetorical repetitions. "June Rain" provides possibly the clearest illustration of this particular procedure in The Compass Flower…. (pp. 485-87)
There is one more mannerism which strikes me as crucial in the poet's work. I refer now to Merwin's pronouns, many of which are distinguished by a lack of antecedent. While the curiosities which result from this practice lend a piquancy to certain poems, one can't help wishing one knew more about the ghostly entities drifting hither and yon through the verses. One might be able to suppress one's impatience if Merwin exercised some restraint, but as is the case with the metaphors and the rhetorical repetitions, he does not. Nor are these floating pronouns a recent innovation: they are a device, again like the metaphors and the rhetorical repetitions, he has been plying for some time now. (p. 487)
Merwin's newest work, Feathers from the Hill, is a little volume of poems written in quasi-haiku tercets. They are free of some of the mannerisms that afflict The Compass Flower, but they nevertheless share many qualities with the earlier work. We have the conjunction of the disparate:
Laughter of crows late in the month
spun saucer settling
sunset moving south
a conjunction which seems at times unwittingly grotesque:
A silence begins
soon many feet
are heard running
and at times inane:
Garbage dog bell cat
kitchen mouse banister jay
Implicit in that final snippet is the notion … that one need merely denominate something and the reader will have an immediate (and somehow appropriate) response…. [The] elevation of the particular and the fragmentary that characterizes Feathers from the Hill … is suggestive of early and late Romantics such as Friedrich Schlegel and Blake, Pound the Imagist, and Dr. ("no ideas but in things") Williams. Other things in the collection indicative of a Romantic influence are the many thumbnail celebrations of the wonders of nature, the many instances of the pathetic fallacy, and the fact that at one point the poet goes so far as to apostrophize the stars…. Overall, the collection makes for very depressing reading: the kind of thing Merwin does here has been done before and done better. (p. 489)
[Merwin's] world is not without its felicities, but it is fundamentally self-enclosed; it does not presuppose a common world which we all may share and which transcends the vagaries of our individual perceptions of it. And although Merwin has, I think, some interesting themes (he is obviously concerned, for example, with the difficulties and fragilities of human relationships), his methods of composition are so inflexible that he rarely is able to deal in any significant way with these themes. No sooner does he start to write than he yields up the poem to some mechanical eccentricity of style. (pp. 489-90)
Reading Merwin, I have almost no sense of a line, almost no sense that the poet is working with any special pattern of stress or cadence. To those who object that I should not look for such qualities in Merwin because he is engaged in exploring his artistic freedom, I can only reply that Merwin's work is anything but free. It is, as I've indicated, ruled by formulas far more arbitrary and tyrannical than anything a traditional prosody might impose. (p. 490)
Merwin has many admirers, and my remarks may sit ill with them. But the tendencies Merwin embodies are severely limiting; there are richer ways of examining experience in verse. Among poets of Merwin's generation who offer fruitful alternatives to the manneristic procedures discussed in this review may be numbered Philip Larkin, Edgar Bowers, Richard Wilbur, and Thom Gunn. Unfortunately, these writers appear to represent a distinct minority at the moment. This is a shame, for we need a poetry at once more adventurous and intelligent, more rigorous and humane, than the kind of verse we've grown accustomed to—the kind of verse represented by W. S. Merwin. (p. 491)
Timothy Steele, "Recent Verse of W. S. Merwin" (copyright, 1980, by Timothy Steele), in The Southern Review, Vol. 16, No. 2. April, 1980, pp. 483-91.
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