W. S. Merwin Merwin, W(illiam) S(tanley) (Vol. 18) - 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 1971 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Cheri Colby Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Victor Contoski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Vincent B. Sherry, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Timothy Steele

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 1476 words.)