W. S. Merwin

Start Free Trial

W. S. Merwin with Jack Myers and Michael Simms (interview date 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: An interview in Southwest Review, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 164-80.

[Myers is an American educator, poet, biographer, and critic. Simms is an American educator, poet, and critic. In the following interview, which was conducted in 1982 during Southern Methodist University's eighth annual literature festival, Merwin comments on creative writing programs, his development as a poet, the writing process, and his ideas regarding translation.]

[Simms]: Bill, unlike most contemporary poets, you have not made a career of teaching. Recently, you started teaching for the first time. How do you like it?

[Merwin]: I love it. But I'm very spoiled. I'm teaching at Cooper Union, in New York City, and there's no Humanities major at Cooper Union; it's basically for architects, fine arts students, and civil engineers. They're taking a poetry course because they want to take a poetry course, not because anybody told them to. They want to. So this is a wonderful place to start. They have to tell me why they think it's a good idea; and I have only twenty students, so it's not a hard job at all.

Do you teach workshops?

No, it's not a course in writing books; it's a course in reading books, and that's a much more unwelcome subject.

On the spectrum of, say, Robert Bly to the right of the opinion of academic workshops and someone like Marvin Bell on the left of the spectrum, where do you stand in relation to teaching poetry workshops?

I suppose I'm a little closer to Robert Bly, in that I've obviously always avoided it. But I've always liked visiting workshops. I really quarrel with the word workshop in the first place. I mean, it seems to be terribly earnest. Nobody sits around shaving pieces of wood or anything like that. It also assumes there is some kind of earnest and anonymous activity there which is done like the apprenticeship in an old painter's studio, and I don't think that's what happens very often. I think there are a lot of things to be said for workshops, for writing courses, but they are not courses, and sometimes what happens in them is not writing. And I don't like the word creative, so the vocabulary is pretty limited for me to talk about this. But having writing in an academic setting is obviously a very good thing. I've always discouraged its being done for credit, because the very idea of young writers starting out with the idea of writing for credit is already a little suspect. There is no credit. Who's going to give you credit? What does it mean? And it can create dependencies which I'm very suspicious of.

My own fetish is independence. So I'm very suspicious of that, and I'm very suspicious of several other things. It encourages association between the act or the ambition or the aspiration to write and careerism and competition and status-seeking—all of these things that are only too easy to associate with the act of writing, and with the idea of living. Making that a part of one's life. That's putting the Bly in there. And I've seen a lot of that. The better known the writing program, the worse it seems to be. On the other hand, the chance to associate with other people who really care about writing, and about poetry, and to have time set aside to write and to be associated with somebody who's more experienced, can be very valuable. These things can be sorted out, though never completely; but insofar as they can be sorted out,...

(This entire section contains 7384 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

obviously there are some very good writers coming out of these programs. Usually, they've had a hard time outgrowing the programs afterward, but they have come out of them and the programs have done some good.

There's another thing you could say against them (actually, you could say this about the quality of publications in the United States in general), but there's a whole lot of writing that you can pretty well tell where it comes from. You can look at it and you don't see an individual voice nearly so much as you see the background in which that person spent several years supposedly learning how to write.

You're talking about the "workshop poems"?

Yes. There is no "workshop poem," but there are a lot of different workshop poems. I'd rather put it another way. We were talking earlier about the "poetry of erasure," [the title of a lecture delivered by poet/critic Richard Howard at the M.F.A. Program at Vermont College in August, 1982,] the kind that disappears as fast as you read it. I'm reminded of Czeslaw Milosz, who began with a very conventional, almost medieval, education in literature and language. But there was no presumption that anyone could write, except to the people who were writing. One of the first things of his that I read, The Captive Mind, was a very important book to me, and it's one of the books that's not been reprinted or had much fuss made about it since his Nobel Prize. It's a very disturbing book; it asks some very disturbing questions about the relationship between imagination and authority, and the imagination and institutional and organizational structures of all kinds. Political ones in his book that, as you know from the happy resurgence of feminism in recent years, are built into most human relationships. And, by implication, what he's talking about in eastern Europe applies, one way or another, to all conformist situations. The more conformist the people are, the more they distrust others individually and the more they trust themselves individually. And there's one extraordinary moment in the book when he talks about having grown up essentially in a medieval setting, and about learning Latin and classical literature. His father was a great poet and a great folklorist. He learned a lot of folklore, especially from the Middle Ages, the early strata of the psyche of Europe. And then one day, finding that he was in the town where he'd grown up, where in the winter bears wandered into the edge of town, he was lying on the cobblestone and the machine-gun bullets were sailing past him, and up the block at the corner, friends of his were being herded into a truck at machine-gun point, and he found himself thinking, "What do I want to remember? What could I take with me? I mean, I might get killed or I might have to leave here immediately in the next ten minutes, and what of all that I've read do I want to take with me?" I read this at a point in my own writing when I had really come to the end of a way of writing, and I thought, "That's something never to forget, you know, I don't want to write 'poetry of erasure,' the poetry that gets published in only one of 1,200 magazines. I want to write something that somebody wants to take with them." And that probably means something.

There are a lot of things you can't take for granted. And I think there are many things that a lot of contemporary writers take for granted. They take for granted the greater stability in our society. I mean, if you really are confident enough to write as much as some people write, I guess it assumes that somewhere libraries are going to last forever and that people are going to be willing to carry these things around in a wheelbarrow. Or that everybody's going to have his own computer to read the whole of world literature in his living room. I think these people are more optimistic than I am.

[Myers]: I'm curious about the kind of space you live inside of to write. Do you have some kind of self-imposed discipline, some kind of schedule or habits that you could talk about?

Well, I used to write every day. I like to think that I do; sometimes there are great gaps when I can't, when there are other things going on. But yes, Flaubert, who came after the generation of the Romantics, said that inspiration consisted of sitting in front of the same table for the same two hours every day.

[Simms]: So discipline is very important.

I think it is. I think maybe if you've done it for enough years early on you can do it in your head after that. Mandelstam, a great Russian poet of the twentieth century, died when he was forty-eight in a concentration camp. He wrote only four pieces of prose. He kept everything in his head. He never wrote anything down. He was a very vehement man. And in the fourth piece of prose he said, "I am the only poet in Russia. All the rest of you fools write!"

[Simms]: Do you have any rituals when you write, like some people who have to have an apple on the left side of the desk?

I don't believe in them. I suppose I've got lots of them.

[Myers]: Is there a sensory process you go through?

Well, I shut the door.

[Myers]: I have such a sense of silence and solitude from your work, and space within that, that I feel that when you sit down to write, there must be some kind of almost unconscious process you go through to write.

Well, if it were so, and I could tell you what it was, it wouldn't be your process, so it wouldn't help you very much. This is part of many paradoxes and dichotomies of my life. I think that if you can lead a life, parts of your life at least, where you can have a disciplined way of going about it, you spend a certain amount of time with nothing happening. Unfortunately, everybody always does imagine that the bulk of literature has something happening all the time. But I try to be just intolerable every morning, so that people will leave me alone. If you can do it that way, then you find that writing happens in all sorts of other places too, and under all sorts of other circumstances. I'm just extrapolating from my own experience, but over a period of months, every day, you find that things are happening outside those hours; whereas, if you're counting on a bolt of lightning to strike you before you do anything, it probably won't.

The discipline makes the possibility of things happening outside of it. We all know that if you set yourself the task of writing an extremely boring paper, on the regularity of the spark of a four-cylinder engine or something like that (it might not bore somebody else, but it would bore me to write that), you'd find that you'd be full of ideas for other things. And if somebody said, "Write about something else," you'd go completely blank.

[Myers]: Yes, one is imprisoned by that freedom. I want to talk about your development. In my eyes you are a very developmental poet. Your early works have very formal characteristics, then you went toward a much freer, fused kind of syntax that lends itself to a floating feeling, what someone has called a "Post-apocalyptic voice." And that's an incredible transformation to make. Could you tell us a little bit about that process of change you went through in your writing?

It's probably less deliberate than it sounds, than it's been made into. When someone talks about a thing like that, it always sounds as though the person who has gone through the change sort of sat down and figured out what they're going to do next. What I remember happening in the late fifties was coming to the end, in fact, of The Drunk in the Furnace and thinking that I'd come to the end of something and I didn't know what was going to happen next, but I knew that it wasn't going to be the same thing. Because that seemed to me to be something I knew about, in a way. I think that poetry, and maybe all writing, certainly everything we do to some degree, does not come out of what you know, but out of what you don't know. And one of the great superficialities of positivistic thinking is the assumption that things really evolve out of what you know. Nothing evolves out of what you know. You don't move from what you know to something else you know. And it's the unknown that keeps rendering possibilities.

So I really came to the point where I was dissatisfied with what I knew, and I wanted greater access to what I didn't know. There's no way to get through a time like that except to wait. That's a very good thing. Sometimes that time of dissatisfaction might happen to somebody younger, and that would be a deadly time to be in a writing course, because writing would be the very last thing you could do under those circumstances. I think that far more than calculation, deliberate calculation—and a poet begins to smell the kind of writing that comes out of deliberate calculation—what happens with poetry from one poem to the next, from one line to the next, from one word to the next, and certainly from one phase to the next, is much closer to listening for something. You don't know what it is you're listening for, but you recognize it when you hear it. Discipline has a lot to do with it. And also caring about poetry. There are several ways of listening. You can deafen yourself by reading so much and depending on it too much.

We talked about dependence. You can reach a point where you depend upon what you hear, or someone else's voice. This, of course, is very dangerous. It's a very tricky business, but I think you spend your whole life learning how to listen. And what you're listening for is something nobody else can hear. So nobody else can tell you how to do it. That's what makes it difficult, what makes it exciting, and what makes it never finished. That means you're always beginning the whole thing. One of the most terrible things that any course could do for you would be to make you feel that it was really valuable. You know? It shows you the way. It may teach you how to walk, but finally, you have to walk. If it led you to feel that somebody had to be along holding you by the hand and holding you up all the time, it wouldn't really have taught you how to walk. It wouldn't have taught you that you just put one foot out into empty air, in front of the next one, which is what you keep doing. If it weren't for empty air, you would be stubbing your toe all the time.

[Simms]: You've been talking about the change you went through after your first four books. What about the change your work went through after the sixties, after Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment? It seems to me that the work went through a further change. It turned more toward prose; you more or less abandoned that stark style which was yours in the sixties and was very successful. What made you change it that time?

I don't altogether know the answer to that. I don't know if it changed completely or if it was suddenly a difference in focus, in direction. The Lice, which is the book most people seem to read, is very strange because, when it was published and for some years thereafter, it was spoken of by some people as a book that was so bleak and black and pessimistic that it was practically intolerable. That on the one hand. And on the other, that it was so obscure nobody could understand it. I always wondered how the two criticisms could live in the same room with each other. There was one teacher in a university in those years who said she didn't understand this poem but she was frightened. I said, "Why are you frightened if you don't understand it? I mean, you must understand something to respond to it. Why don't you pay attention to your response?" I don't understand why some of those reactions took place. I can guess that it had something to do with the times and with what people wanted or didn't want to think. I really thought I was trying to write more directly and simply in that book at a time when there was a wind of desperation and a feeling that too much was being written in a society in which writing was of decreasing importance. And that viewed historically, there was very little hope for the world we all live in. We were all bent on destroying it. And I think we are.

I don't feel much more optimistic about our historic circumstance now than I did then. I feel very angry about it. I don't like seeing what we are doing to the world around us and the arrogance that's part of it. I feel implicated in it and angry. I realize that what James Watt is doing is being done in my name. And I feel outraged. It's irreversible even if he tries to stop what he has done. It cannot be undone. I don't know a way, an easy formula, a nice way around it, and I understand the arguments for convenience that are being made, but they are just for our convenience.

But you can't just dwell on nothing but your own helpless anger. Some people do, but I think it's very limiting. If you are just angry, what are you being angry about? If there is nothing you care about, what difference does it make what happens to the world? And the work shifts. The same year that The Lice was written was the year of the Cuban missile crisis. I'd been an activist for several years trying to work against the arms race. Just before the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy authorized another set of atmospheric tests in the Pacific. It was followed almost immediately by the missile crisis, and that was followed by a wave of chauvinism that I felt really nauseated by. I'd walk around New York and go into bars that I was familiar with and hear people saying we should have dropped a bomb on them years ago. I thought, "Most of these are people who don't like their lives. These aren't happy people saying I'm willing to blow up the world to maintain my own happiness: these people are saying I'm willing to blow up the world so that my own particular kind of misery doesn't change." I thought, "I wake up every morning knowing what I hate. If someone asks me how would you live if you could live the way you wanted to, I wouldn't have a very good answer." And I thought, "Well, I better find out. That is just as important as knowing what the dangers are." So I lived differently for a number of years, and I suppose that is part of the answer. You can be angry about what's happening to animals or to the whole of northern Canada or to the Amazon basin, or you can turn it around and think, "Well in the limited time left, why not pay attention to other people and to animals and to what's there?"

There is a marvelous passage in Thoreau's journals where he talks about the enclosure of the conquered common, a subject which he has in common with John Clare, a generation earlier in England, who went crazy with despair over what was happening to the common. Thoreau said that from now on it would be impossible to pick huckleberries on wild land; it would always be on somebody's land. This was a small point, but Thoreau understood how important it was. The next thing he says is, in a way, an answer to your question. He said, "I have not been grateful enough for the years in which I could pick huckleberries."

Being angry about it at that point is partly anger at yourself for what you haven't seen. This is not a place to stay, this circle of the envious in Dante's Purgatorio. One of the great things in that poem is that the punishments aren't punishments; all they are is a dramatization of the error itself. Dante knew that sin, in the Christian sense, means to err. The Greek base is a word from archery meaning "missing the target." The error is acted out in each of these cases. And the envious are sitting against the stone wall up there huddling against each other. And their eyelids are stitched up with wire, and the tears are running out between their eyelids, and the point is that when they could see they didn't look—they didn't see. Now they are dreading the fact that they didn't see, and they are wishing that their eyes would open. So they listen.

[Myers]: That explains the contradiction that one finds in The Lice. The beauty in the book is a positive value that comes out as beauty of the voice in music. But it's a very negative book: there are no people in it, the stones are asleep talking to one another. A kind of scary void exists within it. So it's not really a contradiction; it's fused opposites that make a whole.

If no one recognized that scary void, no one would pay attention.

[Myers]: Now let's talk about how translation has affected your work.

In ways, I'm sure, that I don't know. For at least ten years, I tried to keep translation and my own writing very distinct and not do what, for example, Robert Lowell did [in Imitations]: start with a translation and then gradually turn it into whatever he felt like. I always thought that was a way of misguiding everybody, including myself. Lowell did it with immense talent and his ear was marvelous, so you read the poems. But I don't feel he raised me closer to Baudelaire or Rimbaud. He brings me closer to something of his own.

I started translating when I was eighteen, as part of that discipline we were talking about. I went to see Ezra Pound in a nut house in Washington [St. Elizabeth's]—I just wandered in by myself—and we had a lot to talk about even though there was a great age difference. He said, "If you want to be a poet you should write every day." And he said, "At your age you don't have anything to write about. You may think you have a subject, but you don't know what it is yet." So he said, "What you should do is translate." He also said something that I certainly think is true: that anybody who wants to write should see if he has any linguistic gift. Pound was much more autocratic than I am, saying that everybody should learn a language. Some people can't learn languages—I really believe that—at least after a certain age, but I think they are pretty rare. If you start young enough, everybody can learn languages fairly easily. I would like to have been learning languages all my life. I've gone through periods of giving up and letting it go. I would like to have been a little more studious about that. But learning languages and translating is the way to work every day. Try to translate and try to see how close to the original you can get. Pound did say to start by getting just as close to the form of the original as possible. I tried that and came to the conclusion that it was not the way to go for me, probably not for anybody.

I don't think any particular poet I have translated had an immediate influence on what I was writing. I would have tended to avoid translating if I had found that happening; but I think that reading a lot of Spanish and French and Portuguese poetry inevitably influenced me. Especially since I started writing in the forties and fifties—a particularly starchy time in English, and a good time to be reading Neruda, as I did when I was in college—and realized that although it was hard to imagine doing it in English, it was possible, and sooner or later one would find a way of doing those things. Not just sounding like Neruda or Jiménez or Lorca or any of the people that I first ran into, but realizing that the possibilities were not just what they seemed to be at that time in English. That's one of the dangers of any period's conventions: everybody to some degree thinks those are the only possibilities, and writers of each age feel they have made some tremendous break-through and have found the only way to do it, which just shows they are locked into their own little cultural pattern. Then along comes another generation that says, "It doesn't really matter. We'll do it another way."

[Myers]: So this is the change from translating according to the letter of the original toward translating more in the spirit of the original. So there is more freedom: Pound's idea of adaptation.

I think it's good not to have the right words. I mean nobody ever does, you know. Sure, it's the spirit that makes you want to do it, but it's the letter that makes it possible. If you had just the spirit, you wouldn't have any letter at all. I'm not saying that the form of the original is not important; I think it's obviously essential. It's inseparable from the original poem, but it is also inseparable from the original language. And so you can't really bring it over. What you have to do is sense how the form is working with the original poem and try to make it work that way in the poem that you're trying to make in English. And there is no formula for how that's to be done. If there were, we could have computer translations, and some people tell us we can have.

[Myers]: How do you feel about critics and poets who have said that the translations done in the last twenty years have flattened out American poetry?

[Simms]: Created a "translationese"

I know that's a common criticism, but I don't know what it's flattened out from.

[Simms]: I think Jack is talking about the fear of losing our native idiom of American speech, the fear that translation may dilute or cause us to lose the flavor of our national character.

I don't know. It's hard to tell who the critics are talking about. And they can give examples, but this is one of the things that is hard to talk about. I mean if you take John Keats's generation and see who was writing…. There were far fewer people then, but all the poets look pretty much alike. I think a lot of them look pretty uninteresting too. But when you look at that period, who do you read? You read: Keats (pretty distinct), Shelley (pretty distinct), Wordsworth, and Byron, and Coleridge, and Clare, and Hood. They're all pretty unmistakable, but if you put them back in the period, it looks as though everybody was writing the same. And to blame it on translation, to blame it on the thing that really broke it out of the sort of belletristic sardine-can verse that a lot of English poets are still writing today because they're still in the fifties, is, I think, rather graceless. I don't think there is a single voice that's been made out of it. Do we really think on the basis of translation that Mandelstam and Neruda and Jean Follain sound the same? I don't think so.

[Myers]: I think the argument goes that the young poets who are influenced by the American or English translations are using these as models for poetry and flattening out what was the beautiful music of one hundred years ago in English verse.

Well, there is an unpopular thing that could be said against writing programs. Most writing programs that I've seen focus heavily on the twentieth century, particularly on the post-World War II period. This is something that's never happened before in literary history. I don't think of myself as being particularly old, but my generation are the oldest poets writing. This has never happened before, and it's been so for almost ten years. We don't have any others. Robert Penn Warren, I suppose, Stanley Kunitz—I mean there's not a generation, only one or two figures are left. And that's true not only of much older people, but of a generation before us. They all disappeared: Lowell, Roethke, Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, you can run down the list, they're all gone. They all died within a few years of each other. It's bootless to ask why. Nobody knows why. So there's a great link with the past that's broken.

Virtually everybody of my generation went through a kind of critical period when they were about thirty, and really examined a way of writing which they had been doing up until then in a relatively unexamining way, and chose to write differently and came out writing differently. This is the thing we started our talk about. But before that time the writing of all of us—and this goes even for Allen Ginsberg—had had a certain amount to do with formal verse, and, in fact, I was one of several people who taught a course with Allen in the history of the English lyric. Allen started it because he found that when he mentioned the "Ode to a Skylark" to a bunch of students nobody knew what he was talking about. When he mentioned Christopher Smart nobody knew who he was talking about. Finally he said, "Who did you people read when you were growing up," and they said, "You," and he said, "That's a big comedown. We are going to start at the beginning."

This is the thing that's flattened out—writers are imitating each other. And they are imitating only their immediate elders. English poetry is a relatively recent growth in the Western world. And certainly the English poetry of the post-World War II period is a tiny fraction of English poetry. I don't see how you can love poetry and limit yourself to two generations, because Shakespeare wrote poetry too; so did Chaucer and Alexander Pope. One of the things that's been interesting about my class at Cooper Union has been to start by exploring this very subject and find that of twenty people in the room not one person ever heard of Alexander Pope. I thought that this was probably the most unfashionable place to start. I believe the reason Pope is so unpopular has to do with the Romantics in England, and an assumption has been made ever since then about metrical and regular verse. But part of the assumption is based on the fact that people for various reasons have stopped being able to hear it; they don't hear it at all. All they hear is a sort of tick tock tick tock … and that's not what Pope was doing. Pope is one of the metrically supplest poets in English. Or he wouldn't have been as admired as he was by some other poets. When students began to hear it, within two sessions they were bringing in passages of Pope because they were laughing at them, or finding them moving, finding that they identified with this eighteenth-century hunchback whose life was totally different from theirs.

[Myers]: Now let's have some questions from the audience.

[Marshall Terry]: I've been reading with real pleasure your new book, Unframed Originals, the memoirs about your family and background. I want to ask you about the impulse at your age now to do that and about the impulse of putting the various kinds of material into different forms: poetry, prose poetry, memoir, or fiction.

Marshall, I don't have a theoretical answer, but I would like to try to answer that very question with examples. I don't know how one comes out finding that certain things really belong in poems and certain things belong, if one's right, in prose. But later on I'd like to read some of that book, and some poems that have to do with the same subject twenty years earlier, and then some others that were written later. The reason for these things I don't know. I don't know why some mornings I have eggs for breakfast and some mornings I don't. I certainly don't have a theoretical answer. Someone asked Schumann, "Why was that passage in A minor?" and he said, "That was the key that belonged there."

[Student]: What would you do to help children to grow up loving poetry?

I have only a fleeting, passing relation with that question. I don't actually teach children; I have many friends who do and we talk about that. And I think it's a matter of enormous importance. I also think it's natural for children to like poetry and it's essential that they do. If they grow up without it, they are deprived of something they need. They're deprived in our world of a lot of things they need; I'm not saying they're never going to live without it, but they need it. And of course the most obvious way of helping them do that is to get them to pay attention to their dreams and to the details of the world around them. I've watched people getting children to strive to write about their dreams and to write about, for example, three things in the house that they really like. You find that they don't make a list, they really start telling about something.

[Student]: You said you're involved in teaching people about reading poetry now. What if someone were to come to you and say that they weren't familiar with contemporary poetry or, more specifically, your poetry, and they wanted your advice on how to approach it. What would you tell them?

Will you be represented in the "someone"?

[Student]: Yes.

What would you be looking for?

[Student]: Well, some poetry you read for sound, other poetry for meaning, and some poetry for the images. Or you read for all three.

I wonder if that's really so. I wonder if you don't always read for all of those things. Does anybody ever read a poem just for the sound? If you did you might as well read it in a language you didn't understand.

[Student]: Sometimes, some things are more important than others.

That's true, there's a difference of emphasis and degree. But I think that if you attach enough importance to the sound itself, that becomes the meaning, the meaning of what you're looking for. I certainly hope that's not true of poems of mine, but it could conceivably be true, and that's why I asked you what you're reading for. But one of the ways I've been working with students at Cooper Union is that I've made up a thematic progression and they've been bringing in poems every week that have to do with part of that thematic progression; one particular theme but coming from different periods, from the contemporary period or the period between Shakespeare and the twentieth century or the period before that. Three poems each week from each person. Take a really simple theme like animals; you're going to bring in three very different poems. And the assumption is that these are poems you like, so you're going to have to explore. Nobody can tell you what you like. You could bring in a lousy poem, but in the course of talking about it with other people you may begin to find why it's a little bit lousy and why it really doesn't work, or it may take you six weeks or six months or six years to find that out. But it's really more important to examine your response. An awful lot of literature is taught at present with very good intentions, purely to feed … knowledge. You know a lot about the poem, but the poem really doesn't mean anything to you. And there's nothing wrong with the knowledge, but if it really doesn't have anything to do with your response, if it really doesn't involve you, you really haven't even read the poem yet. So you're the best answer to the question. You have to find the answer to it yourself. If you really care about reading poetry, you'll find some of the answers yourself just by going on reading it.

[Student]: I have been hypnotized by the voice of your poems for years. When you compose the poems or when you read your poems out loud, do you hear that voice in your head?

Yes, I always hear it, and I can't imagine that poetry ever happens any other way. I really believe it's impossible to have poetry divorced from the sound of the words. I think that one must always hear. Mandelstam didn't write; he composed aloud all the time. And he began to mumble when he was beginning to compose, and it really took him over. There's an incredible book that his wife wrote about their years of exile together in Russia. Very often they only had one very small room, and he had a great phase of writing quite late. They're incredibly powerful poems. This thing took him over for several years, and she said that when he started writing a poem, the only thing she needed to do was roll over in bed and look at the wall for a while, just to try to get out of the way. When he finished, he would tell her the poem, and she would write it down. She wrote most of them down; this was an interior process because she knew that every apartment she lived in would be raided by the police, and all of her friends' apartments would be too. The police would be looking for manuscripts, so the Mandelstams tried to obliterate all evidence completely, and so she memorized everything, including the prose, and kept it in her head for thirty years. She used to work at factories reciting these things to herself. It's a wonderful example of something that I think is always there. It began with him hearing something, and he was working out how he heard it, and then she went on hearing it through the process of memory.

There's a wonderful thing in Eliot's essay on Blake. It wasn't particularly sympathetic with Blake; in fact, I don't like the essay in some ways. But he says some marvelous things about the relation between sound and meaning in some poems. Everybody who reads Blake's poem "The Tyger" recognizes at once that this is a very great poem. I've been reading the poem all of my life, and I'm not sure that I understand it. There are certain things about it that are very clear, but there are certain things about it that are just so mysterious and elusive that I don't know what they're about. But, as with one's dreams, one doesn't doubt that it's absolutely authentic. It goes on and it goes on meaning all the time, not necessarily in a one-to-one intellectual way. It's not an allegory. When we have exhausted all of that, the poem has only begun. Eliot said there are passages in the poem that he'd heard for years before he'd really begun to understand them.

[Student]: Do you find that knowing the poet personally helps you in translating his work?

I think it probably does help. Certainly it helps to stimulate the translation. It's much easier to go and ask questions about it. There are lots of obvious ways in which it helps. It also prejudices you, and you may find you're translating poems you didn't want to translate. But, sure, if you're going to be translating somebody, it would be nice to know him. One of the problems in translating, I guess, is trying to hear what the original is, to try to figure out why you want to translate the poem and then bring your translation as close as possible to answering that question. There are so many translations that I've finished and asked myself, "Well, if the original is really like that, why was it ever translated?" You don't want anybody ever to answer that question. You should think that somewhere in the translation you'll get a clear idea of why the poem was worth translating. But you should never assume that a translation is possible.

[Simms]: It's necessary but impossible.

That's right. When I really began to think about translation after years of doing it without thinking too much about it, a funny thing happened. I was reading at the time some translations of Egyptian hieroglyphs, The Book of the Dead. I noticed a very strange thing. When I read the transliteration of the hieroglyphs, it was very exciting, but when I turned to the back of the book and read it in so called "good English," it was as dull as could be. So the translator made an assumption about what was good English instead of leaving something open to see if something about the language could be captured. There's always something a little bit out of the ordinary about the language of poetry, you know, and if you get it too close to the ordinary, too close to what anybody would have done, then you're obviously getting away from the original even if you seem to be getting closer to it, because the original isn't like that. If it really were that flat, you wouldn't have translated it. So I tried to do some translations which were really getting close to the strangenesses of the word order of the original.

This is a poem of Francisco de Quevedo, who was a great Baroque Spanish poet. This was a sonnet. It's not translated as a sonnet, but it has the kind of units of energy that work the way they do in the sonnet. The attempt was to do something that would have the same kind of impact in English that the sonnet had. If you translate a sonnet as a sonnet, you lose something because the form is part of the original language. A sonnet in Spanish means one thing, and in English it means something else. So you can knock yourself out to reproduce the sonnet, and you've still got something else. So, why have you done that? This is one of the inessential things: that sonnet is part of the Spanish; the original language is what you leave behind. But that kind of poem works. It has a certain impact in Spanish, and I've tried to reproduce the impact in English and at the same time not be stuck in the kind of obvious "good English" word order. So this is the way the sonnet comes out, and even the title is closer to the Spanish word order than to the kind of obvious English translation: "Love Constant beyond Death." The title makes you wonder what part of the sentence it is, or whether it's the whole sentence.

       Last of the shadows may close my eyes        goodbye then white day        and with that my soul untie        its dear wishing        yet will not forsake        memory of this shore where it burned        but still burning swim        that cold water again        careless of the stern law        soul that kept God in prison        veins that to love led such fire        marrow that flamed in glory        not their heeding will leave        with their body        but being ash will feel        dust be dust in love

You wouldn't have written an English sonnet like that. A real translation, even if it's in a way you can't notice, shouldn't just relax in what's already there in English, but should always be making English do something it never quite did before.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

W. S. Merwin 1927–

(Full name William Stanley Merwin) American poet, short story writer, autobiographer, dramatist, translator, essayist, and editor.

The following entry provides an overview of Merwin's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 18, and 45.

One of the most prolific contemporary American poets, Merwin writes stylistically diverse poems that frequently display a moral concern for the state of contemporary society and the natural world. In much of his writing, he presents a despairing view of civilization that is only occasionally tempered by expressions of hope. Merwin has been consistently praised as a technically accomplished writer and has won several prestigious awards for his works, including the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Carrier of Ladders (1970).

Biographical Information

Born in New York City, Merwin grew up in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. In 1947 he graduated from Princeton University with an A.B. and subsequently completed one year of graduate study in modern languages. From 1949–1950, he worked as a tutor in France, Portugal, and Majorca, Spain, where he taught the son of poet Robert Graves. During the early 1950s he worked in London, England, translating Spanish and French classics for the British Broadcasting Corporation, and published his first collection of poetry, A Mask for Janus (1952). Returning to the United States in 1956, he was playwright-in-residence at the Poets' Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1962 he served as poetry editor for the Nation, and from 1964–1965 he lived in Lyon, France, where he was an associate with Roger Planchon's Théâtre de la Cité. Merwin has received numerous grants, fellowships, and prizes throughout his career, including a Ford Foundation grant in 1964, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant in 1968, the 1969 P.E.N. Translation Prize for Selected Translations, 1948–1968 (1968), and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973. Most recently, Merwin received the 1994 Tanning Poetry Prize for Career Achievement and the Lenore Marshall/Nation Poetry Prize for Travels (1993). Merwin currently lives in Hawaii.

Major Works

The poems from Merwin's first three volumes—A Mask for Janus, The Dancing Bears (1954), and Green with Beasts (1956)—are characterized by traditional prosodic forms, symbolic imagery, mythical and legendary motifs, and anachronistic language. His themes in these collections, which are echoed in successive works, include the universal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth; the loss of order and the search for identity in contemporary society; and the tensions between spiritual and temporal existence as well as those between art and experience. In subsequent collections, Merwin began to implement experimental techniques as his subjects became more personal. The poems in The Drunk in the Furnace (1960), for instance, incorporate colloquial language and metrical irregularities, while those in The Moving Target (1963)—which frequently concern self-alienation—feature discordant rhythms, a lack of punctuation, and informal diction. In The Lice (1967), he continued to focus on humanity's irresponsible relationship with the natural world, its delusions of self-importance, and its abuse of power. These poems display a tone of resignation toward the plight of civilization, only occasionally finding reasons for hope in individual human actions. With the prizewinning The Carrier of Ladders, Merwin combined the classical detachment of his early work with personal elements typical of his verse from the 1960s. While still decrying the shortcomings of contemporary society, these poems also celebrate the common bonds of humanity. As Eric Hartley has argued, such poems as "Night Wind" and "Midnight in Early Spring" demonstrate that for Merwin "it is no longer a matter of 'us-and-them,' but only of 'us.'" His next poetry volume, Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (1973), examines in part humanity's relationship to time and history. Such later collections as The Compass Flower (1977), Feathers from a Hill (1978), and Finding the Islands (1982) are influenced by classical Chinese poetry in their direct, seemingly simple portrayals of the beauty and sanctity of life, love, and nature. Often written in haiku tercets, the poems in these volumes are generally introspective and personal. Interweaving elements of myth with memories of Merwin's childhood, Opening the Hand (1983) focuses on natural phenomena and urban landscapes, suggesting the intimate relationship between past and present as well as parallels between the natural world and human civilization. The Rain in the Trees (1988) is marked by its concern with ecological themes, expressing Merwin's disdain for humankind's arrogant destruction of rain forests and blatant disregard for the natural world. Travels focuses on history and loss through meditations that have been described as inward journeys of the soul. Stylistically, the collection is a departure from Merwin's earlier work as it features several long narrative poems devoted to historical figures, makes use of interior monologues, and contains numerous poems written in syllabics.

Critical Reception

While Merwin is consistently praised for rejuvenating traditional forms and for continually challenging and developing his technique and themes, critics have historically lamented the obscure nature of his work. Reviewers of Merwin's first three collections, for instance, faulted him for intellectual self-indulgence. During the 1960s some critics likewise regarded his evolving style as obscure, but others viewed his new approaches as subtle and rewarding. Scholars have noted, however, that when Merwin's oeuvre is viewed in its entirety, each successive collection shows distinct developments in style and theme from the previous ones. Many reviewers, for example, consider Travels one of Merwin's most accomplished collections. In her review of this award-winning volume, Judith Kitchen remarked: "This collection fascinates me. Throughout, Merwin holds onto an established habit of line but finds in certain more traditional forms and techniques a renewed sense of what the line is capable of accomplishing…. Travels takes shape almost in spite of its unwieldy premises and the crisis of readership at its core. No, the poem does not bring back the fields and farmland or the sweet smell of sandalwood forest. It will not make recompense to the lives lost to history. It will not stop wars or stay death. Merwin, for all his acute awareness of loss, writes not to alter the world but to honor it."

Mark Christhilf (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "A Mythic Image of Humankind," in W. S. Merwin: The Mythmaker, University of Missouri Press, 1986, pp. 61-75.

[Christhilf is an educator, poet, and critic. In the following excerpt, he examines various themes in Merwin's poetry, particularly his focus on such mythic elements and concerns as mortality, immortality, and the poet's calling.]

Merwin's poetry from The Moving Target through Opening the Hand presents a mythic image of humankind. As mythmaker he answers the root questions of existence by imagining the origin, end, and destiny of the human being. Combining images from Christian, Classical, and pantheistic mythologies, Merwin's account of the human condition is traditional: it portrays the life of the individual as part of an encompassing Creation with a transcendent pattern of meaning. Yet mankind in Merwin's myth is also a unique being set apart from the natural world: he is a restless seeker possessing freedom of choice and bearing responsibility for the creation of his own identity. In this respect, Merwin's account is modern and has affinities with the existentialist image of mankind projected by such thinkers as Søren Kierkegaard, Nicolas Berdyaev, and Martin Heidegger. An existentialist note is also heard in Merwin's myth by virtue of his effort to participate through poetry in what he conceives to be the archetypal life. He is able to imagine his poetic vocation in terms of human destiny.

Mankind's origin is spiritual in Merwin's myth of the human condition. Like the world, each human being comes forth from the source of all being—from the numinous world of possibility and pure freedom. This infinitely creative dimension contains all possible human identity: like a huge ocean of spiritual being, it harbors the souls of the dead and the unborn. These invisible spirits wait to become human in Merwin's "Divinities," in The Lice; in fact, this poem restates the mythic theme that gods live mortal lives. As Merwin imagines them, they exist in pure uncircumscribed freedom, because they have yet to enter the objective world:

       Having crowded once onto the threshold of mortality        And not been chosen        There is no freedom such as theirs        That have no beginning.

Mortal existence in Merwin's tale is objectification—a fall from the original condition of freedom and spirit. At birth each person takes on a body, becoming subject to the limitations and necessities of objective being in time. Yet each remembers the original freedom by virtue of imagination, which for Merwin is the spiritual part of the human being. As though it were a piece of the original freedom, imagination continues to touch the source of existence, to conceive the possibility of immortal being. For this reason each person lives a divided life, having both mortal identity and immortal being. On several occasions in his career Merwin characterizes mankind's divided nature, reformulating the traditional human duality of body and spirit. Stressing mortal identity as contingency in nature and immortal being as creative imagination, Merwin claims in his essay on Dylan Thomas that the human being is "man the creature-creator" ("The Religious Poet"); later, in "Notes for a Preface," he refers to "man, the animal and the artist." Like Wallace Stevens, Merwin regards imagination as the supreme faculty—the divinity in each human being.

In Merwin's story mortal existence is a span of time after which one returns to the original condition. At the end of life one encounters death not as a total annihilation of identity but rather as a return to life at the level of immortal being. Merwin imagines his own death in these terms in his well-known poem in The Lice, "For the Anniversary of My Death." On the day of death, he claims, his life will be extinguished as if it were one flame in a universe of fire; but part of him will continue, setting out like a "Tireless traveller / Like the beam from a lightless star." Merwin also imagines death as reunification: in death one rejoins the community of spirit composed of ancestors who preceded one on the earth. In "Wharf," in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, he describes the experience of death as both an end and a beginning in which one recovers an original unity:

       … our gravestones are blowing        like clouds backward        through time to find us        they sail over us through us        back to lives that waited        for us        and we never knew.

For Merwin the dead play an important role in the individual's mortal existence. Even in this life communication with them is both necessary and possible. This motif brings to light the traditional emphases in his story, and in fact he is repeatedly inspired by premodern conceptions of death and afterlife. Death, for tribal peoples, is not an event in which the spirit goes far away to another land or heaven. Rather, the spirit remains near the community of the living either waiting to reenter a body being born or lurking in trees or clouds, where it serves as an intercessor for its mortal relatives. Just on the other side of the appearances of things, the dead ask for favors (such as rain) from the great, uncreated god who remains a mystery. In Merwin's story the dead exist within and behind things—in the creative dimension of depth—and he uses the motif of walls or doors to indicate their separation from their mortal brethren. In "February," in The Carrier of Ladders, for instance, he is explicit about the presence of the dead behind the world:

       … the ends and the beginnings        are still guarded        by lines of doors        hand in hand        the dead guarding the invisible        each presenting its messageI know nothinglearn of me.

Communication with the dead in Merwin's story occurs through use of the imagination. Because imagination is freedom and spirit, it can penetrate the wall or door separating the dead from the living. It is the task of imagination to rejoin the dead and to seek their community, and a number of poems in Merwin's later work are based on such an act of communication with dead relatives or friends. "To My Brother Hanson" in The Moving Target is one notable example, in which Merwin speaks to his brother who was stillborn; "Voice" in The Carrier of Ladders is another, in which he imagines a dead friend, Jane Kirstein, existing on the other side of the wall of appearances. Most often, however, Merwin's imagination seeks community with the anonymous multitude of dead ancestors—with the "long line of ghosts" that he feels passing through him in "Meeting" of Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment. To imagine all the dead is to participate in the total community of human spirit: it is an act both instructive and painful, for one grasps the fact that one's mortal identity is merely one instance of an infinite number of human possibilities. What the dead would have us learn in Merwin's story is that we are not whole or complete by ourselves and must recognize our dependence on the past community of beings. In Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, Merwin's "A Wood" expresses his tale of mortal existence as separation from a community of spirit. "I have stood among ghosts of those who will never be / because of me," he claims.

"A Wood" also reveals the estrangement and angst that for Merwin inform mortal existence. Even though imagination conceives unity of being, the individual person cannot feel complete merely because he exists. Since it is impossible for matter to become spirit, each is bound to feel a painful sense of division and fragmentation in mortal life. In Merwin's story mortal existence and imaginative being are associated with paired motifs expressing life's division and its contradictory impulses. Existence is grief: it is feeling incomplete. To exist is to realize that one is bound to the earth and is consequently subject to error and limitation. In contrast, imaginative being is hope: it is a feeling of wholeness and perfection. To hope is to feel the reality of immortal being conceived by imagination. Merwin also associates mortal and immortal being with the mythic motifs of falling and flying. To exist is to fall: after the original fall at birth, each person continues to fall away from the source of being and from memory of it. But to imagine is to fly—to escape mortality's falling and to return to the source in an act of self-renewal. In imagination one attains a godlike perfection of being transcending the actualities of objective identity.

Merwin also uses the mythic symbol of wings to refer to life at the level of imagination. In his image of the human being each one has a wing with which to hope and to fly. Yet when Merwin uses the wing as an image, he usually undercuts the possibility of pure flight. In "Foreword" in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, he tells a tale of human origins, making mankind "the orphan" with only one wing: "everything here has two wings / except us," he relates, suggesting the limitations of mortality. "Is That What You Are," a poem in The Lice, brings together images of hope, grief, and flight to express life's division and the impossibility of ultimately surmounting it. In this poem Merwin characterizes mankind as a being who has two wings: one of hope, the other of grief. The poem is addressed to a ghost who appears before the poet, seeming to encourage him to use his wings to fly. Yet when he tries he finds flight impossible:

       New ghost is that what you are        Standing on the stairs of water        ..…        Hope and grief are still our wings        Why we cannot fly        What failure still keeps you        Among us the unfinished.

The presence of the new ghost in Merwin's poem suggests a crucial theme. However impossible it may be in this life to transcend the limitations of mortal existence, it is the destiny of each human being to continue making the effort. For Merwin human identity emerges in the confrontation between spiritual being and mortal existence. As the spiritual side, imagination challenges the mortal being, urging him to go beyond what he factually is or what he has achieved as a historical creature. Imagination conceives perfection of identity because it touches on the source of infinite human potential, and it demands that each mortal being become perfect by making actual all his possibilities. In the course of life, identity is realized, as one historicizes as much as possible of one's spiritual being. That human identity is dynamic constitutes the moral dimension of Merwin's tale.

Merwin structures a number of interesting poems on the confrontation of spiritual being and mortal existence. In them the confrontation takes the form of a dialogue as he addresses one side of himself or the other, echoing such Yeatsian poems as "A Dialogue of Self and Soul." In "Finally," a poem in The Moving Target, he addresses the mortal side of himself, expressing dissatisfaction with the accumulated weight of habit and of error to which it is subject. Wishing to transcend this mortal identity and to achieve a pure and more perfect mode of being, he declares as the poem begins: "My dread, my ignorance, my / Self, it is time. Your imminence / Prowls the palms of my hands like sweat." Stating that he will place between himself and his mortal identity "the old knife" that symbolizes their continuous struggle, the speaker implores the mortal self to be reconciled to the possibilities of the best self. "Come," he asserts, "Let us share / Understanding like a family name." Merwin's "Animula" in The Carrier of Ladders is similarly structured, yet this poem clearly expresses the division of human nature as one between body and soul. Using the traditional term soul, Merwin yearns for immortal being—for the experience of self-unity that is beyond being in time. "Look soul / soul / barefoot presence," he declares in the opening lines. "I will take you," he continues, to "the river we / know"—to the spiritual river of being—where "the nights are not separate."

Because spiritual being is inexhaustible possibility, the challenge of realizing identity is never completed in this life. No sooner is an action taken to secure identity than the spirit creates another possibility and demands its realization. In Merwin's story this perpetual challenge makes life a voyage or journey. The moment of birth is the moment of departure in which one begins to move through life in time in search of the spirit. In "On Each Journey," in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, Merwin imagines the spirit as silence: "on each journey there is / a silence that goes with it / to its end." In other poems he conceives the body as a boat in which to sail forth in pursuit of spiritual being. This mythic motif is heard in "For Saying that It Won't Matter," a poem in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, which, like "Animula," is structured on the dialogue between existence and immortal being. Speaking as the spiritual part of himself, Merwin addresses his own bones. He imagines the hour of death when they will separate and he will leave his body "on the empty shore." "Bones of today I am going to leave you," he warns: "you are voyaging now through the half light of my life / let us talk of this while the wind is kind / and the foam rustling on your bows."

In Merwin's tale it is the spirit that is the true voyager. Conceiving new possibilities of identity, the spirit seems to be always escaping and going before the mortal being, out into the future. As the demand of future identity, the spirit seems literally to call: it is the calling being who is always ahead—beyond the time and place in which one finds himself. In Merwin's "Late Night in Autumn" in The Carrier of Ladders, the call comes from the poet's soul in order to remind him that his identity is incomplete and his journey unfinished. Thinking of the passing of time and of those who are satisfied with objective identity, Merwin claims:

       the year will soon be home and its own hear it        but in some house of my soul        a calling is coming in again off the cold mountains        and here one glove is hanging from each window        oh long way to go.

These lines also reveal the demands of Merwin's poetic vocation. The calling comes both from the soul and from "the cold mountains" because it is the eternal song given to the poet to create. Over and over, imagination hears this inexhaustible freedom and possibility from which all things come to be. For Merwin it is the ultimate good that can never be fully conceived or named by the human mind. Poetic vocation is to make this limitless reality into poetry as often as is possible for one mortal being. Through imagination, the imagemaking faculty, one names it repeatedly by describing its presence in the visible world. In this act one becomes immortal, for art, in Merwin's myth, immortalizes the poet. Art is the record of his imaginative life—of his unity with the creative dimension. In it he ceases to exist as a mortal, achieving an identity beyond time and place and taking a position in human culture—in the mind of the world.

In Merwin's mythic self-conception, a poet must live the life of an immortal being. Like the divinities, he must obtain for himself conditions insuring pure creative freedom. In order that imagination be free to move toward all that is unrealized, it must be protected from the distractions and the inhibitions that are normally part of mortal existence. Finally, creative freedom requires that a poet purge imagination of all culturally determined images: these are the names given to the creative dimension by one's nation or religion and learned as a part of one's mortal condition. To secure this freedom, Merwin has avoided the mode of life associated with American poets after World War II. Shunning academic positions, he has not taught in a university, and he has spoken out against the proliferation of creative writing programs as a way of learning how to write poetry. He has also refused to write much criticism and to partake in poetic movements. In Merwin's conviction all such activities are objectifying: they delimit creative imagination and threaten to obscure what he terms "the 'freedom' that accompanies poetry at a distance" ("On Open Form").

Merwin has also followed through on his conception of the immortal poet as an exile. Like Robert Graves or Samuel Beckett, he has lived apart from his homeland, residing since 1978 in Haiku, Hawaii, and returning only occasionally to the American mainland. In the last analysis Merwin's effort to preserve creative freedom discloses in his personality a hereditary Protestantism. Despite conscious rejection of his father's creed and his antipathy to its narrowing orthodoxy, he was apparently influenced by the root principle of Protestant thought—by its original premise of reform. The impulse of Protestantism is radical change and reform because it does not believe that any man-made creed can circumscribe the unconditional reality that is god. Eventually it abolishes all myths and creeds in the vision of a god who is "wholly other," to use the words of the Protestant theologian Karl Barth.

Merwin mythicizes personal identity in his poems to express his conception of the poet as an immortal being. He creates two mythic identities that are variations on the theme of the immortal poet. The most prominent identity is that of the pilgrim-traveler: the poet is one who passes through life in search of the higher truth. For Merwin travel means creative freedom. To travel is to transcend mortal existence and to escape the domestic life that through habit and custom blunts imagination's capacity to see the world anew. In his earliest volume, A Mask for Janus, Merwin asserted this mythic theme by prefacing it with an epigraph from the American writer John Wheelwright: "Habit is evil, all habit, even speech / And promises prefigure their own breech." In later career Merwin is explicit: it is the poet's fate to travel. "I am the son of farewells," he declares in "Fourth Psalm," in The Carrier of Ladders; and in "Nomad Songs," in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, "my cradle / was a shoe." Through the title of his second volume of prose, Houses and Travellers, Merwin calls attention to his sense of himself as world-traveler: he is the poet who journeys around the world, stopping to make houses—a symbol for constructions of imagination that become part of human culture.

The mythic identity of the traveler also expresses Merwin's need to resist self-complacency. The most dangerous inertia is inward, arising from success as a poet—from what Merwin terms in "Lemuel's Blessing" the "ruth of approval." After publication every poem or book contributes to mortal identity; bringing recognition as a poet, it leads one to believe that one has achieved vocation. For Merwin, however, the call to be a poet is never-ending because there are innumerable possibilities of expression. The immortal poet will regard each book as a kind of death: as an encrustation on pure freedom that must be left behind so that the next one can be written. This concept of an inward pilgrimage to realize one's possibilities is heard in such poems as "Travelling" in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment and "Envoy from D'Aubigne" in The Carrier of Ladders. Written on the occasion of publishing a book, the latter poem portrays the mortal poet ceaselessly dissolving identity so that the immortal poet might create in freedom: "I think of all I wrote in my time / dew / and I am standing in dry air."

Merwin also characterizes immortal being in poetry through the mythic identity of the mountain climber. Like flying, climbing is a motif that expresses the human capacity for rising out of the confusion and desire of mortal experience. Using mountains and plateaus as actual images, Merwin casts himself as one who rises to accept the challenge of spiritual being: like a god on Mount Olympus, he embraces the cold and rarified air of the heights. This episode in his story derives from the Asian myth … in which a magic mountain joined earth to heaven. At the summit of this mountain creation began and from there it continued spreading outward; this was the locus of the original world where gods, men, women, and animals existed in harmony. Merwin also uses the North American Indian myth that the mountain peak was the abode of gods and spirits; the Indians buried their dead high up the slopes in a village of the dead. Merwin alludes to this belief in "Ascent," a poem in The Carrier of Ladders. "I have climbed a long way," he claims as the poem begins. It is clear that in this climb he has transcended mortal identity, for he directs the reader's attention to his shoes far below, which "wait there looking up." His goal is to reach the high slope—"the bare meadows"—in which there is community of spirit. There he will know himself seen "by the lost / silent / barefoot choir."

In Merwin's latest poetry there is a retreat from the posture of the immortal poet. The Compass Flower, Finding the Islands, and Opening the Hand initiate a new phase in his career in which poetic identity is based on mortal existence. To be sure, Merwin occasionally claims mythic identity. "One Night," in Opening the Hand, begins with his declaration: "I ride a great horse climbing / out of a rose cloud / onto a black cinder mountain." Furthermore, almost all Merwin's latest work continues to be inspired by the myth of a transcendent creation threatened by the destructive progress of modern history. Yet when Merwin faces either nature or the sociohistorical world, he expresses his subject less and less as myth: he allows his imagination less creative freedom with which to transfigure and reorder what appears. Instead actual events are realistically described, and frequently these events are occasions in the personal life of the poet. Depicting a sociable poet who often shares the poem's experience, Merwin's latest poetry is "occasional": it is produced from the poet's senses and from his conscious mind.

Much of Merwin's later poetry moves further toward explicit self-revelation and autobiography. In The Compass Flower he begins to demonstrate interest in himself, the well-known poet W. S. Merwin: he falls back on the fact that there is an audience who would like to read about his personal life. Such poems as "Ferry Port" and "Masts" concern travel, yet the act of traveling has no inward necessity. Instead Merwin merely relates his itinerary. "Ferry Port," for instance, begins with this revelation from the mortal poet: "We will be leaving now in less than a week / meanwhile we are / staying in a house in the port." The tendency of the poet simply to describe continues in poems like "Visitation" in Opening the Hand.

Finding the Islands includes a section of thirteen poems that concern Merwin's domestic life with an intimate loved one. The presence of this woman in his life is first felt in poems of The Compass Flower, but in them Merwin mythicizes the relationship. He eliminates specific details of their life together and identifies the woman with the Earth-goddess, who offers unity of being. In Finding the Islands Merwin's treatment of love is confessional: he casts himself as a man who feels love and desire rather than as a cold immortal being. "When we get home / from wherever it is / we take off our clothes," he asserts in "Living Together"; in "At Home," he states, "I find you cooking / in your torn / underpants worn low."

In Opening the Hand Merwin appears more as a mortal being than ever before in his career. In this volume there is an initial section of nineteen poems that are based on personal memories of his family. The poems ought to be read in conjunction with his third prose volume, Unframed Originals (1982), a series of six autobiographical memoirs of his boyhood life in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Merwin's design in the poems, as in the prose, is to be more "open"; hence the title Opening the Hand. He has suspected for years that he is too retiring and reticent, especially since, through implication, he has been so accused by his commentators. In the latest work he looks for this character trait in his family, and in what he regards as an oppressive paternal influence. Having exposed his father's mother as the typical American puritan, Merwin portrays his father as a poser and social climber. To Merwin his father's ways were harsh and tyrannical, and he feels that his father failed to appreciate his special talent of imagination—a fact evident in his poem "Houses" in Opening the Hand. Further, Merwin blames his father for hiding from him the details of the family's history, especially those that were less than socially proper. His father suppressed his knowledge of life's gaiety and color, to the point of preventing contact with vivacious and fun-loving relatives. This indictment emerges in "Birdie," a poem about Merwin's aunt, whom his father never fully accepted, and who therefore epitomizes "the way we grew up to hide things from each other."

Yet Merwin seems uncertain about becoming an "open," mortal poet. The form and style of his three latest books suggest this uncertainty. While such volumes as The Lice were stylistically homogeneous with all poems contributing to a unity of effect, in the latest there is a range of experimentation with both line and stanza; there is also a division of each book into sections of poems organized around different themes. More explicit uncertainty can be heard in such poems as "The Truth of Departure" and "Emigre" in Opening the Hand. In the latter poem Merwin addresses a "you," who is clearly in one sense himself. He wonders about the value of his self-exile and the impact it has had on his use of language. Revealing that America has become to him "a category," he broods on the question, "what is your real / language." Implicitly he poses a more encompassing question: does pure freedom from one's culture undermine verbal communication which is based upon community? In this long self-revealing poem that is its own subject, Merwin also questions the value of his most recent poetic subject—personal memory. Here the value of self-revelation in poetry is implicitly being debated:

        what of the relics of your childhood         should you bear in mind pieces         of dyed cotton and gnawed wood         lint of voices untranslatable stories         ..…         or should you forget them         as you float between ageless languages         and call from one to the other who are you.

Merwin's uncertainty about poetic identity, and about the place of personal experience in the poem, reflects an uncertainty characteristic of American poetry in the post-modern era. Originally the post-modern movement sought to recapture experience of the world. As a continuing reassertion of Romanticism, it reacted against the overcivilized human consciousness—against "academic poetry" having little to do with actual experience. Writers such as Bly, James Wright, and Merwin himself were successful in realizing postmodern theory, which held that the artist would break down artificial barriers between the human subject and the world. From the beginning, however, heavy emphasis fell on the human subject rather than the world. In one main direction of the postmodern movement, poets concentrated on personal identity and activity in a familiar human realm. Represented by such poets as Robert Creeley, this direction became dominant in the 1970s: with the "personalization of poetry" the poet rendered his actual, everyday experience without allusion or mythification. Personal experience as the subject of the poem was its own justification, as poets said by implication to their readers: "I am my own myth" [A. Poulin, Jr., "Contemporary American Poetry: The Radical Tradition," in Contemporary American Poetry 1971].

This direction in American verse is not surprising. In democratic nations poetry tends toward autobiography. It is produced from the familiar contents of consciousness and concentrates on human customs and on the surface of life. As de Tocqueville suggested in the 1840s, the democratic poet will be a mortal being. He will be a familiar, casual person, not a man searching mountains for his soul. Merwin's latest work is in step with this literary direction. Undoubtedly he is aware that if he is to immortalize himself through poetry his work must be read and appreciated. Yet in terms of quality his latest poems are not distinguishable from the bulk of contemporary American poetry. Merwin's poetic talent—his potential as a major poet—is based on "conditions of mythology." As these conditions involve transformation of the world, they are rarely actual or familiar.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

A Mask for Janus (poetry) 1952The Dancing Bears (poetry) 1954Darkling Child [with Dido Milroy] (drama) 1956Green with Beasts (poetry) 1956Favor Island (drama) 1957The Drunk in the Furnace (poetry) 1960The Gilded West (drama) 1961The Moving Target (poetry) 1963The Lice (poetry) 1967Selected Translations, 1948–1968 (translations) 1968The Carrier of Ladders (poetry) 1970The Miner's Pale Children (short stories) 1970Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (poetry) 1973The Compass Flower (poetry) 1977Houses and Travellers (short stories) 1977Feathers from a Hill (poetry) 1978Selected Translations, 1968–78 (translations) 1979Finding the Islands (poetry) 1982Unframed Originals: Recollections (autobiographical sketches) 1982Opening the Hand (poetry) 1983The Rain in the Trees (poetry) 1988Selected Poems (poetry) 1988Travels (poetry) 1993

Phoebe Pettingell (review date 16-30 May 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Merwin's Progress," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXI, No. 9, May 16-30, 1988, pp. 22-3.

[In the review below, Pettingell offers a thematic analysis of The Rain in the Trees.]

It is no wonder that poetry concerned with spiritual perceptions tends to be pastoral. When people embody ideas from their inner life, they usually select metaphors from nature. The earliest examples of religious art we know are those luminous beasts our ancestors painted on the walls of their caves. The Greeks portrayed their deities coming to earth disguised as animals or birds. And in Holy Scripture the relationship between man and God is depicted in terms of sheep and their shepherd.

English poetry contains endless examples of scenic views mirroring psychic landscapes. Marvell insisted that the philosophic mind prefers life in "The Garden" where it can create "other worlds and other seas / Annihilating all that's made / To a green thought in a green shade." Wordsworth declared that "To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears." From Shelley's skylark and Keats' nightingale to the thrush and blackbird of Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas, poets have identified birdsong with the free flight of the imagination's "viewless wings."

But can pastoral survive deforestation? As fields become subdivisions, factories or waste dumps, as plants and animals dwindle into extinction because their habitat has been usurped, the idea of unspoiled wildness fades out of human experience and memory. Contemporary poetry thus sounds fragmented compared to what came before. Yet truthful writing must record the diminution of the natural that takes place as our artifice engulfs it. And no poet has realized this more acutely than W. S. Merwin. For over 35 years he has been shaping his lines, even his syntax, to reflect the growing blanks in our field of vision. If you doubt the point of such a deliberate process of poetic anorexia, Merwin offers a justification in "Losing a Language":

       A breath leaves the sentence and does not return        Yet the old still remember something that they could say        But they know now that such things are no longer believed        and the young have fewer words        many of the things the words were about        no longer exist

Merwin is talking about concepts as much as things. The Rain in the Trees, in which this poem appears, is Merwin's 13th verse collection and a culmination of his long meditation on the evanescence of the natural world. The journey leading up to it can now be conveniently mapped by using his Selected Poems. Those who read each successive volume as it came out sometimes found Merwin's stylistic shifts bemusing—"Protean" was the word one eminent critic used to describe the poet's technique. From A Masque for Janus (1952) through The Drunk in the Furnace (1960) he established his mastery over form, traditional as well as modern. He played the musical nuances of language like a harp, achieving effects so polyphonic as to sound baroque in the earliest work. Yet from the first there were portents of something different to come: "Hills are to be forgotten; the patter of speech / Must lilt upon flatness." Sure enough, Merwin soon adopted plain diction. Fantasy gave way to stark allegories centered around man's arrogant destruction of whatever stands in his way:

       Well they cut everything because why not.        Everything was theirs because they thought so.        It fell into shadows and they took both away.        Some to have and some for burning.

Despite the greater economy of linguistic means, Merwin was still borrowing from the authority of the English poetic tradition for his effects. In The Lice (1967), however, he innovated a new prosody; the ending of the line and the sense of the phrase substituted for punctuation:

       You confide        In images in things that can be        Represented which is their dimension you        Require them to say This        Is real and you do not fall down and moan

This form has the advantage of forcing the eye to hesitate, to study the stanza listening carefully for where the pauses should fall. One notices how intensely Merwin scrutinizes the world, how sharply he cocks his ears toward the faintest rustle. The absent commas and periods haunt his lines like ghosts, reinforcing the loss of familiar continuity. Only rarely is a style invented that so effectively leads the reader to see through the author's lenses.

Merwin does not inject his ego directly into his poems. His monologues in other voices remind one that he is also a playwright and translator. When not adopting another character he remains aloof, conveying the impression of one whose highest aspiration is to receive outside stimuli—like Emerson's "transparent eyeball." In spite of his self-effacement—quite a contrast to the efforts of most poets to increase their own presence in their poems—a Merwin stanza cannot be mistaken for anything else. Many have imitated his manner without nearly achieving his results. Merwin's prosody is no gimmick—it is a mode of spiritual expression, an outgrowth of his realization that speech must indeed "lilt upon flatness" if it is to bring others to face the denuded world which we inhabit.

Bearers of bad news often have doors slammed in their faces. Some critics have chastised Merwin for taking a "starved mute stance." The reproof overlooks the paradoxical fact that tragic loss, though it brings misery to life, can be transformed by art into a source of pleasure: "When the pain of the world finds words / they sound like joy / and often we follow them / with our feet of earth / but when the joy of the world finds words they are painful / and often we turn away / with our hands of water". Discussing Merwin's themes may create an aura of unrelieved gloom; the poems themselves radiate mystery.

This is particularly true of The Rain in the Trees. In the 13 incandescent love poems that open the volume Merwin does not attempt to erase losses, but develops coping strategies. Like Wordsworth, he returns to childhood, recreating a boy's watchful sensitivity to his surroundings—inanimate objects as well as the bewildering moods of grown-up society:

      the black river says no my father says no       my mother says no in the streets they say nothing       they walk past one at a time in hats       with their heads down       it is wrong to answer them through the green fence       the street cars go by singing to themselves I am iron       the broom seller goes past in the sound of grass       by the tree touching the tree I hear the tree       I walk with the tree       we talk without anything

The boy digs a cave "among the roots waiting / when the lion comes to the tree", a familiar kind of imaginative child's play. But in the poem the fabulous beast introduces a wild note of anticipation.

Throughout The Rain in the Trees one can detect hints of renewal in Merwin's visions of ruin, but they are terrible as much as hopeful. Addressing insects as "elders," the poet acknowledges that "we remember imagining that what survived us / would be like us / / and would remember the world as it appears to us / but it will be your eyes that will fill with light". The ruthless way we have been "eating the forests" has made us a kind of kin to this mighty class of creatures, the earth's most populous. "Tongues of the Future," Merwin calls them; "their own meaning in a grammar without horizons … never important they are everything". We can, with difficulty, picture the era that was dominated by dinosaurs, but our fancy boggles at a post-history ruled over by beings with six legs, exoskeletons and clacking wing cases, so lacking in individuality that their intelligence is communal.

Ruskin defined the Pathetic Fallacy in poetry as the projection of human feeling onto the universe. Merwin consciously recognizes how remote this device is from our current poetic practices. With the defoliation of the world—which, Merwin points out, was under way even as Keats was listening to his nightingale—"an age arrived when everything was explained in another language"; hence the disjointed style of modern verse. In "After the Alphabets," one of his insect poems, Merwin himself tries to comprehend a brave new world of arthropods almost as a Zen exercise in emptying the self. Perhaps, he theorizes, they too preserve their past in art; consider how that unwelcome oriental immigrant, the rose beetle, turns leaves "into an arid net / into sky / like the sky long ago over China". If this is a version of the Pathetic Fallacy, it is a valedictory one.

Merwin may be the supreme mystic poet writing in North America today. He has relentlessly assimilated the hard truths science has forced on us, while most of his contemporaries were reiterating age-old angst and disguising their familiar sentiments with new forms. He has fasted in the deserts of the imagination and done penance for our inhumanity, all so that he could lose that crippling self-consciousness Blake called "the mind-forged manacles." The Lice and The Carrier of Ladders (1970) represented his Dark Night of the Soul. Now he has purified his vision enough to move on. As I read him, his latest wisdom is that if we can humbly accept that we are a branch of the tree, not its crown, and that other eyes "will fill with light" when ours close, we will have attained a pastoral philosophy fitting to the 20th century.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Byers, Thomas B. "The Peace in the Middle of the Floor: W. S. Merwin's Prose." Modern Language Quarterly 44, No. 1 (March 1983): 65-79.

Discusses style and theme in Merwin's prose, focusing on the works in The Miner's Pale Children.

Davis, William V. "Days Polished with Ashes: W. S. Merwin's Poetry of Immediate Moments." Poet & Critic 21, No. 3 (Spring 1990): 37-40.

Suggests that Merwin's work in The Rain in the Trees displays a thematic innovation not present in his previous work.

Hoeppner, Edward Haworth. "A Nest of Bones: Transcendence, Topology, and the Theory of the Word in W. S. Merwin's Poetry." Modern Language Quarterly 49, No. 3 (September 1988): 262-84.

In-depth analysis of thematic, stylistic, and linguistic aspects of Merwin's poetry.

Nelson, Cary, and Folsom, Ed, eds. W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987, 405 p.

Collection of essays that address various aspects of Merwin's poetry. The book also contains an extensive bibliography of works by and about Merwin.

Diane Wakoski (review date Winter 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Stalking the Barbaric Yawp," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 804-15.

[Wakoski is an American poet, educator, and critic. In the following excerpt, she comments on Selected Poems, noting thematic similarities between the poetry of Merwin and Walt Whitman.]

There is no need to go outside Merwin's Selected Poems, but I would advise those who are not already devotees to start at the back of this book and work forward, since Merwin has bravely put his early work (his Yale Younger Poets collection from 1952) at the beginning. There is in every Merwin poem the authority that comes from a fine ear, but his early prosody does sound terribly old-fashioned…. Perhaps it is Merwin's hushed tone that gives the youthful work a stilted quality. To readers in 1989, these first poems will serve as reminders of what was fashionable and won prizes in 1952, just three years before Allen Ginsberg, the son of [Walt] Whitman, burst upon the poetry scene when Howl was published by Ferlinghetti.

Though Merwin was living abroad, largely apart from the American voice and scene, he was searching, too, for his own version of Whitman's gift. He found it, oddly enough, not through American poetry but by translating surrealist poets and studying their aesthetics. If the goal was to be in touch with the unconscious, then language could not remain in artificial structures; rather, the poet must search out intuitive ones. Merwin over the years has become convincingly in touch with that deeper self that Whitman claims we all share.

Reading Merwin's poetry, with its lyrical soft-voiced beauty, is like reading inside a dream. His messages seem to mystically link the living and the dead, the silent and the vocal, the reader and the writer. It is not just that many of the poems seem to be a way of talking to the dead or the inaccessible people we can never actually reach. It is also that, like Whitman, he sees himself as a part of the bigger cosmos and never doubts that identity. Consider the entirety of "A Contemporary," which illustrates the floating, transcendental Merwin after he found his American voice:

       What if I came down now out of these        solid dark clouds that build up against the mountain        day after day with no rain in them        and lived as one blade of grass        in a garden in the south when the clouds part in winter        from the beginning I would be older than all the animals        and to the last I would be simpler        frost would design me and dew would disappear on me        sun would shine through me        I would be green with white roots        feel worms touch my feet as a bounty        have no name and no fear        turn naturally to the light        know how to spend the day and night        climbing out of myself        all my life

This poem is from his 1977 collection, The Compass Flower. I would argue that once Merwin found out what he didn't want to write, he wholeheartedly began to explore his inner self until he found a way for inner and outer to become one. This cosmic awareness is at the heart of the nineteenth-century transcendentalism that led Walt Whitman, after trying other vocations, to poetry:

       "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love        If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles"

This voice whispers in Merwin's poetry, promises that spirit and matter are connected in some way throughout our lives. Perhaps through beauty. Or the life of the imagination. Through poetry itself.

One of the most impressive aspects of Merwin's poems is his gift for a kind of animism. That is, he seems to sense or understand the spirit of everything living in a given landscape. The following passages all show Merwin's strangely democratic vision of the world, with an equal voice or presence to be perceived in every organism or perceived entity:

       before I could talk        I heard the cricket        under the house        then I remembered summer                               ("The Black Jewel")


       In the last chamber of the heart        all the words are hanging        but one        the blood is naked as it steps through the door                                          ("The Heart")


       I sat in the front to see better        they sat in the back        having a good time        and they laughed with their collars up        they said we could take turns driving        but when I looked        none of us was driving.                                 ("The Drive Home")

For Merwin, Whitman's transcendentalism is opened up into the twentieth century through surrealist techniques and some of the presumptions of magical realism. His poems reflect an immensely successful American use of these stylistic gestures and postures, reminding us again of what a great and flexible source Whitman is.

Mark Jarman (review date Winter 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "An Old Master and Four New Poets," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLI, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 729-36.

[In the following excerpt, Jarman assesses Selected Poems and The Rain in the Trees, noting Merwin's concern with ecological themes.]

Like many readers of my generation, I first became aware of W. S. Merwin's poetry after he had perfected the radical change in style that led to The Moving Target and The Lice. Reading Richard Howard's essay on Merwin's poetry in Alone with America led me to the first four books, A Mask for Janus, The Dancing Bears, Green with Beasts, and The Drunk in the Furnace. That Merwin was a master of traditional forms, as demonstrated in those books, was as exciting a revelation as the departures of the subsequent books which in their many editions (The Lice has gone into something like seventeen printings) have made him famous. Now Merwin has published his Selected Poems and it is a good thing that he published the first four books in The First Four thirteen years ago. A Mask for Janus and The Dancing Bears, which contained many of his most elegant formal lyrics and ballads, are seriously slighted in this new selection. However, he has done an excellent job of editing Green with Beasts, The Drunk in the Furnace, The Moving Target, The Lice, and especially the overlong The Carrier of Ladders. As for Writings for an Unfinished Accompaniment and The Compass Flower, they are weaker books and it is hard to say how well he has salvaged the better poems in them; certain ones do stand out. Since The Lice, which is his most sustained and masterful book, Merwin has become a poet of the superb individual poem, the masterpiece, surrounded by work of the second rank which is elevated only because of its identifiable style. Opening the Hand, the latest book included in Selected Poems, signified a return to some subjects of The Drunk in the Furnace, particularly his family, and introduced Hawaii as a setting. Along with his Selected Poems, Merwin has published a new volume [The Rain in the Trees] in which his oracular voice prophesies on ecology from the rain forests of Hawaii. The presiding metaphor is that of a lost language. What is striking is how Merwin has edited his Selected Poems so that his current concern—the destruction of the earth—seems to be inherent almost from the beginning.

It should not be news that Merwin has tried out, mastered, and innovated just as many forms of the modern lyric as are now being practiced, yet his own influence appears to have waned. I say "appears" because although his style—the lack of punctuation, the free verse lines, the elemental surrealism—no longer marks the efforts of younger poets, the current factions of poetry are reflected in the range of his accomplishments. For the new formalist, the neonarrative poet, the language poet, the writer of the free verse lyric, for each of these there is a Merwin and it would be a good thing to come to terms with him. What his best poems show is the necessity of an urgent subject expressed completely within the form suited to it. There is a vast difference between "Ballad of John Cable and Three Gentlemen," "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," "The Mountain," "Grandmother Watching at Her Window," "Home for Thanksgiving," "The Last One," "The Judgment of Paris," "Ballade of the Sayings," "The Coin," and "Yesterday," to name one poem from each of the books selected from, but they have in common a completeness that stands apart from the merely personal. That there are so many obvious masterpieces, and I could double the number easily, argues for Merwin's reputation now and in the future. But what are we to make of a poet now whose style and concerns seem to have been marginalized, if only for the present?

We can try to understand how he sees himself. If [Selected Poems] is an indication, Merwin sees himself as one who has been trying to learn the language of nature. This struggle in its early stages occurs only as he comes to terms with an unspecified absence. "Learning a Dead Language" from Green with Beasts looks prophetic: "You may find at last the passion that composed it, / Hear it both in its speech and in yourself." Also, there is a struggle with the family that results in the devastating portraits that end The Drunk in the Furnace and the confessional tone of some poems in Opening the Hand. In The Rain in the Trees Merwin portrays himself and his parents in a world totally cut off from nature, unable even to name local trees. "The Last One" and "For a Coming Extinction" in The Lice provided clear messages of ecological apocalypse when they were first published twenty years ago, but the note of apocalypse was present, too, in the anti-Vietnam War poem "The Asians Dying" and the cynicism of "Peasant." It was the poems of individual loneliness and isolation like "For the Anniversary of My Death" that stuck in the mind. Now, a poem like "Fly," about tormenting a pigeon until it dies, looks a human indictment as much as a personal confession, ending "Pondering his eye that could not / Conceive that I was a creature to run from / I who have always believed too much in words."

If the earth's ecology is to be Merwin's message, then he must beware that the incantatory tone that distinguishes his style does not elevate his poetry to the pulpit. In The Rain in the Trees original sin is located in the ignorance of nature with which he was brought up.

       Neither my father nor my mother knew        the names of the trees        where I was born        what is that        I asked and my        father and mother did not        hear they did not look where I pointed

To atone for this lack, which he connects with the despoliation of the world's great forests, including those of Hawaii where he now lives, he writes in "Witness,"

       I want to tell what the forests        were like        I will have to speak        in a forgotten language

What Merwin has to say has a coherence and integrity in this book that has been missing since The Lice, but at the same time it has a singlemindedness that makes for strange and possibly accidental ambiguities. Two poems are particularly troubling. One is "Chord" in which the career and death of Keats is paralleled with the cutting down of the sandalwood forests. "While he thought of the Grecian woods they bled under red flowers / while he dreamed of wine the trees were falling from the trees." The power of the litany is undeniable, but somehow Keats is tainted with this sin and it doesn't seem fair. Keats appears to be a stand-in for Merwin's own sense of remorse. The other problematic poem is "The Rose Beetle," the last poem in the book. It addresses a pest from China that turns the leaves of many plants in Hawaii "into lace / into an arid net / sky." Does it represent all the insidious elements from the outside world brought, even blindly and involuntarily, into Paradise? Yet another poem, "To the Insects," addresses them as "Elders," and "After the Alphabets" begins "I am trying to decipher the language of insects" and ends "they are never important they are everything." Do they represent a final triumph of the natural world even as they themselves feed rapaciously on it, much as man does? But I don't want to turn my puzzlement into carping. As with each of his books there are outstanding poems. Two of them here are "After School," a remarkable memory of boarding school, and the Roethkesque "Empty Water." The latter begins "I miss the toad / who came all summer / to the limestone / water basin" and ends "come back / believer in shade / believer in silence and elegance / believer in ferns / believer in patience / believer in the rain." Roethke with his heterodox, undogmatic empathy for the natural world is a fitting spirit for the best of Merwin's new poems.

Edward J. Brunner (essay date 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Epilogue," in Poetry as Labor and Privilege: The Writings of W. S. Merwin, University of Illinois Press, 1991, pp. 285-91.

[Brunner is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he discusses the major themes and principles that inform Merwin's poetry.]

Entering his fifth decade of writing, W. S. Merwin continues to stand apart from his contemporaries as the representative of an unusual degree of freedom and independence. That independence is evident in his personal life. He has made his way on his own terms, much as he had hoped when, in 1949, with no prospects before him, he left America for Europe. He is one of the few American poets who have managed to support themselves through writing. But his independence is as evident in his work. Rereading the reviews prompted by Merwin's work, Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom [the editors of W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry, 1987] were struck by the amount of controversy it had generated: "Perhaps no other contemporary poet has been as universally recognized as a major talent and simultaneously so criticized, prodded, reprimanded and challenged at every stage of his career." Yet this is not surprising; indeed, it is almost inevitable.

For one thing, Merwin unsettles critics because each new collection is distinctly different from the last. The extent of his changes has, if anything, been underestimated by reviewers: they have perennially lagged at least one book behind him, expecting his latest volume to continue the tendencies of the one before. But his collections are organized with a break in their middle, a characteristic ever since the original typescript of A Mask for Janus, when a last-minute change included three new poems, among them the most untypical "Dictum: For a Masque of Deluge." As arrangements, then, his collections are designed to elude easy categorization; they begin at a point from which they have, by their end, strenuously departed.

The writing of poetry, for Merwin as for many of the American poets who began their careers in the postwar period, promotes active change. It is a commonplace that American poetry, especially after 1960, is exploratory, its form reflecting the writer's process of making a new discovery. But for Merwin, that discovery is frequently made against a specific background that represents the weight of custom, or the habits of the mind, or the pressures of authority. His discoveries, that is, are not entirely novel; what is discovered had been there all along, waiting to be found, perhaps even neglected by Merwin before. As a result, his poems can seem understated in comparison to those of his contemporaries. None of his poems in praise of creatures can compete for dynamism with Galway Kinnell's "The Porcupine"; none of his family poems are as immersed in regret, in seemingly depthless sorrow, as those by James Wright in memory of his ancestors and boyhood friends. None are as insouciantly dilettantish as work by James Merrill or, at another extreme, John Ashbery; nor are they as somber and rigorous as work by Philip Levine. These poets all work as master stylists, reconceiving language from deep within their own sensibilities.

By contrast, Merwin appears to have no style at all, or to take on whatever style suits the moment. In fact, this transparency is a clue to his effectiveness. His return to a scene discloses what had not been, he had thought, present before. The disclosure is often made through a detail that leads to a subtle shift in perspective that occurs as a surprise but that recasts the whole situation—expanding it, deepening it, widening it. The poetry, then, will always be vulnerable to the criticism that it is too delicate, for it depends on attention paid to small details or brief events. But however delicate those observations may be—and Merwin clearly appreciates their delicacy—their ultimate value is the shift they engender, and that dramatically alters the scope of the whole poem, opening to us realms that had not been otherwise available. The poems may be understated in their individual moments, but as whole works they are remarkably large, even sweeping, in their comprehension. From the minor to the major, from the customary to the rate, these poems repeatedly reenact a process of renewal that is the constant in Merwin's career. Creatures occupy, in their innocence, a fullness that constantly escapes our vain efforts at categorization. A frozen moth, out of place, in the wrong season, may return to life. Barriers becomes thresholds in his late free verse; outcasts and eccentrics become individuals in his family memoirs.

These renewals are not simply affirmations of the poet's vitality or ingenuity or passion, as similar rejuvenations are in the work of contemporaries. Indirectly, gently, but persistently, Merwin undermines the weight of authority. In this respect, his poetry has always had a social, political, and cultural dimension, although its emphasis has varied over the years. He is the gentlest of writers, but his gentleness has been prone to misunderstanding. In his early years, his light touch was mistaken for aloofness, or even a coldness, an inability to express emotions outwardly. Later, in his free verse, his deliberate simplicity was taken as a mark of withdrawal, even a denial that language could serve as communication. It is true that he is fond of the delicate turn of phrase, the graceful observation, the momentary glimpse and impression caught on the wing. But none of these is left to stand by itself. Each appears against its decisive opposite. To list those opposites would be a formidable task: they are everything we feel as the weight of the institution, everything that derives authority by generating an order that excludes accident, everything that unswervingly proceeds to a stipulated end. But the continual surprise in Merwin's work is that gestures contrary to these institutions, gestures that might be fragile, too fleeting to endure, too graceful to command, are rendered as though they were equal to powers vast, pervasive, dominating.

It is not Merwin's intent to arrange contests in which megaliths are toppled. But the distinction he tirelessly pursues is that between an orderly world, which is the invention of humans who hope to ensure stability through repetition, and that world's opposite, which cannot have a single name, which unfolds equidistantly through time and space and seems riddled with exceptions. The orderly world abounds in grammar and lexicons; everything there has been named and exists because there is a word for it. The other world is one of gesture and activity; it may be called silent but only because it will always escape from any name we give it. This other world is unimaginably innocent. Every moment in it is an origin. If any definition of poetry could be extracted from Merwin's work it would be the following: Poetry is the problematic area that breaks into existence when the poet once again realizes these two worlds as they intersect, overlie, and disrupt each other. One of the few predictable results is that our sense of scale will be subverted: what we had thought to be large diminishes, and what we had held to be tiny assumes cosmic proportions. And matters of scale become matters of value: what had seemed commanding reveals itself as bombast, and what had seemed the merest detail becomes a pivotal point for a vast new perspective. The three-line poem may equal the thousand-line poem.

Our assumptions about these two worlds, under Merwin's guidance, come to be reversed. We ordinarily think of the human world as that which is enduring, erecting stable orders resistant to change; indeed, our impulse to shape the world derives from our desire for such enduring stability. The silent world of immanent origins is viewed, if at all, as a matter of fleeting impressions, flashing glimpses, for that is the only way we can perceive its unimaginable wholeness. But for Merwin, the world that is silent and free will endure and persist while what we shape over and against it is subject to loss and decay. We may perceive that other world as utterly relative because of its ability to shift out from under our perceptions. But it is our own perceptions that are shifting and relative to it.

The gentleness that pervades Merwin's writing is not simply a character trait. Its higher purpose is to remind us that we are limited in the control we can impose, that the order and authority we take for granted are ultimately uncertain, liable to dissolve with a mere change in perspective. Poetry, for Merwin, can never be planned or conceived, only recognized when it occurs. "The encouragement of poetry itself," he writes in his 1966 essay, "Notes for a Preface," "is a labor and privilege like that of living. It requires, I imagine, among other startlingly simple things, a love of poetry, and possibly a recurring despair of finding it again, an indelible awareness of its parentage with that biblical waif, ill at ease in time, the spirit. No one has any claims on it, no one deserves it, no one knows where it goes." Merwin's position is not anti-intellectual. It is, however, intent upon incorporating the intellect into a network rather than establishing it at the top of a hierarchy.

By virtue of their intelligence, humans are forever estranged from the sheer innocence of creatures, from the seamless wholeness of the natural world. But the intelligence of the human species may become, in poetry, its own naturalizing context. The mind becomes complete, even in its incompleteness, if it can yield to its natural bent, which is that curious speculation that draws us toward what we do not know. Nature is always both different from us and hauntingly familiar to us, its innocence a trait we come closest to sharing when we are at our most curious and speculative. For Merwin, the poet is involved not in projecting himself onto his subjects but in making room for subjects to project themselves. The poet who can do that becomes the caretaker of thresholds over which subjects can pass without coercion, on their own terms.

Merwin's convictions have not changed, only acquired a new urgency in his most recent work, following The Rain in the Trees. His conviction that we must understand the limited time frame in which we, as a species, have operated is one of his most enduring beliefs. To understand that, to integrate it into our every action, is, quite simply, an expression of human thought at its highest, a use of the mind to check the powers of the mind, with the intent not of thwarting the intellect but of integrating it with the surroundings that should nourish it. The mind's power can be misused. The mind can adopt and enforce techniques that end in the blindness of routine procedures that control and even reshape the world, or it can remain in open contact with that which escapes understanding—that which always requires further understanding, with one horizon reached only to divulge another, and another.

"The Wars in New Jersey" considers what happens when we consign an area to oblivion by withholding our attention from it: "This is the way we were all brought up now / we imagine and so we all tell / of the same place by saying nothing about it." The ruins of the Jersey flats are passed each day by thousands of commuters, all of whom studiously ignore the devastation beyond their windows. Merwin employs the first person plural, for these regions of devastation that we agree to overlook are everywhere and all around us. "We roll through them canned in a dream of steel / but the campaigns we know we know / were planned and are still carried out for our sake." Can we deliberately ignore even one element in our lives without ultimately infecting every aspect of our life? We may prefer to believe this area is just a dead zone, but Merwin portrays it as a complex battlefield, a war being fought in our own names. The insistent refrain "we know we know" haunts his descriptions; this is the portrait we have drawn of ourselves. At the end of his poem, he places the finishing touches on our self-portrayal:

               … we emerge into the old        platform only a few minutes late        as though it were another day        in peacetime and we knew why we were there

The mindless destruction of the environment is the great issue of our time, yet it is a battle characterized by our refusal to acknowledge it. Consequently, we step out on a stage that is appropriately deserted, upon which we remain preoccupied with trivial matters, thinking we are "only a few minutes late" instead of realizing we may be the witnesses of the final days. The empty space and diminished time we passively inhabit reveal how severely foreshortened our perspectives have become. Our ignorance is complete, as Merwin icily remarks: we even act as though we know why we are there.

Arranging routines, establishing boundaries—these are, for Merwin, marks of a civilization that has lost its confidence and must nervously exert its authority. The danger of such a civilization lies in its indifference to everything but the dominion it occupies. In contrast, Merwin would remind us of the self-sufficient completeness of the natural world and what it offers as a perennial source of surprise and wonder.

The lesson returns again in "Among Bells." Climbing to the top of a belfry, he surveys the square of a foreign city below him; the objects there are intricate and elaborate expressions of a rich civilization. But the marvel of the poem, its governing force and reason for being, occurs when he discovers a bird huddled "above / one of the blackened cornices" and lifts it down as though it had perished there. The creature, held in his hands "like a bundle with no weight at all," then comes to life, escaping to a balustrade:

       for a moment glancing        back as a black planet after which        it was gone with a shriek into the long        afternoon light that touched the net        of wires        the waiting aerials        bare poles lines of laundry chimney flues        patched roofs pots of geraniums windows        standing open while in the streets        the same        hats legs and wagons were        moving toward unchanging destinations        and at the station trains were arriving        on time without a sound and just        leaving

The description of the city is changed by the escape of the bird, as though the authority of its parting glance ("as a black planet") passed to Merwin, altering the way he sees. Yet the alteration is subtle. On the one hand, after the lightninglike freedom of the bird, the objects of the city turn lumpish and clunky, separate but heaped together; moving objects seem to shift mechanically like toys. On the other hand, Merwin's descriptive lines also shake off the stiffness of a stark contrast—they even yield an opposite sense, as though the "bare poles lines of laundry chimney flues" were skimmed over rapidly, as seen by the bird, and the trains that arrive and leave soundlessly imitated the speed and flight of the chimney swift. Both perspectives remain present, each unsettling the other, as though Merwin held first one, then the other, as he sought to regain the balanced overview with which he opened his poem. But the point is that after the bird has asserted its autonomy, "Among Bells" is no longer exclusively his poem.

What Merwin would evoke, now more than ever, is the persisting presence of forces in the natural world to which we have grown blind. But these are the forces that endure, he would insist, representing a continuum that stretches beyond our understanding, that we must appreciate even as they judge us. We must submit to their judgment if we are to be complete, not submit them to ours.

In "The Blind Seer of Ambon," Merwin speaks in the voice of Georg Rumpf, the seventeenth-century naturalist (who loaned his name to a species of the cycad plant, as noted in "So Far") because the tragic events that disrupted Rumpf's life at every turn—the death of his wife and daughter in an earthquake, the destruction of his drawings and manuscripts in a fire, the extinction of the very species he had identified, and, finally, the loss of his own eyesight—are an unbearably complete record of the frailty that surrounds an individual life. Everyone and everything to which he was most deeply attached, all in his life that should have flourished and endured, has been taken away. Shakespeare's Lear went mad when stripped of the trappings of civilization and of everything he held dear to him. But Merwin's version of Lear is different, and Rumpf, although he has every reason to be Lear, is himself. Having lost all, what he discovers is how much still remains, the everything left to him that is the everything that had always been there, even in his blindness:

       so this is the way I see now        I take a shell in my hand        new to itself and to me        I feel the thinness the warmth and the cold        I listen to the water        which is the story welling up        I remember the colors and their lives        everything takes me by surprise        it is all awake in the darkness

The example may seem extreme; but given the lateness of the hour it is entirely appropriate. Merwin's aim, here as in so much of his work, is inseparable from his desire to transform the meager into the abundant, with the smallest, the gentlest, even the easiest of gestures, so that there can be no hesitation, no reluctance, no fear. He offers us what no one can ever possess, yet what should always be available to everyone.

Judith Kitchen (review date Fall 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Skating on Paper," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 578-95.

[In the excerpt below, Kitchen examines the convergence of style and theme in Travels.]

W. S. Merwin's most recent book, Travels, is permeated by a healthy nostalgia for what has been lost to us—a sense of history, an identification with place, a connection between generations, the old forms in art. Everything is seen as though through the window of a passing train, briefly illuminated and then receding into the world of memory. The preface poem, "Cover Note," appears separately and sets an elegiac tone (whose echo of Baudelaire signals as well a literary nostalgia):

        Hypocrite reader my         variant my almost         family we are so         few now it seems as though         we knew each other as         the words between us keep         assuming that we do         I hope I make sense to         you in the shimmer of         our days while the world we         cling to in common is         burning …

Merwin searches for a reader, doubting the ability of new generations to "behold our true meaning" and to conjure, from our images, the "rustling of / / paws in high grass the one / owl hunting along this / spared valley …" Many of the subsequent poems reiterate this fear. In a series of poetic biographies or "written lives," Merwin recalls the checkered history of colonization; the cutting of sandalwood from the Hawaiian hillsides; the Plains Indian, Frank Henderson, who held onto his lost traditions through drawings; the Russian-born botanist who traveled the Amazon and whose knowledge of plants saved his life; the stories of countless "forgotten" people. There are two ways to speak for others, the poet claims in "Writing Lives"—one is "to tell / the lives of others / using the distance as a lens / / and another way / is when there is no distance / so that water / is looking at water."

Interestingly, Merwin's characteristic lack of punctuation and his enjambed lines enable him to speak both ways, sometimes simultaneously. The flow of words acts as an interior monologue; each moment of pure observation is layered with response, memory, insight—all rendered in a rush of images and commentary tumbling over each other, much like the experience itself. On the other hand, since many of these poems are fairly long narratives, the reader not only becomes aware of the distance between the poet and his subject but also the "doubled" distance between the reader and the poet and the poet's subject. Merwin's lines are themselves a distancing factor at times; the constant enjambment and internal fusion can create a kind of stutter, nearly stopping the flow as the reader backs up to reposition himself in a phrase. The result is a kind of artificial removal by which a reader is kept from easy engagement with the "story" of the poem. For example, the following lines from "Lives of the Artists" demonstrate how the reader must sort through the syntax:

      the strange moon the new hunger they had no       words for and he would have years before       the wagons changed him and he came back       to meet Reverend Haury       who always knew       better and made him a bright Indian       teaching with white words but

The lines rush on, but the reader has to struggle to make sense. However, a closer look at this poem (and many of the others) reveals that there is method here. The poems are written in syllabics, each stanza reiterating the pattern which shapes its poem. Lines which at first glance seemed slack take on the tension of structure, become part of a greater whole. By noting the pattern, the reader participates in an aesthetic process.

But Merwin's line is most effective in the several short lyric poems clustered near the end of the book. In these, the structure created for the ear and eye provides a framework within which Merwin, almost in counterpoint, constructs the cadence of a voice and a complex syntax which culminates in a powerful sense of loss. The lines (and phrases within the lines) are suspended; their deliberate slippage points both backward, toward the poem's inception, and forward to its conclusion. The poem spins, centered on its images, in a vortex of its own making. There are many such poems in Travels, and I love most of them. "On the Old Way" admirably demonstrates what is meant by "lyric time," in which the overlay of present on past creates a simultaneity where is and was are one and the same:

       After twelve years and a death        returning in August to see the end of summer        French skies and stacked roofs the same grays        silent train sliding south through the veiled morning        once more the stuccoed walls the sore        pavilions of the suburbs glimpses        of rivers known from other summers leaves        still green with chestnuts forming for their        only fall out of old dark branches and again        the nude hills come back and the sleepless        night travels along through the day as it        once did over and over for this was the way        almost home almost certain that it was        there almost believing that it could be        everything in spite of everything

The "only" fall of the chestnuts and the transitory life of the poet are set against the permanence of the landscape and the recurrence of the natural cycles. Time is the culprit, or rather, the knowledge of time that forces the poet to acknowledge the "almost" and the "in spite of" that tell him death is irrevocable. Memory surfaces in the words "again" and "come back" and "once." The title of the collection comes into play—the poem is a form of travel, a journey into time and place, into a moment so intense it is nearly unbearable.

The intensity of the lyric moment is echoed and expanded in a series of poems where the syllabic structure again is crucial—this time in order to reinforce the interiority and yet allow the poem a further range. So it is that "Kites," for example, can move inexorably from its opening ("No one who did not have to / would stay in the heaving sepia / roar of the unlit depot hour / after hour") to its soaring conclusion ("the kites will be / watching from their own element / as long as the light lasts / neither living as the living know / of it nor dead with the dead / and neither leaving nor promising / the hands that hope for them"). When Merwin adds rhyme, "Search Party" takes on the sheen of formal elegance and "The Day Itself" (the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Poem for 1989) becomes witty and ironical. "Immortelles" alternately hoards and then relinquishes an emotional energy so that it embodies, in one sustained and convoluted sentence, Merwin's grief at his mother's death and a deep longing for the unchanged world of childhood, the glass flowers that needed no water.

This collection fascinates me. Throughout, Merwin holds onto an established habit of line but finds in certain more traditional forms and techniques a renewed sense of what the line is capable of accomplishing. (Some readers will be reminded of the poet's early books, which established him as a master of classical forms.) Travels takes shape almost in spite of its unwieldy premises and the crisis of readership at its core. No, the poem does not bring back the fields and farmland or the sweet smell of sandalwood forest. It will not make recompense to the lives lost to history.

It will not stop wars or stay death. Merwin, for all his acute awareness of loss, writes not to alter the world but to honor it. Finally, as in "Inheritance"—which can only be termed a sensory ars poetica—the poem is like a perfect pear whose true taste can never quite be recalled. It may slip from communal memory, or surface in the future to be savored in other circumstances:

… and now it was always like this with our tongues our knowledge and these simple remaining pears

In practiced hands the compulsory figures appear effortless. In most of the poems of Travels, Merwin has his proportions right. His tightrope lines are tethered to a larger vision.

Ben Howard (review date December 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Travels, in Poetry, Vol. CLXIII, No. 3, December, 1993, pp. 167-70.

[Howard is an American educator and poet. In the following mixed review, he remarks on the style and themes of Travels.]

With the publication of The Lice in 1967, W. S. Merwin brought a bold style and a fresh sense of the numinous to contemporary American poetry. Since that time, he has perfected his distinctions—the luminous image, the immaculate phrase, the power to make things strange. Writing in a fluid unpunctuated style, void of conventional syntax and traditional prosody, he has imbued his abiding motifs—water, silence, trees, and stones—with a dreamlike desolation and an aura of imminent departure.

In Travels, an assortment of lyric poems, narratives, and verse biographies, Merwin continues his familiar pursuit, investing a wide variety of settings and subjects with a mood of elegiac sadness. Merwin's settings range from South America to southern France to the Pennsylvania of his childhood. His speakers include a Russian botanist, a Native American artist, The Blind Seer of Ambon, and, presumably, the poet himself. But whatever their settings or subjects, these fluent, delicate poems evoke a sense of loss, whether the agent be cultural amnesia, or natural decay, or some imagined future extinction. "[T]imepieces can be / bought," the poet observes, "but not the morning the waking / into the wish to stay and the vanishing / constants I keep returning to…." Naming those vanishing constants, he commemorates them, even as he doubts the efficacy of his endeavor. "[F]or I have not / the ancients' confidence," he confesses, "in the survival of / one track of syllables / nor in some ultimate / moment of insight….

Merwin's obsession with transience appears most prominently in his imagery, which is largely one of movement and change. "Among Bells" opens with an image of "stones hollowed by feet so far ahead / that nothing of them would ever / be known" and ends with trains "arriving / on time without a sound and just / leaving." "The Morning Train" describes "a silence through which the minute hand / overhead can be heard falling." And "On the Old Way" evokes the pathos of inexorable change:

       After twelve years and a death        returning in August to see the end of summer        French skies and stacked roofs the same grays        silent train gliding south through the veiled morning        once more the stuccoed walls the sore        pavilions of the suburbs glimpses        of rivers known from other summers leaves        still green with chestnuts forming for their        only fall out of old dark branches and again        the nude hills come back and the sleepless        night travels along through the day as it        once did over and over for this was the way        almost home almost certain that it was        there almost believing that it could be        everything in spite of everything

Dense, sensuous, and exact, Merwin's images elegize changes that have occurred just at the edge of the poet's awareness—or outside of it altogether. Similarly, in "For the Year," he belatedly celebrates the turning of the year, which had "slipped through our words / and hands and was gone / and the year was new / / without our having / seen how it happened …" Alert though he is to change, Merwin seems always to be arriving just after it has happened. The effect is to enhance the mood of regret and the tone of unrequited longing.

Changes on a larger scale occur in Merwin's lengthy verse biographies, which examine the inner lives of European explorers, naturalists, and adventurers, who live uneasily among the natives in exotic places. In "Marin," Don Francisco de Paula Marin learns the "names for leaves that are new to [him] / and for ills that are everywhere the same." In "The Real World of Manuel Córdova," the hero lives among cannibals, learning their language and entering with them "into / the dream flowing through / the forest." In "After Douglas," the Scottish naturalist David Douglas, killed in Hawaii after falling into a bull trap, pays a posthumous visit to the scene of his death:

       there I go on alone without waiting and        my name is forgotten already into        trees and there is McGurney's house that I have forgotten        and McGurney telling me of the dug        pits on the mountain and there unchanged        is the forgotten bull standing on whatever I had been

The Douglas fir takes its name from David Douglas. Here that tribute becomes a form of amnesia, its place in posterity another kind of loss.

To dwell so intently on dissolution, on loss and its aftermath, is to risk both sameness and romantic cliché. For all their lyricism and felicities of phrasing, Merwin's poems do suffer from a sameness of tone, augmented by the absence of punctuation and the erasure of syntactic demarcations. In Merwin's long narrative poems, which run for many pages, that absence and those erasures can grow tedious and numbing, and one can long for a period or comma. For this reader, the pleasures of Travels lie mainly in Merwin's short lyric poems, where flawless phrasing and fluidity of movement honor the transience of things:

       How bright the blues are in this latter        summer through which news keeps vanishing        without having appeared but we know        the days as we know the clouds not by name        nor by where they are going the gardens        of the old are like that where every hope        that brought them together is no        more to be seen the stones raised beside        water not after all signifying        length of life but the untouchable        blue place beyond us in which stones are        days as you can see watching the old        at work in their gardens that are never        what they appear to be but already        perfect and transparent as the day is"Looking Up"

Here is Merwin at his frequent best—the artist of evanescence, the poet of vanishings and incipient removals.

Michael Leddy (review date Winter 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Travels, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 1, Winter, 1994, p. 133.

[Below, Leddy offers a mixed review of Travels.]

The themes of the forty-six poems in Travels, W. S. Merwin's first collection since The Rain in the Trees (1988), are familiar ones: displacement, both psychic and geographic, as a primary human condition; the loss and problematic recovery of one's past; nature as cunning consciousness and harbinger of apocalypse. There are many moments that look dangerously like self-parody, moving to a ponderous significance out of proportion to what is at hand. Here, for instance, is a description of coconuts: "many of the fruits are no larger than peas / but some are like brains of black marble / and some have more than one seed inside them / some are full of milk of one taste or another / and on a number of them there is a writing / from long before speech."

But Travels marks at least two interesting departures. For one, many of the poems are lengthy narratives or monologues devoted to historical figures: Rimbaud, Plains Indians Frank Henderson and Little Finger Nail, and naturalists from the seventeenth century to the recent past. It is good to see a poet write the unexpected, but the monologues, all of which feature naturalists, are disappointingly uniform; each sounds like a version of Merwin himself: "I always knew that I came from / another language" (Georg Eberhard Rumpf), "who did I leave behind at the beginning" (Don Francisco de Paula Marin), "my name is forgotten already into / trees" (David Douglas). While Rumpf, Marin, and Douglas did indeed know geographic displacement, it is unmistakably Merwin's voice that speaks here.

A second departure concerns form: about half the poems are in syllabics, sometimes rough, sometimes strict, with results not wholly successful. The sheer complexity of Merwin's patterns (sustained over ten or twenty stanzas), the lack of pointed line breaks, the large number of monosyllables—all this creates the impression that words are being poured into somewhat arbitrary forms. None of the varied surprises of Moore's syllabics or of, say, the seven-syllable lines of Auden's late poem "A Lullaby" are to be found here. Reading lines such as the following, about the naturalist Gregorio Gregorievich Bondar, I have to wonder to what purpose Merwin is using an eight-syllable line: "he was already quite / fluent in the language since he / heard no other and any news / of Russia that reached him did so / in Portuguese some time before / the papers arrived weeks old from / France and the still older letters / in Russian like broken pieces / of dry leaves out of a season." I am puzzled too by surprising slips: many of the poems that would appear to be in strict syllabics contain random lines that deviate from pattern (in stanzas 3 and 15 of "The Day Itself," for instance, six and nine syllables fill line 5, which is in all other stanzas an eight-syllable line). It is difficult to know what to make of such lines: are they evidence of bad faith (who's counting?) or of deliberate imperfection? I wonder though why a poet interested in imperfection would choose to work in strict syllabics to begin with.

There are some strong poems here: I would call special attention to "The Hill of Evening," which reincarnates the dance of Eliot's "East Coker"; "A Distance," an oblique juxtaposing of scenes inside and outside a doctor's office; and "Another Place" and "Immortelles," meditations upon the poet's father and mother. In such poems artifice is serving urgent human purposes. I wish that there were more such poems in Travels.

Gerald Stern (essay date 12 December 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize—1994," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 259, No. 20, December 12, 1994, pp. 733, 735.

[An American poet and educator, Stern was one of the judges for the 1994 Lenore Marshall/Nation Poetry Prize. The other judges were Deborah Digges and Stephen Dunn. In the following essay, Stern offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Travels, concluding that this is Merwin's best collection yet.]

What I find myself responding to over and over in W. S. Merwin's Travels is the unique combination of tenderness and knowledge—closeness, love, pity, coupled with cruel history, true narrative, accuracy. It is not a new combination for Merwin, but the focus is somewhat different. The spaces are, as it were, filled in, and the poet, as man, is totally accountable; and though the investigative heart of the poet goes from one obscure place to another, the voice is deeply personal and the sadness is almost unbearable.

There is overwhelming courage in these poems, the courage of finally facing oneself whole, intact and entire. Sometimes it is an epiphanous moment, a revelation, as in "The Hill of Evening," when, after a night of celebration, an "old woman's birthday party," the speaker discovers in the grass a "new sickle / bright as water and the blade / glittering with the dew" and he stands there startled:

        not knowing whose it could be how it had         come to be there what I was to do         with it now that I had seen it

the power of the experience reinforced by the simple literalness at the end:

       as you know no one steals anything here        and it must have been partly to see        whether it was really there that I reached down        and picked it up cool as the dripping grass        to carry home and lay on the table        here in front of me and tomorrow I must        try to find who it belongs to

and sometimes it is a moment of longer duration, as in "Another Place," the bitter, delicate poem about the lost father, burning his sermons, driving off with a "nicely spoken young helper," bickering with the trustees, entering the Sunday School room alone in the night. In "Writing Lives" Merwin says

       that if a single moment could be seen        complete it would disclose the whole

His search is for that moment.

The title Travels indicates continental and even cosmic movements, but I am fond of, and would like to call attention to, those poems that do not have great movement in them but are more in the way of meditations, particularly the ones on "otherworldly" plants and animals. In "The River," the crocodiles are shown, albeit in a park, a zoo, as creatures of vast power and remoteness, yet what can only be called sensitivity; in "So Far," a baby gecko is examined, loved and humanized, in a tender poem that has on the one hand the searing pity of Roethke's mouse and on the other the precision, lightness and irony of Marianne Moore's; and in "The Palms," the great tree is totally humanized, in shameless disregard of Ruskin.

      He says, of the palms:       most of the flowers themselves are small and green by day       and only a few are fragrant       but in time the fruits are beautiful       and later still their children       whether they are seen or not


      much later the elephant       will learn from them       the muscles will learn from their shadows       ears will begin to hear in them       the sound of water       and heads will float like black nutshells       on an unmeasured ocean neither rising nor falling       to be held up at last and named for the       sea

As for the long voyages, they are more in the way of journeys of the soul, inward journeys rather than outward ones, so whether we are listening to the bells or getting off a train or moving across the whole of Russia, it is the same yearning, the same remorse and expiation. "The Lost Camelia of the Bartrams" and "Inheritance" are cases in point. The first poem celebrates a tree that was discovered and then lost forever, at least in its natural setting, and would survive only by seeds and cuttings. It was not only beauty that disappeared but being itself. The second describes how "as many as four thousand / varieties of the opulent pear / … were to be found barely a century / ago … in the fields and gardens of France," and how a "jury picked no one / remembers how all men and none of them / young to say just how many / kinds of pears should exist in France." The poem ends:

       … everything they        savored is gone like a candle in a        tunnel and now it was always like this        with our tongues our knowledge and        these simple remaining pears

"Lives of the Artists" is the purest example of this loss. It describes how a Native American boy, Little Finger Nail, himself a warrior and a former prisoner of the whites, painted in a book the desperate and heroic struggle with "the blue spiders"; how the book was found tied to his back with strips of rawhide after he was shot, and how one page only was on display in a museum, "under glass." It is an extraordinary poem in which the poet himself, that artist, stands helpless and a stranger before the first one:

       … red        lines fly from the neck of        the horse on which the man with long braids is        racing and in the white sky are black stars        with black tears running down from them in        the lighted silence through which strangers        pass and some of them pause there        with all they know

One of the other judges [Deborah Digges] wrote about the quality of translation in Merwin's work, "as if," she said, "the words in each of his poems had undergone a metamorphosis, or as if they arrived here with a little dust of the ancients still clinging to their sandals. Often [she said] the sounds in the poems, too, echo and creak—oracular, like the voice of an exile…. The idioms and quirks of American English have been heightened to allegory. This is our best speech. In this book [she said] the translator's guilt and the translator's sadness are revealed. The distance necessary for so pure an utterance wounds the speaker. Maybe [she said] we can see this in Travels because Merwin has taken on longer poems. In 'Rimbaud's Piano,' 'Lives of the Artists' and 'The Moment of Green,' among others, the speaker's struggle to be present while at the same time holding up the parable, the story that will change him shadows the poems, weeps from the margins."

Of a great range of very fine books, including those by Rodney Jones, Jack Marshall, Lucille Clifton, Jane Miller, Jorie Graham and Forrest Gander, the judges chose this one. My own feeling is that, among the many lovely collections that Merwin has given us over the many years of his writing, this is the finest.


Merwin, W. S. (Vol. 8)