52 Authors - Week 28?
I guess I need reading glasses

52 Authors: Week 28 - W.S. Merwin

Note: in order to keep the series going through what I hope is only a dry spell, I've resorted to republishing the following piece, which was the Sunday Night Journal for November 7, 2011. I had intended to re-work it for this post, but found that there's really nothing much I want to change. The original post was titled W.S. Merwin: Notes To A Lost Text.

For many years I’ve thought of writing some sort of lengthy appreciation of W.S. Merwin, but the project has never made it to the top of my list, and it’s time I accepted the possibility that it never will. Last year when he was appointed Poet Laureate I thought I would at least do some sort of blog post about him; now his year in that position has come and gone and I never managed to get that done, either. So, on the Chestertonian principle that anything worth doing is worth doing badly, or better late than never, or better something than nothing, here is...something, though perhaps the applicable aphorism is “too little, too late.”

Did you even know the U.S. had a poet laureate? I believe it is a renaming of what used to be the nearest thing we had, the office of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. At least, back in the days when I was somewhat more conversant with the contemporary poetry scene, that seemed to be considered a sort of pinnacle of what passes for fame for poets. As someone said—it may have been John Ashbery—on being asked what it was like to be a famous poet, “being a famous poet is not like being famous.”

In those same days, roughly 1971-1976, Merwin was very highly regarded, and imitated, by aspiring young poets, at least those of my acquaintance. As is often the case with poets having a very distinctive style, the influence was not necessarily for the best. Mediocre work in the vein of, say, Hopkins, or Dylan Thomas, or early Eliot, inevitably seems like mere imitation, and draws attention to the fact that it is not quite as good as the original.

Unlike most of the people I knew in the local literary scene, I didn’t read much contemporary poetry, and didn’t like most of what I read. Indeed, I held on principle a general sort of disapproval of it. I thought the whole direction of modern poetry—free verse, the French-influenced imagism, the obscurity, the flat rhythms—was a big mistake, and had neo-classical or formalist, and definitely traditionalist, ideas about what I wanted to do. More fundamentally, I just didn’t think much of it was very good—it was competent and occasionally memorable, but it hardly ever affected me deeply. Merwin’s work did, though. I was won over when I read his 1967 book The Lice. Specifically, I think it was this poem, at the time and I suppose still, considered one of his very best, that won me over:

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year not knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Setting aside what I thought or think about whether this manner of writing poetry is the way it ought, ideally, to be done—that is, whether one thinks it a healthy development for the art—there is also, philosophically and religiously and psychological, something pretty unhealthy in this book. It’s desolate and disoriented:

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead
Again again with its pointless sound
When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

(“The Asians Dying”)

And at night wrapped in the bed of ashes
In one breath I wake
It is the time when the beards of the dead get their growth

(“When You Go Away”)

Out of the morning stars the blood began to run down the white sky and the crowd in tears remembered who they were and raised their hands shouting Tomorrow our flag

(“Unfinished Book of Kings”)

I could go on and on, quoting the whole book. Looking through it again now for the first time in ten years or so, I’m reminded of how many of these poems are perfect in their way, and that even the ones I like less always have something stunning in them. They are often obscure, but not in the tight, logically rigorous way of some of the earlier modernists who were taken with Donne, the way of the riddle or puzzle. This is the way of intuition, instinct, and a definite touch of surrealism. One does not look for a precise physical analog to the bed of ashes, or the blood running down the sky; one accepts them as images of isolation and dread. (Actually the ashes might be pretty straightforward as a reference to a bed empty of the one addressed in the title.)

Isolation. Desolation. Loss. Alienation. Disorientation. Absence. These are the abstractions with Thelice which one attempts to describe the atmosphere of this book. And if those words told the whole story, I wouldn’t like the poems as well. But there is always in them the consciousness of what is missing, and an occasional glimpse of it. My friend Robert said something many years ago about Merwin’s work that has stuck in my mind ever since: that it was like “notes to a lost religious text.” I believe he was talking about Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, but it applies to most of the work that I love.

I’ve never quite made up my mind whether or not I believe in something along the lines of a collective mind or instinct, something that brings certain ideas and moods to the forefront among a large segment of humanity: the skepticism of the 18th century, for instance. Perhaps such things are explainable as being simply a matter of the time being congenial to the idea—but when we say that, what have we really said? Why was the time congenial? In any case, whether or not there is some mysterious force behind it, these phenomena do occur. Something happened in the 1960s, throughout the western world, at least. It involved the breaking down of structures of all sorts. For some people in some situations it was a liberation, for others a collapse, and sometimes the same situation was a liberation to some and a collapse to others. And sometimes the same person felt it simultaneously as liberation and collapse. I think that could be said of Merwin, and of my other favorite artist of the mid-20th century, Ingmar Bergman. Their work of the 1960s is often similar in tone, movies like The Silence and Hour of the Wolf seeming to come from a very similar place as some of the poems in The Lice. Both men were the sons of Protestant ministers, both seem to have lost or rejected belief in God, but were left with a sense of loss and a fear of meaninglessness, and created works of art which express a deep spiritual yearning. Their sense of dislocation is almost apocalyptic; they seem to see an abyss opening, and the modern world plunging toward it, or already falling.

What I’ve seen of Merwin’s early work was pretty conventional for its time, which is not to say it wasn’t very well done. The few poems I’ve seen from that period were formal in structure. It was in The Moving Target, published in 1963, that he began to develop the style that produced his most original work: he dropped all formal regularity, including meter, line length, stanza patterns, and finally punctuation, as in the poem quoted above. At a glance you might think his line no different, formally, from the lifeless “free verse” that a high-schooler might produce, but anyone with an ear quickly discerns that it has its own shimmering rhythm, and that each poem has a definite graceful shape, all the product of considerably more skill than is immediately apparent.

It is The Moving Target and the following three books—The Lice, The Carrier of Ladders, and Writings To An Unfinished Accompaniment—which are for me, and I think for many of Merwin’s admirers, the heart of his work. I have followed him only as far as 1992’s Travels, which has its moments but was the latest of several that didn’t seem to me on the level of his work of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. He also seems to have become more political over the years, in the usual left-wing artist sort of way. The great books have some memorable and powerful poems on political and environmental themes, but from the Reagan years forward I have occasionally run across remarks from him that were the sort of bared-teeth leftism that I thought could hardly fail to have affected his art.

But never mind that. The great work remains. Here is another poem from The Lice, one that reminds me of both Bergman and St. John of the Cross. This book, by the way is the darkest of the four mentioned above. And also by the way, the intent of the title is not to disgust and repel: it is the answer to a riddle which, according to Heraclitus, stumped Homer: “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

The Room

I think all this is somewhere in myself
The cold room unlit before dawn
Containing a stillness such as attends death
And from the corner the sound of a small bird trying
From time to time to fly a few beats in the dark
You would say it is dying it is immortal


I haven't really made much attempt here to describe the effect of Merwin's poetry on me, and apparently on a good many other people, and to explain why I like it so much. That is the part of the unwritten essay that would require the most work and even then be inadequate. As with  most art, the old saying applies: for those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don't, no explanation will suffice. You will either have responded to the two poems reproduced here, or not. If you did, and are not already familiar with Merwin's work, you should seek it out.


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I haven't read this whole post yet. I'm just absorbing the half or so of what I have read. I liked the first two poems very well. I don't have anything meaningful beyond that to add.

I did, however, find your description of the '60s very moving. Like when I read Peter Hitchens on this, I feel very sad about it.

It was certainly an interesting time to be young.

Other jolly Merwin titles, also I think from The Lice: "For a Coming Extinction," "The Asians Dying."

As in the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times"?

"The Lice" as a title is really unappealing to me!

I thought it was interesting at the time; now, I think it's very boring.


Louise, Everytime I see the cover of that book, I want to turn the computer off. Having battled them when my kids were in school, I want to avoid them as much as possible.


Heh. Sorry. I don't like the title, either. I guess I could have chosen another of his books. The covers are all similar. But that's my particular favorite, in spite of the title.

I still think it's interesting. Still trying to sort it all out.

One thing that has struck me in recent years, especially since reconnecting (via Facebook) with a few of my old hippie friends, is the extent to which they have kept the faith, so to speak. There's an irony there: "change" was one of our demands, but I've changed more than they have, at least in my thinking.

I think you are right about that--your changing more. My old hippie friends are very predictable. I guess that's what I mean about boring. What is interesting is the factors that played into everything that happened, but the party line is boring.


There was some pretty good music in the 1960s.

Indeed. And though I'm not one of those who thinks nothing very good came after 1971 or so, it is true that most of what's come since is...I hate to use the word "derivative", but it does use the same basic methods and vocabulary.

The problem with 60s (pop) music is that it was often technically not very good. Not only was the recording technology "primitive," but the musicians sometimes not very competent, much less virtuosos. I can hardly listen to the Rolling Stones. I've even come to believe that the Beatles were musical geniuses, but they were inhibited by their relatively limited technical skill on their instruments. Had they been classically trained....

I think both recording technology and instrumental competence improved post 1971. But the spark wasn't as much there with exceptions. Like, Norah Jones is cool. Derivative, perhaps, but still cool.

And if someone mentions U2 in their response, I'll just say I can't stand them. I prefer spacey pretentiousness ("Yes") to self-righteous pretentiousness.

Of course, 60s music is not what this post is about. Sorry.

I remember when I was in my early teens, Segovia said something derogatory about the Beatles and I was incensed. ;-) Later on I figured out he was right.


Music is never off-topic here, Robert.

People tried so hard on the pro-Beatles-et.al. side to claim musical brilliance in the technical sense for them. But it just wasn't true. It's the wrong standard to judge them by. Paul McCartney, for instance, is/was a gifted melodist by any standard, but that doesn't mean he should be mentioned alongside Mozart.

I'm sorry, but Nora Jones is boring to me. Nice but boring. U2--well, I like some of their stuff quite a lot, but it hit me while listening to The Joshua Tree a few years ago that they have never made an album I liked all the way through. And it's funny how much they annoy people sometimes (including me).

I'm a sucker for female singers.

None of the Beatles hold a candle to the worst of Mozart or any of the top 100 classical composers. They are just IN COMMAND.

And people like those blues-based guitarists that Maclin likes so much are miles beyond the Beatles as well, even though I don't care for them.

Two things opened my eyes about the Beatles. No: three. First, for the past two years I've been listening to a LOT of classical music with my kids, including doing a lot of self-education on music theory. Second, Chet Atkins. Third, that SHEL album that Mac doesn't care much for is the FIRST album of a bunch of young girls. It is technical and compositionally a long way beyond what the Beatles were able to accomplish only after several albums. Plus, they are better instrumentalists. And I don't even think they are that great. You want great instrumentalists, go to Chris Thile, Natalie MacMaster and April Verch.

And I LOVE the Beatles and always will.

I agree with you about Paul. I think at his best he was the equal of the great melodists from the American Songbook era. He also was able to produce reams of schlock.

In 1967, Leonard Bernstein had a special on CBS, Inside Pop--The Rock Revolution, in which he gave 60s music his imprimatur, or to at least what he said was the good five percent of it. I remember watching it and that afterwards some of my musically trained friends who had previously disdained rock, changed their minds about it. At the time, Bernstein was, as Trump would say, "yuge" in the U.S., largely I think because of his Young People's Concerts on TV, so his approval was a pretty big deal.

You can watch the video of the show here.

I remember, probably somewhere around that time, reading that Bernstein (pretty sure it was Bernstein) compared "Love Me Do" to something in Hindu music. Although I didn't know anything about music, I distinctly remember thinking that was just silly. And condescending.

I thought I liked SHEL, Robert. I don't remember hearing the whole album, but I seem to remember being impressed with their talent. I've never heard of those other three you name.

I think you underestimate the Stones. Or should I say misunderestimate? It's true they're not as musically inventive as the Beatles, but they have something else. I happen to have heard "Satisfaction" this afternoon, for the first time in who knows how many years, and was really struck by how much was going on, especially rhythmically. The Beatles sound stiff in comparison. Not that I care much for that song (anymore), or even listen to the Stones very often. I think they peaked around 1967.

Oh. I think it was something you said on FB that made me think you weren't convinced about SHEL.

I don't underestimate the Stones. They were great at what they did. I just don't think what they did was great, even if there were moments of genius. I remember liking Some Girls very much. That was the only Stones album I ever owned.

It is their production that I really didn't like. It seemed intentionally out of tune, which might work as a gimmick, but which gets tiring as a modus operandi.

Chris Thile is the mandolin player for Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers. He is replacing Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion next year. Natalie MacMaster and April Verch are Canadian fiddlers. Verch has a gorgeous voice. There aren't any good Verch videos on YouTube, but the album I like, if it is on Rdio, is Steal the Blue. I esp. like "Slip Away," which makes me cry, "I might have one, too," and her version of "He's holding on to me."

They both clog brilliantly.

Maybe it was your list of albums that you said were flawless (more or less--I don't know if you used that word)? I said that of the ones I'd heard I didn't think they were flawless, but I wasn't counting SHEL among those. As far as I remember I haven't heard their album. I may be forgetting but I was thinking I'd only heard one or two songs, and those were very good.

Well, I didn't mean to say they were flawless. I meant to say that I, Robert Gotcher, could listen to them as a whole with pleasure. No duds for me and a certain pleasing coherence.

There may be one B52s song I don't care for. It has been too long since I listened to it much for me to be sure.

"They were great at what they did. I just don't think what they did was great"

I'd pretty much agree with that. As for their being out of tune--I don't know if it was deliberate or not, but one thing I've always liked about their music is that it somehow has a loose, rough-around-the-edges feel while at the same time having a tight groove and a lot of energy (talking about their 1970-and-earlier stuff). Must be a very fine line there.

I heard a singer just a couple of days ago who struck me as fairly spectacular: Rhiannon Giddens. Ever heard of here? I don't know what her music as a whole is like, but what a voice...

More later, but re: U2, I loved their first two albums -- I was in college at that time and I played them constantly. Was less impressed with the next couple, then basically gave up on them after that.

(Had the same basic experience with REM -- loved the first three records, was disappointed with the next couple, then stopped paying attention.)

I still listen to those REM albums fairly often (they hold up well) but the U2, not so much. They seem to have caught the spirit of that particular time, like some similar late 70s/early 80s bands, but frankly, many of those acts weren't really all that good, musically speaking. In retrospect I think maybe it was more about the vitality than the actual music.

Your REM experience is one I've had with many artists over the years. There just aren't that many who can maintain a high level of quality. I liked those early REM albums a lot, too, but haven't heard them for a long time (decades) so I don't know if I'd like them now or not. U2 were more of a mixed bag: I do like some of their stuff quite a lot, and their earlier stuff better, but it seemed like every album had a fairly high percentage of songs I didn't care much for. Haven't heard Boy or October for many many years.

I remember a friend of mine in the music business telling me that one of the big changes in album recording was when the producer Don Was started getting artists to frontload their records with the strong tracks instead of creating records that were strong and cohesive all the way through. Not sure exactly when that happened (mid 80s?) but from that point on you had a lot of records on which the first three or four tracks were really strong, but then the rest were not as good.

The logic was that the radio stations when sampling a record for airplay would play the first 30 seconds of the first three or four tracks, and if there wasn't a 'grabber' there, they'd file the album away. So the strong stuff had to come first.

And Mozart just churned it out and churned it out and churned it out. What's up with that?

Rhiannon Giddens.

Interesting, but not my taste. I go more into "sweet," "mellow," or "sultry."

There was some sweet, mellow, and sultry in what I heard, but she can certainly turn it up.

Pop music has come full circle. In the '50s and well into the '60s, the 45rpm single was king, and albums were sort of an afterthought. They would include the big single(s) and a bunch of filler. Then in the mid-'60s artists began to produce the album as we know it. I guess the Beatles were the big game-changers there. At first it was almost a bit eccentric to buy whole albums. Then 15 years or so ago with distribution by mp3 the album began to fall apart again. I guess the industry has always been driven by hit singles, hence the Don Was strategy while album sales were still strong. When did the vinyl single disappear? Was there ever a viable market for single CDs? They're kind of a stupid concept, since the medium is the same. But if that's true about the deliberate mediocre-izing of albums it probably helped make people happier to be able to buy singles again.

I tend to be pretty stingy about using the word "genius" but if anybody ever merited the term it was Mozart. Freak of nature, really.

I'll have to look up Giddens. I've heard the name but that's it.

With vocalists nowadays the listener has to be very aware of Auto-tune when judging the singer's quality. This was brought home to me in listening to Florence Welch of 'Florence + The Machine.' I first heard the song "Dog Days Are Over" about three years ago and liked it a lot. The singer had a great voice. I then found out that they had a new album out (the song I heard was from an older one) so I bought it -- Ceremonials. Really liked it. Until I started checking out their live performances. Ms. Welch's pipes just weren't up to par. She couldn't hit many of the high notes like she did on the records, and she was often quite flat to boot. My conclusion was that there was a whole lot of auto-tuning going on.

In short, anyone nowadays can be made to sound good on recordings. The real proof of quality is in live performance.

re: "solid" albums, two recent favorites would be The National's High Violet (2010) and last year's Lost in the Dream by The War on Drugs. I listen to both often and there are no tracks on either that I skip.

Beirut's Rip Tide is also really good. It's a short record of just nine songs but there is only one track on it that I don't like.

"The real proof of quality is in live performance." I noticed that April Verch's live recordings on YouTube ain't that great. Maybe she's autotuned, too.

The War On Drugs got all sorts of raves from people on eMusic. Haven't heard them though. I have one album by The National but can't remember whether that's it or not--it's the one with the "blood" song about Ohio. Anyway, it's good, although I seem to recall feeling that there was something missing somehow.

The context in which I heard Rhiannon Giddens is a documentary called Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued. I recorded it off tv some time ago and just watched it this past week. Strange idea: T-Bone Burnett gathered a group of (mostly) young artists to write and record songs using a lot of lyrics Dylan scribbled during the Basement Tapes period and never used. I only caught about 2/3 of the documentary but what I saw was quite interesting. link.

Giddens btw is/was part of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group of whom I've heard only a little and wanted to hear more.

"it's the one with the 'blood' song about Ohio."

Yeah, that's the one. I like that whole record.

I must've heard her name in connection with the Dylan thing. The little I've heard of the Drops I like.

War on Drugs is an interesting band. At times the lead guy seems to be channeling Dylan or Tom Petty, but not always, and there's also a distinct 80s vibe (mostly guitar) to it. You can spot some of the influences but they're putting it all together into something pretty unique, so it all sounds familiar and new at the same time. And I like the fact that they don't hurry the songs -- some of them run six or seven minutes with long instrumental breaks or outros.

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