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
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 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.”
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.