Laura Quinney on Merwin

By Laura QuinneyJanuary 24, 2015

Collected Poems 1952-1993 by W.S. Merwin
Collected Poems 1996-2011 by W.S. Merwin

THIS YEAR, the Library of America solidified W. S. Merwin’s canonical status by publishing his collected poetry (to date) in two volumes, with notes and chronology, edited by J. D. McClatchy.[1] It is instructive to think of some things Merwin’s American peers do in their poems that he does not do in his. He is not a formalist like Merrill and Bishop. He does not deploy the rich vocabulary of Ammons or engage in the verbal pyrotechnics of Ashbery. His diction is resolutely plain, veering toward the dominance of short words with an Anglo-Saxon origin. Like Yeats, he wants his poetry to sound like speech, and like Yeats, he is not precisely colloquial: he deploys his words with scriptural gravity. (Scripture is an obvious influence throughout his poetry: he is a minister’s son.) With one exception, he has not written an “epic,” either tightly structured, like Merrill’s trilogy, or diaristic, like Ammons’s long poems. The exception is The Folding Cliffs, an extended narrative whose length does not suit his gifts. His mode is essentially lyric: brief, intense, and stirring. He has tried various means of knitting short poems into longer sequences, but the spare and solitary lyric is his natural form. This is nothing to complain of, since the best of his lyrics are sublime.

Merwin has been experimenting for over 50 years to perfect his kind of lyric. He has written a great deal of poetry (and translations), but to read it all at once is to see that he has been seeking (even at the risk of repeating himself) and slowly converging upon a particular effect or set of effects. His first four books of poems follow the formal manners typical of mid-20th-century American and English poetry. Conventionally punctuated, the poems are tight-looking, dense objects on the page. Some unfurl in traditional verse paragraphs, others in quatrains or at least stanzas of uniform length. But one lyric in his first book, A Mask for Janus (1952), already embodies the aesthetic of austerity that will dominate his later poems:


Death is not information.
Stone that I am,
He came into my quiet,
And I shall be still for him.

The poem is stark, the words ordinary and monosyllabic (except the almost acerbic “information”), and the thought is compressed in such a way as to create a potent balance of irony and tenderness. The poem works toward economy, clarity, purity of diction, and emotional force. This is clearly Merwin’s aesthetic from The Moving Target onward, when he begins to exert his proper originality.

The lyric may look easy, but it is a stringent and demanding mode. Condensation is an obvious requirement. There is a still greater need for drama. A lyric can be an explosive little package, as any reader of a master like Dickinson knows. Precisely because of its concision, a short poem benefits from a “turn” (a change of direction) — something like the punch line of a joke — which bumps it up from the level of description to thought, from notes to music, from structure to dynamic. Turns give even a short poem its “plot.” Merwin, who has largely surrendered many of the formal resources of lyric (stanza form, rhyme, refrain), shapes his poems by other means — line length, line breaks, narrative arc. It is by these means, increasingly, that he builds up the turns and tensions investing his poems with drama.

Compare “Epitaph” with a poem from Merwin’s latest collection, The Shadow of Sirius (2008):

“Trail Marker”

One white tern sails calling
across the evening sky
under the few high clouds touched
with the first flush of sunset
while the tide keeps going out
going out to the south
all day it has been six months
that you have been gone
and then the tern is gone
and only the clouds are there
and the sounds of the late tide

Like “Epitaph,” this poem is an elegy. (Context suggests that it is an elegy for a dog, but the poem itself remains tactfully reticent about this: it concentrates on the experience of loss.) The description of a lonely beach scene gives way suddenly to a reminder, or a moment of self-consciousness that reminds the speaker, and tells us, why it has seemed lonely: “all day it has been six months / that you have been gone.” He looks again and sees the disappearance of the living creature, the bareness of the seascape and the ebbing of the tide, the absence he has felt all along now fully clarified. (Naturally, it is sunset. Like most of his later poems, this one carefully specifies time of day. Perhaps Merwin learned something of the aesthetic of temporal markers from the Asian poetry he has translated.)

When he abandoned punctuation, Merwin made words simultaneously more and less substantial. Unpunctuated words, especially in shorter lines, seem more fraught, but also more symbolic: we are reminded of their status as marks or symbols, and thus of both their power and their poverty as a means of expression. This is a frequent theme: Merwin is haunted by the weakness of “names” and the elusive presence of that which is “nameless” (“in a silence we all know / but cannot touch or reach for with words” — “By the Avenue”). Absence of punctuation lifts the poem off the page — “floats” it — so that it seems to occupy a purely notional space, neither embodied in utterance nor stamped into print. It is silent speech, or unfathered thought: words in their proper disownment — estranged, or partly estranged, both from reality and from expression.

Now let me contrast the difference in feeling between “Epitaph” and “Trail Marker” in formal terms. “Epitaph” comes at death from an odd angle, pairing tenderness and the uncanny. Strange that the speaker is a stone; strange that it chooses to be still. (The deep background might be Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” with the dead beloved “rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones and trees.”) The poem is composed of four suitably lapidary sentences, each taking up a full line, ending each line with a period. (In technical terms, each line is “end-stopped.) By contrast, “Trail Marker” is a poem of grief, a poem meant to communicate feeling, and it does so, to a striking degree, through its rhythms and turns. In it we see some of the formal techniques characteristic of later Merwin, especially lack of punctuation and free use of enjambment. These qualities make the poem light and fluid. It pours out from the initial capitalization in what looks like (but is not) a single unbroken sentence, which could be interpreted as a rush of utterance or as an unfolding internal meditation. But there is a slight pause at the end of each line, and this creates an opening for refined and moving surprises. The first lines bring in a delicate shift, a new sense of scene: the tern is simply calling, we think at first, or calling to other terns; but no, it is calling “across the evening sky,” as if forlornly. The image of the “the tide going out” seems basically neutral, until the addition of “going out to the south”: the repetition subtly inflects the lyric voice with emotion. And finally we get the great drop from “all day it has been six months” to “that you have been gone.” Then the poem settles down into simply linked phrases (“and … and … and”), as facts are acknowledged, and the scene empties out.

The later Merwin often uses the line break — the enjambment — to “turn” the meaning or feeling in this way. He likes long sentences that demand strategic enjambment over a number (often a large number) of lines. The enjambments propel the syntax forward, while at the same time briefly suspending our comprehension, or forcing us to correct our course. There is something about this competition of rhythms — this urgency combined with reassessment — that is poignant in itself. The outpouring is passion and it meets with the resistance of truth. In Merwin’s later poetry, such form becomes a striking source of autonomous power, deployed with subtle and masterful variation.

Merwin thinks through form, and though I suppose this is true of any significant poet, it is also true, inversely, that to become a significant poet is to learn, perhaps over a lifetime, how to think through your own form. This means: to evolve a prosody, a poetic style, which allows you to think and say what you care about thinking and saying. Consider Dickinson, with her hymn stanzas and her compact ironies; consider Whitman, with his rambling catalogs, his expansive joys and laments; consider Ashbery, with his reams of found language, and his shy pathos, and you will perceive that this is so. Poets are intellectual pioneers.

A midcareer experiment, and its failure, help to isolate what is distinctive in Merwin’s use of form. In Opening the Hand (1983) he tried combining short lines into single lines, linking them with a prominent caesura, as in “The Red House”:

Room after room without a voice       no one to say
only another country could afford so much space
spring sunlight through locked shutters reveals the old patchworks
adrift on the old beds in the dry air
and in the white fireplaces already it is summer

This does not work. There is too much clutter, in both appearance and rhythm. A sparser look, to borrow a phrase from Helen Vendler, “aerates the page,” giving single words more importance, at least to the contemporary eye.[2] The rhythm of the experiment is also wrong, at least by comparison with what Merwin does later. Suturing phrases with caesurae dissolves the dynamic tension between sentence structure and line breaks (syntax and enjambment). There are too many breaks, and they become monotonous. The drama of conflicting matrices is lost.

Merwin made a more successful experiment with line length in The Vixen (1996), a book of poems about his memories of the French countryside where he lived as a young man. The poems are written in long lines “loosely derived from those of classical elegies,” according to the “Chronology” in this edition. The book is by nature retrospective, and it is with these poems of temporal consciousness, I think, that Merwin found a particularly incisive way to dovetail form and content. For his compelling and plangent rhythms perfectly complement his thinking about time, which has become naturally more prominent in his poetry as he has grown older.

Merwin said in an interview that he grew “impatient” with punctuation,[3] and this is a meaningful joke, because the lack of punctuation can read as urgency, breathlessness, the utterance of words under duress or pressure of time. Enjambment, too, affects the temporal experience of poetry. The short lines and the breaking up of sentences and phrases have a critical effect on the “timing” of the poem — on how fast or slowly we read or sub-vocalize it — and on rhythm more generally — where we hear repetition, where emphasis, and what is the overall music. In The Vixen’s “Forgotten Streams,” Merwin plays expertly on the relation between form and content, temporal and rhythmical momentum.

The names of unimportant streams have fallen
   into oblivion the syllables have washed away
but the streams that never went by name never raised the question
   whether what has been told and forgotten is in
another part of oblivion from what was never remembered
   no one any longer recalls the Vaurs and the Divat
the stream Siou Sujou Suzou and every speaker
   for whom those were the names they have all become
the stream of Lherm we do not speak the same language
   from one generation to another and we
can tell little of places where we ourselves have lived
   the whole of our lives and still less of neighborhoods
where our parents were young or the parents of our friends
   how can we say what the sound of voices was or what
a skin felt like or a mouth everything that the mouths did
   and the tongues the look of the eyes the animals the fur
the unimportant breath not far from here an unknown
   mason dug up a sword five hundred years old
the only thing that is certain about it now
   is that in the present it is devoured with rust
something keeps going on without looking back

The sentences are run together and then the poem is, as it were, rotated on its axis so that many lines end in the middle of sentences, indeed, in the middle of clauses and phrases. The interplay of the two matrices — syntax and enjambment — gives the whole poem a spiraling energy. The “line” of force is as if unbroken as it rounds the ends of lines, circling downward to the beginning of the next line. Thus the poem shares in the temporal momentum it describes in the last line: “Something keeps going on without looking back.” But it also dramatizes resistance to this momentum in the small hiccups of enjambment. The poem says plainly enough that time is destructive and that we are lost in it, but these are ideas brought home by the reader’s experience of music and form. By this means, Merwin often creates a strong underlying rhythm — a swaying motion with its own momentum — that has passionate and chant-like qualities. But the very thrust of incantation recalls forms of momentum over which the individual mind does not have perfect authority, though it wishes to: time, language, the body.

In his most recent book of poems, The Shadow of Sirius, Merwin concentrates on the experience of displacement in time, and the sense of vulnerability and incapability that follow from it. There is also increased humility of voice, and a still more subtle interplay of form and content. The title of the book refers to something it is impossible to see — the shadow of a star — and in explaining the title, Merwin has emphasized the importance of the unknowable: “as we talk to each other, we see the light, and we see these faces, but we know that behind that, there’s the other side, which we never know. And that — it’s the dark, the unknown side that guides us, and that is part of our lives all the time.”[4] Throughout The Shadow of Sirius, we find meditations on the frailty of memory, and the patchiness of knowledge. This is the work of an old man who wants to confess, or at least to note, how little cognitive authority age brings (“it is not wisdom that I have come to” — “Night with No Moon”), and to affirm without embarrassment the continuing presence of the child in him. Experience has taught him something: that experience has not taught him much, and he remains in a certain light as innocent of reality as his childhood self.

Much of The Shadow of Sirius is about what eludes our knowledge. In a context that inflects the sentiment with anguish, one poem explicitly concludes, “this is not a place made for knowledge” (“Walled Place Above the River”). The loose juncture in the human relation to the natural world means that we are never quite of it, and therefore not aware of what is going on in it. The activity of this world is largely unknown and unremarked by human consciousness. “The Mole” describes the trace left by an animal we scarcely ever see:

but here the earth
has been touched and raised
eye has not seen it come
ear has not heard
the famous fur
the moment that finds its way
in the dark without us

Its final poem, “The Laughing Thrush” ends the whole book on the same note: “here is where they all sing the first daylight / whether or not there is anyone listening.” In both poems, the invisibility of the animal world comes to stand in for the inscrutability of time. As in Rilke, it is not just the lives of animals, but the substance of time, that eludes our perception. We may not hear the thrush singing “the first daylight,” and the mole that has found its way in the dark without us becomes “the moment” itself. The present, the only time we might know, somehow dodges our consciousness. In “A Momentary Creed,” Merwin acknowledges his humility before “the moment” that dwarfs his knowledge and being: “it extends beyond whatever I may / think I know and all that is real to me.”

Time and the human experience of time are not the same. We do not know time in its reality. This is the subject of one of the most evocative poems in The Shadow of Sirius.

“Still Morning”

It appears now that there is only one
age and it knows
nothing of age as the flying birds know
nothing of the air they are flying through
or of the day that bears them up
through themselves
and I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow
voices murmur in a shadow
as I watch one patch of sunlight moving
across the green carpet
in a building
gone long ago and all the voices
silent and each word they said in that time
silent now
while I go on seeing that patch of sunlight

The poem falls into two parts: a generalization and then an autobiographical anecdote by way of illustration. Already in the generalization, there is pathos, but why? Hard enjambments brusquely divide adjective from noun and verb from direct object. The tone might be serene — the observation accepted with a Zen patience — but the enjambments create a roughness that asks to be read as a sign of distress, a pang. With each break, a wish is defeated by a reality. Don’t we have many ages, learning and gaining over time? No: “there is only one / age.” Don’t we know ourselves and our experience? No: the one age “knows / nothing of age.” And the flying birds, don’t they know their world, aren’t they experts in air? No: they “know / nothing of the air they are flying through.”

A later poem in The Shadow of Sirius reprises the theme:

At times it has seemed that when
I first came here it was an old self
I recognized in the silent walls
and the river far below
but the self has no age
as I knew even then and had known
for longer than I could remember
as the sky has no sky
except itself this white morning in May

(“Cold Spring Morning”)

In a different context the claim that “the self has no age” might be affirmative, but for Merwin it is a disappointment, an acknowledgment that an expectation or belief about the self has failed. It has not acquired over time what it had assumed it would acquire. Even the idea of being an “old self” was an illusion; the self does not stand on the stilts of its experience. It “has no age […] as the sky has no sky / except itself.” What is consciousness doing here on earth then? What is the purpose of its passage through time? Wallace Stevens made the inference in collective terms: “We live in a place / That is not our own, and much more, not ourselves, / And hard it is, in spite of blazoned days” (“Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”). Merwin ends his poem with the same idea, but with more naked pathos: “I was not born here I come and go.”

Our existence as creatures of time imposes upon us a passivity and vulnerability that we do not like to acknowledge. But this state of ignorance is also, to some degree, a state of innocence. The “one age” that the self “has” is childhood. From the generalization about the self, Merwin glides into the example: “And I am a child.” He uses the vivid present tense to leap back in time, but also to suggest the continuing presence in him of his childhood self (“I am still that child”). What comes up in him is the infant, “before there were words” — a signal memory for a poet — and an image of utmost helplessness. Cradled in an adult’s arms, the baby’s attention plays over what it will, and he pays no heed to the words the adults are speaking, which flow over him as an unmeaning “murmur.” (Merwin has said this might be a memory of his baptism.[5]) He follows instead the wordless “patch of sunlight” as it moves over the floor with the arcing of the sun. This movement is a temporal marker, a small movement within the larger arc that has swept away the carpet and the building and voices and the adults to whom they belonged, leaving only Merwin and his memory.

And memory like a phantom superimposes itself upon the present. So much is “gone long ago” and the voices are “silent now” while I go on seeing. Note the expressive temporal wobble, the finite verbs in the past pairing oddly with the present progressive. The temporal relations equivocate. Different dimensions of temporality jostle against one another. The past is ineluctably past, but it keeps paradoxically cresting into the present. “Trail Marker” dramatized this same sense of temporal disarticulation: “all day it has been six months / that you have been gone.” Distinct times fold over in his mind in a way that does not follow the logic of linear temporality, but is characteristic of the inward experience of time. Here is Merwin’s most rarefied use of enjambment: forcing the double-take, reenacting that fundamental feature of our experience of temporality, in which we try to catch up with it and to understand what it has meant, as it goes on hurtling forward.

Human time is a dream of time. Though that patch of sunlight is a real presence, and the memory is valuable, the presence and the value follow from ignorance. The way time passes is not something consciousness can fully perceive or understand, even though consciousness is a creature of time. We move through time, the medium of life, blindly, “as the flying birds know / nothing of the air they are flying through.” Even at 80, Merwin remains a child in relation to time. The “patch of sunlight” is a figure for his poem itself, the trail of words that appears before us on the page, as the wordless murmur is perhaps a figure for the poem’s music — its unmarked punctuation and unarticulated ideas. Merwin’s use of form conveys more of his notion of temporality than the semantic content of his words. It is rhythm that sways us with meaning.


[1] This edition is collected, but not complete. It does not include the poems in the second section of Finding the Islands (North Point Press, 1982), which Merwin chose not to reprint when the rest appeared in a gathering of several books: Flower & Hand: Poems 1977-1983 (Copper Canyon Press, 1997).

[2]The Snow Poems and Garbage: Episodes in an Evolving Poetics,” in Complexities of Motion: New Essays on A.R. Ammons’s Long Poems, ed. Stephen P. Schneider (Associated University Presses, 1999): 23-50, p. 28.

[3] “An Interview with W. S. Merwin, Poet Laureate.” Ed Rampell. The Progressive, Nov. 2010.

[4] Interview with W. S. Merwin. Bill Moyers, Bill Moyers Journal, PBS, June 26, 2007.

[5] Interview with W. S. Merwin. Bill Moyers, Bill Moyers Journal, PBS, June 26, 2007.


Laura Quinney is Professor of English, Brandeis University.

LARB Contributor

Laura Quinney is Professor of English, Brandeis University.



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